You know the drill. The excuses, the arguments, the negotiations… “Only take one toy out at a time. Don’t forget to clean up afterwards. No moving on to the next thing until we’ve put this away first…” Keeping a playroom clean and clear of clutter can be quite a feat. And I’m not saying the kids are the only ones to blame either. I all too often find myself saying, “Well, they are just going to mess it up again tomorrow so why bother cleaning it up tonight?” I feel we all thrive and do our best work in an organized work environment. Children are no exception to that rule. For the past three years I have slowly chipped away at our playroom – getting rid of junk and organizing the “smart” worthwhile toys and games. It’s ranged from neat and tidy to totally chaotic. Either way we’ve done some darn good playing in that space. The thing is that I knew we could do even better playing if we made that space a little more functional, organized, and edited. I know when I need to ask for help, so for this job I finally called in some professionals.
Enter Smart Playrooms. The women who run Smart Playrooms are unreal. They are all retired teachers and they understand how children work and learn to their greatest potential. They are an absolute pleasure to deal with, listening to my families needs and planning our play space accordingly. I couldn’t have been happier with the final outcome of their 2-morning reorganization of our playroom. They created a space with separate play stations that encourage kids to really take advantage of all the toys we have in the room. In the past some of our best games and puzzles were tucked away at the back of the closet. Now everything is accessible. The few things we have that have the potential to be super messy (ie beads, glue, scissors, etc.) are now located on higher shelves so that I can control when and how they are used. The rest of the stuff – costumes, blocks, legos, kitchen food, and papers/stickers are all readily available to the little hands that want to use them.
Talk about a spring cleaning! I truly feel like we have a whole new room in our house. We bought not a thing – but rather they repurposed and reinvented some of the older things we hadn’t played with in a while. And even if it’s not the right time for you to call on Smart Playrooms for a redesign I strongly recommend reading their Q&A below. It’s chock full of great tips for how to set up your own space, the best toys to encourage them to play with, and some great ideas about specific choices that benefit children with sensory issues and ADD.
Q&A with Karri Poole, Jen Purdy, and Chris Simpson, Founders of Smart Playrooms
What is Smart Playrooms?
Smart Playrooms is an educational design and organization business owned and operated by three teachers with many years of classroom experience and expertise. Smart Playrooms brings the most effective classroom organization techniques and learning strategies into your home to create play areas that encourage creative, independent play.
What are your backgrounds?
We are teachers with many years of special education, early education and middle school classroom experience.
Can you briefly walk us through what it looks like if someone hires you to work with them?
We begin by sorting all toys and materials into clear bins. Toys that we feel your children have outgrown are placed to the side. We group toys together to create learning centers, based on your children’s ages and interests. For instance, if we create a building center, blocks, people, animals and vehicles will be placed together. All bins are labeled and pictures added if young children are in the home. We establish a rotation system and store certain toys and materials in a closet or out of reach, reducing the amount of toys that are in the play area. The result is that rather than frenetically moving from one toy to another, kids actually spend more time on just a few toys, exploring in more depth all of a toy’s possibilities. Another wonderful by product of this practice is that when we do end up bringing out something from storage, it actually does appear new and exciting, eliminating the need to buy more. Sometimes kids don’t even realize that they owned the toys in the first place! The moral of the story is less is more, and what’s old is new.
How many meeting, how long does it take, what can they expect to take away from the relationship?
We begin by scheduling an in-home consultation, which takes about 45 minutes. During this visit, we learn more about your children and play areas, and we answer any questions about our process and educational philosophy. After our meeting, we will email you a detailed written proposal. Once accepted, we schedule the time needed to complete the project. We, then, meet with you again (and your children if possible) to walk you through the “Smart” play areas, explaining our decisions for placement and accessibility. Many families continue to use our services as their children grow and change in order to maintain their “Smart Playroom.” It is our hope to meet and work with you for years.
How do you help families to transform their spaces?
After gathering as much information as we can about your child (children) and play areas, we begin to brainstorm playroom design and organizational strategies specific to the children and home we are working with. We always look at the space, materials and toys from a child’s perspective and this helps us to transform the space in a meaningful way. We can transform any existing space using all of your furniture and toys or we can transform an empty room. In both cases, we use our experience as parents and teachers to create inviting harmonious environments, where even an 18 month old can find what he/she is looking for.
Do your clients need to buy all new furniture and storage units if they work with you?
No, clients do not need to buy new furniture and storage units. Perhaps our biggest strength is our ability to repurpose and use the furniture and storage materials and toys that you already own. We often take furniture from other rooms or move furniture to a different place in the same room. However, there are families and businesses that are looking for a custom table, built-ins or need more retail furniture. We also enjoy helping families purchase the right furniture and storage units if needed.
Do you have experience working with families whose children have special needs or sensory issues?
Smart Playrooms is able to create play spaces for children with special needs. Two of us have backgrounds in special education, and we know that children with special needs have very specific requirements for how a playroom is set up. A child with ADD, for instance, often requires an extremely ordered environment with a very limited amount of choices on display. The kind of toys chosen for these playrooms is also extremely important. A child with sensory processing disorder might benefit from having a variety of tactile options available for them to explore. When we don’t address a child’s specific needs, they will likely have difficulty focusing on playing more freely for an extended amount of time. We collaborate closely with the parents of these children in order to meet their personalities and needs.
What are some of the most efficient and educational toys that parents can own?
We love all open-ended toys that allow kids to use their imagination, and grows with your child. When the material is open-ended, they (the children), not the manufacturer, decide what to make!
How has the toy industry changed the way they make toys recently? And how does that affect imaginative play?
A lot has changed since we were kids. Toys have become more and more prescriptive; that is, there is really only one way to play with them. As a result, children do not have very much opportunity to use their imaginations. In this scenario, the manufacturers, not the child, decide how the toy is used. It benefits toy companies when a child quickly loses interest in a toy, as they are apt to want another new toy sooner. Parents are much better off, for instance, when they buy just Lego bricks rather than a specifically themed Lego kit. It is really important that we provide our children with more basic, open-ended toys, as there is a growing amount of research that concludes that the amount a child pretends and uses their imagination in childhood is a strong indicator for later intellect and problem-solving.
Why does it matter how a room is laid out when it comes to valuable playtime?
The Smart Playrooms motto is “Smart Design. Smart Play.” Smart Playrooms believes that the layout (Smart Design) of every room significantly affects a child’s sustained interest in playing and subsequently learning (“Smart Play”) with both the toys and materials. First, we strategize about the overall purpose of the room, and customize our decisions to your family’s needs and wishes. The family room and kitchen will most likely have toys and materials that we would NOT recommend for the playroom. Once the toys and materials have been categorized to certain rooms, we then begin the task of designing the room’s layout with specific learning and play areas that will appeal not only to your eyes, but to your children’s senses as well. We carefully select which materials will be visible and accessible by your children, and which materials may best be stored away for rotation later. Each center is created in a way that will invite creative play. Rooms that encourage independent, creative “Smart Play” will not only make things easier on parents, they will also help your children to practice self-help skills, bolster their sense of responsibility, and sharpen their executive functioning skills.
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