Creative Play Tips From The Pros

This year, play café owners have had to adapt — both to serving their clients remotely and to keeping their own children entertained while working from home. Here’s how some of them are making it work.
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How to Make the Most of a Small Play Space

Guest Blog by Alanna Gallo of @playlearnthrivekids

When we had our first baby we lived in a small house that didn’t provide us that much play space except for the small area between our Living Room and Dining Room. 

As our toy collection grew, I became more overwhelmed and felt like there wasn’t a single corner of my home which was free of toys.

It was during my first year as a parent that I began to see the importance of having a play space that was organized and allowed for purposeful and independent play

A play space in any space

One of the biggest issues I hear from parents is that they don’t have a dedicated Playroom and therefore they cannot envision creating a dedicated play space. They often have multiple areas around their home with piles of toys (like I did), or some system that is supposed to help you stay organized (but doesn’t). 

Having a small play space can be a challenge, but it is possible to create any size space into a place that encourages purposeful and independent play. 

It’s important to remember that kids are little people, and little people don’t need big spaces in order to be happy. 

Getting creative with your space

The best way to maximize the impact of your space is to minimize. You’ve heard it before, you’ll hear it again. Kids don’t need tons of toys. In fact, it’s BETTER for them to have fewer toys. 

Once you have minimized and find yourself with a collection of intentionally selected, preferably open ended, toys you’ll find it’s much easier to create a space that invites play vs chaos.

Five tips to create a small but powerful play space

1. Everything should do double duty.

When you’re working with a small space you want to make sure every piece of furniture (and even decor) does double the work in a smaller amount of space. For example, your Ruggish play rug. Play on one side, beautiful adult space on the other. It’s perfect to quickly transform a space to one or the other. Your cube storage can display toys, hold books and be placed under a wall mounted TV to hide cable wires. Your kitchen table can become an art space by wheeling over a small and well organized art cart. All the essential play spaces can be combined or spread out thoughtfully throughout your home.

2. Use open storage.

Many people end up using bins with lids, but that just allows you to hide and collect more stuff you don’t need. Using open storage like a cube shelf or even open decorative baskets allow you to create a display of toys that also look beautiful.

3. Be intentional with toy selection.

This is a hard one. But it’s necessary. Try not to buy things on a whim. Rather than buying 10 cheaper toys, put that money towards one higher quality item that will get years of play. Always choose open ended vs the latest and greatest toy store featured toy.

4. Consider a toy rotation.

This does not have to be elaborate. In fact, it should be as simple as possible otherwise you’ll be less likely to stick with it. Separate your toys into two piles, you should have about 15-20 max toys each pile. Put one pile in a plastic bin with a lid, and put it somewhere your kids can’t see. Keep a few favorite open ended pieces out all the time that will compliment any other toys that come out on rotation. Every few weeks rotate toys. Feel free to keep certain toys out if you find you kids are always playing with them. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The goal is to not have so much stuff available at once.

5. Enlist your kids in clean up.

If you create a space in which everything has a home it’s much easier for your children to help clean up the space. Give them a specific task. For example, “Do you think you can pick up all the animals and put them in the animals basket?” This gives them a sense of being able to complete a real task which will make them feel more confident in being able to help.


Need more help?

If you want more individualized help getting your space organized you can book a virtual playroom design call here, or enroll in the Purposeful Play Space course here.

Alanna Gallo is a teacher, mother to three young children and the founder of Play. Learn. Thrive., which provides parents with the education and tools they need to become more intentional about their children’s toys and play spaces so they can foster independent and unstructured play that encourages individualized learning, problem-solving skills and perseverance. 

After working in Connecticut’s public-school system as an English teacher for more than 10 years, Alanna realized that many of her student’s issues, such as a lack of motivation and independence, could be traced back to early childhood learning. Her desire to better understand her students drove her interest in child development but becoming a mother further pushed Alanna to understand what it takes to raise happy, self-motivated, kind, driven and independent children. Play. Learn. Thrive was developed out of her desire to transform the lives of children by encouraging parents to believe in the power of play and empowering them to bring high quality play back to childhood. 

Play. Learn. Thrive. offers a mix of expert insights to help parents become more educated about the importance of play as it relates to development and learning, and more intentional about their children’s toys and play spaces.

Alanna resides in Ridgefield, CT with her husband Matthew and three young children. She has a Master’s in Teaching from University of Southern California and a B.A. from the University of Connecticut.

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Water Play! 9 Super Easy, Creative Sensory Activities for Toddlers

Guest Blog by Sophie Schillaci of

Summer is here! And even if you’re stuck at home, indoor splish-splashing fun can be way easier than you think. Dress the kids up in cute swimsuits for a sweet Instagram moment, or let them run wild in their diapers -- either way, feel free to grab a frosty glass and kick up your heels because these unbelievably simple activities require minimal effort, are guaranteed to entertain the little ones and, with your Ruggish play rug, wiping up the spills will be a breeze. 

All of these open-ended activities can be done with simple plastic storage bins or buckets, or a multi-use sensory table. (I use this one from IKEA, but don’t forget to add the storage boxes!) 

Sink or Swim

Fill a plastic tub with water, offering a bucket of various toys and household items. This can include anything from bath toys, to paper, to cardboard, to balls, cups, empty bottles, tin foil, ice cubes, kitchen utensils and more. Have the kids experiment to find out which items float and which ones sink. 

Flower Bath

Have a bouquet on its last legs? Or maybe some nearby wildflowers, ready to be picked? Fill a tub with water and let your little ones go to town on the blooms. They can stir the water, pull off petals and leaves to sprinkle them in, or simply dip the flowers in and out to see how the water drips from each petal. Bonus: Add a bit of loose glitter to the water for a more mesmerizing visual experience. 

Water Painting

This is much less messy than it sounds. Simply fill a bowl with water, and gather some paint brushes and construction paper. Show your toddler how to “paint” by using a brush to draw water on the paper. 

Color Mixing

This one can be a bit messy, but is sure to be a crowd pleaser: Fill a series of vessels with water and drop food coloring in each one. You could start with primary colors, or offer the ROYGBIV spectrum. Allow your toddler to see what happens when they pour multiple colors together into another bin. (Fair warning, they will always mix everything together to make brown. It’s all part of the experience.) 

Color Cubes

This one follows the same general idea as Color Mixing, but requires a bit more lead time. Make a batch of ice cubes with food coloring. Fill a bin with water and let your little one pop the colored cubes into the water one by one. They’ll love watching the ice cubes float, naming the colors and seeing what happens as they slowly dissolve into water. 

Ice Age

Freeze small plastic toys inside large ice cubes and pop them on a tray or in a plastic bin. Toddlers will love to identify what’s inside (bonus if little pieces are sticking out of the ice - like a giraffe’s neck or a dinosaur’s tail) and free the toys from the ice blocks. You can also offer a small dish of salt and a paint brush to help break down the ice more quickly. 

Car Wash

Fill a bin with bubbly soap and water, so that littles can “wash” their toy cars. Offer a set of dish towels to dry off the cars once they’re “clean.” 

Soap Foam

Using an electric mixer, combine one part baby soap or shampoo and two parts water with a few drops of food coloring or washable paint. For a slightly more firm texture, drop in a few spoonfuls of flour or cornstarch until you reach the desired consistency. Repeat as needed for multiple colors. 

Water Beads

Literally the only effort this one requires is clicking “Buy Now” on Amazon. Just pour a small handful into a bowl of water and watch them grow. You can also throw in some plastic toys for a mini treasure hunt. 

Sophie Schillaci is an entertainment journalist and mama of two under two. She welcomed her daughter, Everly, in August 2018 and launched the motherhood platform the following year after a decade of reporting for digital, broadcast and print outlets including Entertainment Tonight, the Hollywood Reporter and more.  Through her writing, Sophie aims to connect with and empower fellow new mothers through honest and heartfelt storytelling, while sharing real life tips and tricks that actually work. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids and two rambunctious dogs. They welcomed son Colton in March 2020, smack dab in the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. While stuck at home with a newborn, sensory play has been a saving grace for Everly (and mama’s sanity). You can follow along on their real-life adventures by subscribing to Sophie’s YouTube channel. 

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