How to Create a Fun & Functional Play Area...with limited space

How to Create a Fun & Functional Play Area...with limited space

When Jacob, the girls, and I returned to the D.C. area this past fall after I gave birth to Emme, we knew we’d have to make due in a small space for awhile.  House hunting in this area is not for the faint of heart … inventory is limited in the few areas we’d like to buy, houses get listed and sold in a matter of days, and then there’s the bidding wars (which have been known to drive the final price far beyond asking price).  Anyhow, we accepted that “home” would be a small apartment until we found the right house, and fought off all the other buyers swarming the market.  We’re still looking!  

Which leads me to topic of this article … creating a fun and functional play space.  Even though we signed an apartment lease, a play area for Livi and Emme was a must for me … but I had to accept that there’d be limited space to implement my vision.  It also meant that the play area would most likely be visible from our living space … a nightmare unless you’ve got rock star storage – functional, organized, and aesthetically pleasing.  So, I got to work, and I learned a few key principles on the way!

Choose a Neutral Palette

Choosing a neutral color scheme serves two purposes.  First, if you do have limited space, and your toy area will be visible from your living area, you’re looking for a nice seamless flow between the two spaces, which is far easier to achieve if you choose simple, neutral colors.  Second, your child’s tastes will change!  When he or she is very young, bright primary colors will probably dominate the scene when it comes to toys.  However, as they get older, kids inevitably develop favorites, and may even want a specific theme (flowers, rocket ships … you get the idea).  It’s far easier to incorporate changing colors and themes when you have a neutral foundation from which to build your little one’s bright new ideas.  

Anchor the Space

So, in an effort to keep my sanity while we’re packed into a small space, I’ve drawn a line … toys stay in the toy area!  I admit, enforcing this is much easier said than done … but I try!  To make it easier, I’ve taught Livi (and when Emme’s old enough, she’ll learn too), that we play with our toys only in the play area, and we put them away when we’re finished playing.  These boundaries are far easier to teach if you create a well-defined play area.  And think outside the box a bit – you don’t necessarily need to create an enclosed space … in fact, if you’d like to preserve a nice flow between the play area and your living space, I’d advise against it.  Instead, create a focal point (a toy chest, a shelving unit, etc.) to anchor the area, and cluster smaller toys or items around that focal point.  You can also use area rugs to create a positive or negative space to help further define the area.  Our play area is hardwood, but it’s bordered by an area rug in Livi’s sleeping space and an area rug in our primary living space.   

Know the Inventory & Plan Ahead

One of the primary purposes of creating a “play space” for your little one is to prevent all of his or her toys from taking over your life (literally).  There are a variety of options (chests, cubby holes, drawers, shelves, etc.) that can help get all those toys, trinkets, and tidbits under control.  But before you run out to the Container Store or IKEA, make sure you have a good idea of what types of toys are in your child’s inventory. Big, clunky toys will obviously require a different storage solution than items with small pieces, such as puzzles, dolls with different dress up attire, etc.  Lay it all out, and decide what types of storage bins or boxes you’ll need, and then make a list.  

Once you’ve identified the different components of your storage system, think about how it will all fit together.  I settled on a series of cubby hole drawers for my girls’ larger, clunky toys, and smaller containers within the drawers for very small toys or trinkets.  I purchased a large box for books (and to double as a little reading nook) and a shelf to stack puzzles and games and to display some of the girls’ more aesthetically pleasing toys.   For finishing touches, I added a few throw pillows, which Olivia often sits on, a wall hook for her backpack, and a small basket to hold one of her favorite toys – her Uncle Goose wooden blocks!   

Now, be sure to consider functionality in this step.  As I noted above, the book box serves two purposes – 1) storage, and 2) a place for Olivia to sit and thumb through her favorite books.  I also included a series of mirrors above the storage drawer unit – again, for two purposes:  1) mirrors always make a space appear larger, and 2) ever notice how children love to look at themselves in the mirror … that’s because they’re learning about facial expressions, body movement, and cause and effect … the mirrors give Olivia a full view of herself while she’s at play.  Half the time I look up to see what she’s up to, and she’s making funny faces at her self in the mirror (my little comedian … she gets that from her daddy)!

Incorporate Fun, Yet Sophisticated Toys for Display

For our final step, consider the aesthetics of the space.  You want it to be fun and playful, but also sophisticated and streamlined (particularly if it’s visible from your living space).  So, choose a few of your child’s natural, neutral-colored toys to put on display.  I chose a few classic white ceramic animal figurines, a string of wooden beads, and a simple, yet colorful abacus.  The rest of the “stuff” has its place hidden away in the storage drawers.  From the picture, you’d never guess how much clutter there is when Olivia is in full play mode … I literally cannot see the floor!  But, then mommy says, “ok, time to clean up, honey!”  And five minutes later, it’s a clean, streamlined, yet playful and beautiful space.  How’s that for functionality?   

Kristin C Follow

Multi-tasker.  Eskimo kiss-giver.  Billable-hour warrior.  Expert waffle maker.  Avid diaper changer.   Kristin resides in northern Virginia with her husband, Jacob, daughters, Olivia and Emmeline, and Siberian Husky, Roho.  She practices commercial litigation in Washington, D.C. by day, manages her blog, the crisp little look book, by night, and spends every waking moment seeking balance and simplicity

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