Creating Open-Ended Play Spaces: First Steps

When I decided to create more open-ended play spaces in our home, I wasn’t sure where to start. Even though I’ve attempted to be thoughtful about toy purchases and arts and craft supplies over the years, I’m afraid we’ve accumulated way too much stuff. Despite my best intentions, all this stuff creates clutter in our lives, both physically and mentally.

Makeover Must-Haves

For this particular makeover, I wanted a kid’s “exploration table” by the window for rotating “invitations” to create, play or investigate.

  • Kids need a table and chair set that allows their feet to comfortably touch the ground. The tabletop should be large enough for them to spread out their supplies.
  • Good lighting is essential as well. Choose a bright spot by a window or find a small desk lamp that is easy for kids to turn on themselves.
  • Baskets, bins, and various holders for organizing supplies. Use what you have at home (canning jars, berry pint containers, glasses, salad bowls, serving trays, silverware drawer organizers) or find new ones, preferably made from natural materials which lends a sense of permanence and quality.

Pick One Area

If I tried to tackle all of the areas that need this type of makeover in our home, I’d go stark raving mad. As motivated as I had felt at the beginning, I knew I needed to start small and enjoy little “victories” along the way.

Location, Location, Location

Each of my children have their own room upstairs and there is also a playroom. Over the years I’ve tried all sorts of different arrangements of toys and furniture to keep things organized and make the playroom fun but somehow, all the toys still end up downstairs, in our kitchen and dining room and our family room. If I was serious about creating open-ended play spaces, I realized I better follow the kids’ leads and accept that they want to play downstairs, close to me. (It’s been this way since they were infants banging on pots and pans while I cooked dinner, it’s kind of funny it took me this long to accept this reality.)

Anyhow, I decided to start where we all spend most of our time, the kitchen and dining area. This large open space has an island at the center and several windows for good lighting. Two of those windows had little bench/tables beside them but markers, stickers, scissors and bits of paper were continually strewn all over the floor. It was clear that these little benches did not provide enough space for my little artists to really “work.”

Start with Sorting

While going out to buy stylish storage containers sounded like fun, I reigned myself in and decided that sorting was the best starting point. This involved taking a closer look at everything, making piles, taking a mental inventory, and throwing away anything that was broken or simply  junk. In other words, it meant that I made a huge mess but it was the only way to really see the opportunities for creating open-ended play spaces. Countless dried-up markers, almost-completed activity books and  weird party favor “junk” toys made their way into the recycle bin and garbage.

One friend seemed genuinely concerned with my mental state when she saw our crayons but I have to say, going through all of our boxes of markers, crayons, and colored pencils was surprisingly satisfying. I’ll admit that sorting the crayons by color was a little over the top but my kids loved helping and we had a great time reading crayon color names and debating whether a color was more blue or more green, more purple or more blue, etc. Plus, all the “nice” crayons are ready to use while the broken bits of crayons are ready for melting-projects.

Pare Down the Choices

I’ve always thought I should keep arts and craft supplies at my children’s fingertips so they can dive in and be creative at any moment. I’ve realized they get lost in the choices, forgetting what they were looking for when something shiny and pretty distracts them. Plus, having to search through a lot of supplies means more mess… kids have a way of needing to take everything out of a bin in order to find the one small thing they wanted. Solution:  put out only a small group of supplies at any given time to let them really explore using them. To help them focus, I’m keeping the other supplies tucked away out of sight but easily accessible if needed.

Storage cupboard for art supplies
A low kitchen cupboard serves as a good storage area for supplies that the kids aren’t currently using. However, supplies are still easily accessible if the kids feel inspired. I’m still working on this cupboard (I’d like storage containers that allow the contents to be seen more easily) so it’s a work in progress…

The Big (actually not terribly big) Reveal

It’s a small start but I think we now have a really nice space for my kids to write or draw, or simply sit and look at something new and interesting to them. Paring down was the hardest part for me (notice I still left out two types of writing utensils, Sharpies and colored pencils) but I’m working on it. For the first little display I chose to put out sunflowers in various phases of development, a magnifying glass, paper, pens, and colored pencils. I also included a magazine and book about decorating for fall, knowing that one transformation might inspire them to do more makeovers. I won’t say anything about this new little area, I’ll let my kids discover it on their own…

What do you think, am I off to a good start? Any suggestions? What changes are you making at home now that the kids are back in school?



Very inspirational! I love the thoughts on crayons. I also love the idea of putting most of it away and then leaving out a small box of interesting supplies that they can really explore. I will try it! Thank you!


Thank you, Jenn! It surprised me how hard it was to pare our supplies down–I’ve always believed my kids should be able to choose their creative supplies so my tendency has been to keep everything out and available at all times. This new approach is surprisingly engaging for the kids and they can explore each material much more deeply. Let me know how it goes for you.

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