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How to Create a Playroom a Preschooler Will Love

One mom goes back to preschool to create the perfect playrooom

I remember feeling a kind of awe when I watched my son Tommy, then 2, begin his day at preschool in the Frog Room. He played independently and creatively, and knew just where to find the things he needed. When I came to pick him up, order prevailed. Everything had been put away.

It was not this way at home.

So recently when we decided to make a playroom for Tommy, now 5, and his brother Jamie, 2, I couldn't help but think of the Frog Room. Tommy's teachers take their inspiration from the Reggio Emilia educational approach: Kids learn the most from firsthand experiences, and the environment is another teacher, pushing play and learning in new directions.

"It means a lot more for kids to discover something on their own than for them to hear it from us," says Frog Room teacher Michelle Sullivan.

The only lesson being taught at our house was How to (Barely) Stave Off Pandemonium. But the Frog Room gave me hope that I could control the chaos without putting a lid on creativity.

I started by dividing our room, preschool-style, into separate spaces for reading, construction, dress-up, and kitchen play. Having an area for each activity makes it easier for the kids to focus, and to keep track of their things. After we put our "Frog Room" in place, I noticed Tommy coming up with his own organizational ideas: "Let's put all the Hot Wheels here."

Book Nook
An oversize cushion and lots of pillows create a quiet place for reading. To mix things up, I'll rotate the books on the display case (teacherssupply.com sells one for $112) or fill a basket with books on a theme (oceans one week, mummies the next).

Construction Zone
"The world gets a bit scarier for kids at around 2 1/2, as they realize they're their own person," says Michelle, "so they're drawn to things that make them feel powerful."

Trucks and blocks let the powermongering begin; we keep ours in bins for easy sorting ($60 for the set at target.com).

I also hung a construction-themed felt board at toddler's-eye level after Tommy's current teacher, Paul Murphy, told me he crawls around his classroom to see it the way a kid does. (Felt is secured in a poster frame with double-sided tape; the photos are laminated and Velcro-backed.)

Costume Shop
Tommy often goes to school in costume — a hard hat and tool belt, or an eye patch and bandanna. "Who are you today?" one friend asks him every morning. Pretending to be someone else is a big part of a preschooler's life, Paul told me; dramatic play helps kids figure out how to think creatively, solve problems, and get along with other people.

We outfitted our dress-up corner with baskets for hats (a hard hat, a racing helmet) and props (a toy compass and microscope), along with hooks for capes and armor. (Crusaders and SWAT heroes alike can get gear at mastermindtoys.com.)

When I noticed Tommy kept sidling up to the turned-off TV to see his reflection, we added a shatterproof tilt mirror ($70 at discountschoolsupply.com). Reflective poster board is another option ($5 for a 20 x 26 sheet at hygloss.com). "Who is that guy in shining armor?" Tommy says. "He copies everything I do."

Kitchen Corner
In the kitchen area of a preschool classroom, kids emulate the purposeful work of adults, says Michelle.

Our range is a play stovetop ($35 at landofnod.com) on top of a low bookcase. Plates and play food hide on the shelves underneath, behind a curtain on a tension rod; utensils live in buckets on a kid-level hanging rack. (Mini buckets, $2 each at bucket-outlet.com; closet hook, $6 at target.com.) The ever-growing spice collection is made up of empty containers from the grown-up kitchen.

Sensory Table
According to Michelle, the sensory table is not only deeply thrilling, it also teaches kids about concepts such as volume, mass, and cause and effect.

I bought a sand and water table ($63 at constplay.com), but you could just as easily fill big plastic tubs ($15 each at hardwareandtools.com).

Our perennials are dried oats, rice, and pasta. Watch toddlers, of course, so they don't try to eat the contents, and never put in packing peanuts or other chokables.

Rugs ($37 each at crateandbarrel.com) break the room into separate areas.

Make It Beautiful
According to the Reggio Emilia philosophy, enriching a space with beautiful or sentimental things shows respect for kids and begins teaching them what the adults around them value.

I still remember the print of Monet's Wild Poppies that was in my childhood room, so I hung one here too ($10 at art.com). I also set up a lamp with a fish-themed shade made by my cousin's wife before Tommy was born.

On the bookshelves we have family photos (including one of my first grade class) and other special objects, such as a wooden boat from Tommy's friend Nava, which we filled with shells from a trip to Cape Cod.

Plants add a little serenity, and they're a fur-free way to teach the kids about caregiving: Tommy loves to water the fuzzy-leafed panda plant.

Fabric for curtain panels from reprodepot.com.

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