Creating a play space and toy storage in a small home

Happy new year all! I promised at the end of last year that I would begin 2020 with a blog post about toy storage so here we go. Mimi started pre-school this month so I’m excited to get back to the blog on a more regular basis now I’ll have more time. She has just turned three so I will have her at home from lunchtime for the next eighteen months so ‘play’ has been very much at the front of my mind the last few months and trying to figure out ways I can encourage independent play so that our afternoons can be a nice mix of staying at home with her happily occupied as well as doing stuff together.

We have no playroom so I had to come up with a way of creating a play area in a small space.

I noticed a few months ago that she was struggling to play independently and not really engaging at all with the few toys we had. I was therefore struggling to get anything done as she was constantly asking me to entertain her. As an ex-teacher I know that children benefit a huge amount from independent play as it helps to develop imagination amongst many other things and I just wasn’t seeing much of this with Mimi. So I set about making changes not only to the toys we had but most importantly to the way we use our living space, which is relatively small. We definitely have no playroom and only one open plan room downstairs so I needed to find a way of not only storing Mimi’s toys there but creating a space that was hers where she could actually play.

We had to change the few toys that we did have to incorporate more open ended toys and loose parts, which encourage far more engaged play compared to a toy with one specific function.
I bought two Kallax shelves from IKEA (at the time there were none available on gumtree or eBay but well worth checking as they are such a popular IKEA items). I chose one long shelf (this one) and one small one (this one) and lay them both on their sides.

I have to say first and foremost that the way the play area looked was definitely not at the front of my mind; my only priorities were to make it a practical space that would encourage play as well as not spending much money – aesthetics just didn’t come into it (if you did want nicer looking shelves have a look at these but they are so much more expensive than the IKEA ones). I decided to use the space between our living room and dining space, where the wall between these rooms would have been originally.

I decided to use this space for Mimi’s play area as this is right in the middle of the living space, which would make it far more likely that she would use it as she’s near me in whatever part of the living space I am in here – I’ve found that if you stick kids in a corner out of the way they just won’t stay there!

The two Billy bookcase cupboards that I have here were cleared out and I allocated both to toy storage and craft stuff. I then added two Kallax shelves from IKEA that were intended to store toys to make them easily accessible and to create a surface on which to play and where toys could be left out without them being spread all over the floor.

Kallax shelves laid on their sides with a mat make a cosy little space that Mimi loves. The mat I bought has been discontinued but H&M now do this jute rug instead, which is very similar (it has a latex back so it doesn’t move around, which is perfect). Or there is this one from Ferm Living, which is on sale.

The Kallax shelves are very inexpensive and are the perfect height for Mimi to play on the surface whilst standing or kneeling and then I added a mat from H&M where she can play whilst sitting. The key to encouraging independent play was to store the toys we had differently as well as adding to our toy collection very carefully.

The Schleich animals that I have been slowly collecting for Mimi since I was pregnant are her absolute favourite toy and she incorporates them in every play scene she creates.

Firstly, the toys need to be easily accessible and easy to see. I found what Mimi couldn’t see she didn’t use and if toys were stacked or on shelves she would rely on me to get them for her. Therefore, the compartments in the Kallax shelves, which can be accessed from both sides, are perfect as the toys are right at hand and all stored in small baskets (most of which I got very cheaply from Wilkonson’s but I don’t think they sell them anymore, I’m afraid). Mimi can then choose which toys she plays with on top of the Kallax shelves or on the mat. The selection of toys has to be relatively small otherwise it’s overwhelming so these are the only toys she has to play with at any one time (just to note in her bedroom she has a doll’s house, a play kitchen and most of her books).

Secondly, I have made a big effort to create toy collection that is made mostly of open ended toys that promote creativity and imagination: wooden people figures, building blocks, animals figures, wooden road pieces, and a large collection of ‘loose parts’ – stones, shells, acorns, feathers, wood chips, leaves, wooden rings, pine cones, cotton reels, buttons etc. It has amazed me what Mimi has been able to create from these open ended toys and loose parts. They capture her imagination and encourage far longer periods of play than ‘closed’ toys that have a set purpose with lights and noises. I very, very rarely buy toys brand new. I have got some great bargains from Facebook marketplace, gumtree and eBay and we use our local toy library.

We have a barn, a garage and a dolls house, which make good focal points for small world play.
This Grimm’s house was a lovely present from friends at Christmas.

I use the Billy bookcase cupboard as storage for toys I ‘rotate’. This helps to keep the toys feeling fresh and I can rotate the toys on the Kallax shelves on a regular basis, for example, I’ll swap the animals for sea animals, or the castle building blocks for duplo, or the click clack race track for the doorbell house, or the road track for a train set. Having a storage cupboard also means that there are never too many toys out at any one time, which can be overwhelming for children. I also rotate ‘loose parts’ that I put out for her every few days. I keep them all in jars in the craft cupboard on the left hand side.

The cupboard is full of toys that I rotate out on to the Kallax shelves on a regular basis to keep the toys feeling fresh.

It’s been a few months since we set up this play area and we were able to choose Christmas and birthday presents very carefully so we have some great additions to the toy collection that I will link below. There has been a huge difference in Mimi’s willingness and ability to play independently, which has been a complete revelation to me too as I can now make more of my time. I am so pleased we have given up the space for it as the sacrifice is really paying off for all of us.

Katy x

Our favourite toys:

Schleich animals – expensive so I have been gifting three of these to Mimi at every birthday, xmas, easter etc since before she was born to build up a collection. I am so glad I made the investment as she absolutely loves them and she incorporates them into every play scene she creates.

Magnetic tiles – these are my favourite (!) You can make so many amazing structures with these and they’re much cheaper than the bigger brand Magformers.

Wooden figures (we painted ours with basic water colours)

Rainbow squares – these can be stacked, made into a tower, used as enclosures for animals, the list is endless.

Doorbell house – great for fine motor skills and you can hide fun things behind each door.

Here is a collection of random pics from my camera roll showing Mimi playing and the different ways we have set up the play area: