When I was an elementary school teacher and now as a parent of four young children, I have always believed that creating an environment conducive to learning was one of the most important things I could do (after making my students and children feel loved that is.)
Before I became a stay at home mom, I taught at an I.B. school that focused on backwards design and the inquiry model of instruction. These are two things that I believe in strongly and have carried over into my parenting philosophy. In my classroom, I worked very hard to create an environment and a system that could almost run itself. We would spend the beginning of the year going over rules and expectations, and then I would gradually release responsibility and encourage them to become independent learners as I guided them to find their individual intrinsic motivators.
In my home, I have tried to create the same warm, nurturing, organized, creative, and stimulating environment that will promote independent learning at every turn. Don’t get me wrong, I love cuddling with my kids and finding teachable moments to help guide them towards new understandings, it’s just that I don’t see them as empty vessels that need to be filled with whatever wisdom I can pour into them. I believe that they are embarking on a journey of self discovery and I see myself as their guide; the one who will shepherd them along and help them to find the right path. Listed below are the things I like to do in my home that help to create and facilitate an environment that promotes and encourages independent learning.
1. Organization Behind the Scenes
As the facilitator of my children’s learning, I need to have everything ready to go at a moment’s notice. Whenever one of them is inspired to paint, I want to be able to pull out all of the painting supplies lickety split. Or whenever I see the need to improvise a new learning station, I want to be able to quickly pull out materials and create something. I don’t have the luxury of lunch breaks and planning time anymore, I need to be able to guide, create, build, facilitate, and enjoy at a moment’s notice.
That is why I love, love, love my cupboards that came with this house. I have my flashcards, construction paper, extra crayons and markers, board games, teaching tubs, craft supplies, and more neatly boxed, labeled, and organized so that I can get to what I need at a moment’s notice. (See my Amazon Store for my recommended Best Teaching Items.) The other day my parents spent the night so that my husband and I could have a Valentine’s date, and the next day my Mom and I spent the entire day reorganizing my cupboards. In doing so, it gave me the ability to continue creating at a moment’s notice in the future. I need times like that to completely reorganize everything. It feels so good!
2. Decide Which Supplies to Make Accessible
Depending on the age and “mess propensity” of my children, I keep different materials accessible at different levels. Our toddler has just discovered markers and loves coloring on the walls, refrigerator, tables, etc., so I’ve decided to keep those materials out of her reach. My oldest daughter and son, on the other hand, love being able to have the freedom to color and create on their own, so I have set up a table in my “homeschool room” that has coloring books, blank books, blank paper, colored paper, markers, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, tape and other odds and ends to allow them to have the freedom to create and design on their own.
In my cupboards I keep the things that I want my older children to be able to access I keep on the lower shelves. That way, when inspiration strikes, they can take out what they need. I also have a bookshelf with book making supplies, reusable stickers, stamps, and more coloring books for them to use.
Everything within reach of my toddler are things specifically designed for her. She can do the things that the older kids can do with guidance, but the things at her level are things that she can do independently.
3. Create Learning Stations at Tables
My “homeschool” table is the most versatile station that I have. It can be used for just about any project that we have in mind. We used to only have one table in our home, but I LOVE having this table set up just for arts and crafts. We have another table in our kitchen (it only seats three) that we use for eating and activities. On this table, I have a few coloring books, some crayons, markers, books, and some dry erase boards, books, and markers that the kids can do while I’m cooking or cleaning in the kitchen. In the kitchen we also have a little table with three little chairs. Sometimes my kids eat here, sometimes they do projects here, and sometimes I use it to set out some food for them to graze on. We do have a family dining table in the dining room that we keep cleared off and use just for family meal time.
I have a few others shorter coffee tables set up around the house as well. In our multipurpose room I have a coffee table set up that I rotate with different books and activities. Right now it has ABC blocks, a box with Basher books, a box with homemade books and cards, and a place for sheets that I’m working on with our toddler. I also made a short table by our homeschool table to house different activities. Right now it is winter, and our water pouring station has been an absolute favorite for our toddler. I have another table in our quiet room that has puzzles and ABC game boards. Even the coffee tables in our living room are learning stations. With posters on top, books underneath, and little chairs or a little couch to sit in, they are great for eating or doing projects.
4. Tips for Creating Learning Stations
When I create learning stations around the house, I want them to be interactive, fun, engaging, and have some element of learning. The simplest learning station might be some ABC games on a coffee table, and a more complex learning station might be a box with dry beans, cups, and shovels for some fine motor skill work. I like to place small chairs or stools next to the table so that the children can sit if they’d like. I find that my older children like to sit and the younger one likes to stand. When she stands, it’s just the right height!
Some other things the kids have enjoyed as a learning station are puzzles, stacking cups, markers and coloring books, dry erase boards and markers, board games, themed books, and more. To help me organize materials for these stations, I save our Amazon boxes and label them with white stickers. Basically, anything I have a lot of can become a station. For example, we collect all birthday, Christmas, and any other type of cards we get in the mail and save them in a little box called “Cards”. The kids love reading through them all.
5. Create Stations on the Floor That Facilitate Imaginative Play
Right now, all of our children are five and under, so they all pretty much can enjoy the same toys. One of their favorite things to do is to play with little houses and figurines. These are things I have picked up at garage sales and thrift stores over the years. They love using their imaginations to bring their characters to life and have them interact in these different scenarios. At times, I play with them to give them some ideas for what their characters could do, but this is something where their imaginations take over and they could play alone or with each other for hours. I like to organize the different baskets of characters that we have a lot of and keep them in different rooms. So for example, you’ll find baskets of dinosaurs, My Little Ponies, and big robots separate from the rest. Check out my blog: 26 Learning Centers for a Homeschool Preschool Environment to see more examples.
6. Create a Dress Up Station for Role Playing
I also like to use closet spaces for stations as well. The kids LOVE our dress up station. I am always hitting up thrift stores around Halloween to get the best costumes for our collection. I’ve also found some pretty good garage sales that were getting rid of a lot of costumes for $1 each. The kids especially love this little nook in this closest where I’ve hung all of our hats. Being able to display things attractively makes them that much more fun to play with!
7. Tips for Organizing Toys
Rather than having one big room for all of the toys, I like to spread them around the house. In doing so, part of each room is designated for both adults and children, and we can all enjoy ourselves no matter where we are! This also really helps with cleaning because I can get the kids distracted by a project in another room while I clean up the mess from the room they were just in! I very rarely buy anything new. I’m always looking for good baskets at thrift stores and garage sales to organize things and many things simply get housed in old Amazon boxes! When getting baskets for toys, make sure they are low. Kids only like to play with the toys they can see.
If things are buried, they will not get played with. Every toy has a home. I arrange all of the little houses and figurines in sets and keep them together. This requires a little sorting from time to time as things tend to migrate from room to room, but it is worth it.
8. Create Comfortable Reading Stations
Yes, we have a bookshelf, but it’s basically a storehouse for books. The baskets of books that I strategically place around the house are what actually gets used on a regular basis. I like to set up little chairs and baskets of books around the house to encourage reading at any given moment. I also like to put books by any beds in the house and near any couches. Whenever you sit down and get comfortable, it would just be the worst if you didn’t have something to read! I like to go through all of our books on a semi regular basis. This is a time when I can repair damaged books, re-shelf books that aren’t being read, arrange the books so they all neatly fit in the baskets with the covers facing out, and organize the books based on where the baskets are and who is reading them. (Check out my blogs How to Raise Children Who WANT to Read and How Children Really Learn to Read for more information about teaching children how to read. Also, check out my blog Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think for some ideas about helping your child with one of the biggest precursors to reading.)
9. Use Your Walls
It’s more than just slapping a poster on the wall, it’s about creating a space on the wall where kids can interact and learn. I am constantly rearranging my wall space based on what they kids are interested in and what they interact with. If I have an ABC poster on the wall, and I never see anyone using it to say the ABCs, I will move it to a better location or change it out with something else. Sometimes, kids need to see what it looks like to interact with the walls and so I’ll sit down with them from time to time and we’ll look at things together.
10. Rearrange As Needed
It’s not about getting the perfect set up and leaving it that way indefinitely, it’s about keeping things fresh, new, and engaging. When I see that an area or a station isn’t getting used anymore, I’ll rearrange it with something new. Sometimes just seeing things in a new configuration can be exciting. Especially during these long winter months, I know that I need to keep this indoor environment as exciting as possible. Every few weeks or so I like to find something to rearrange. It could be something simple like changing a learning station or moving some toys around, or it could be something drastic like moving the furniture from one room to another.
11. Why We Don’t Have a Playroom
I know that it can seem tempting to designate one room in the house as a “play room”, a place to keep all of the children’s things, a place where the door can be shut on the mess and hidden out of sight from company, and a place where the kids can go to create a mess. But there are several reasons why I disagree with this concept. First of all, part of creating an environment that stimulates learning is that I don’t need to be right there by my children’s sides as they play, learn, discover, and grow. But even though I don’t need to interact with them every single second, I like to be close by so that I can be there to give a gentle nudge when needed. I may need to solve a disagreement between siblings, help a child who is frustrated with a certain activity, be there at an opportune teachable moment to provide guidance, or assess what they are capable of doing independently as I think of new learning stations.
Having a playroom that is segregated from the other areas of the house may encourage you to be separated from your children more than you’d think. As much as it would be nice to just stay in the playroom and be with your children giving them your complete and undivided attention, I’m sure you’ve got stuff to do! As a busy momma with clothes to fold, dishes to do, a blog to write, and more stations to organize and create, I like to be near my children as they play, learn and discover while also tending to the things that I need to do. I love it when I can multitask by folding clothes while checking in on my toddler at her water station, putting the dishes away while helping my four year old with his Starfall game, and spelling words for my five year old as she writes a mini book while I prepare dinner. In addition, it’s not good for kids to hover over them constantly while they play. In order to learn how to be independent, they need to have independence in a guided situation.
By creating an environment that stimulates learning and creative play, you will always have things to do at the drop of a hat. The other day, my oldest daughter’s school was suddenly canceled due to the weather. She had a blast staying at home going from one learning station to the next. It was so easy for me to keep her, my four year old, and my toddler all busy and engaged with different activities while I tended to the baby, prepared food, cleaned up, and guided each child along with their activities. To be honest, I was surprised at how much I got done and how engaged they were throughout the day. Putting in the time to create all of these learning and play stations really makes everything very manageable. With a little planning, a keen eye at garage sales and thrift stores, and some time set aside for organization, you’ll have your own independent learning and play stations ready to go, and you’ll be so glad you did!
*Click here to see a video tour of our house. I’m always rearranging and changing things around, but you’ll notice all of the little play areas set up throughout the house.