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Auckland, New Zealand

Bella is playing with The Woodlands people, coming soon.



When Will and I had our oldest baby my husband and I used to wonder... "why doesn’t he play!?" He used to follow me everywhere and there wasn’t a second in the day for a break.... for him or I!

It was tiring and I wondered why a lot. One day it occurred to me... all his toys were in a box, how could he possibly have the option to play when toys were packed away!? It seems so obvious now I write it, but first time mum and not knowing how children really function, it had me baffled. So I started to do some digging and learnt some tricks on how kids play with ease and why their environment effects their play.

There’s so many ways of ways to approach an engaging play space and session but wanting to keep it easy and without complete influence (I want my children to become who they want to become, not who I think they should become) Rotation, following their interests and accessibility to their play items seem to be key.

Now I’m Not saying you need to spend thousands on a play area. You really don’t. And if you do decide that you want a beautiful selection of toys and pieces you don’t need to get them all at once. Build on it! And incorporate natural treasures and invaluable kitchen items or op shop scores into it. 

I’m going to be having a chat with a good friend of mine Emma, Who is an unschooling mama and early childhood educator, as to her thoughts on why open ended engaging play spaces are important and how to achieve one. 


Hi Emma! Who are you? Tell us! 

Hi everyone! I am Emma, a mama to three and our family live an unschooling lifestyle. This form of education means that instead of following set curriculums we learn through living in the everyday world and let our passions and interests lead our learning journey. Prior to beginning this I worked as an Early childhood educator for about a decade. A large passion of mine was creating spaces that sparked curiosity and wonder, and I have carried this interest through in our unschooling life too.

Why do you Think an inviting play space is important? 

Over my time learning alongside children I have had experience in a variety of settings and been able to experience first-hand the environments that encourage wonder and creativity. What I found was that the more a toy does for the child, the less the child can actually do with that toy. “Play is in the child, not in the toy” is a wee quote that I like from Pennie Brownlee and Kimberley Crisps book, The Sacred Urge to play. I highly recommend any of their books!

I found that spaces that were cluttered, highly colourful and largely plastic, stifled children’s creativity and often things would end up broken and mis- treated. In environments that were intentionally set up to spark creativity and imagination, there were items that were more open-ended (could be used in many different ways) and used items made with natural materials such as wood, bamboo, metal and even glass or pottery for older children.

Do you think it encourages childhood development? Why? 

Most definitely! From birth our children are taking in everything around them. It is important that they experience the texture, sounds, beauty and even taste from natural items! As children develop play patterns if they are surrounded by materials that have more than one use, then they are able to use these in a huge variety of ways. It really is amazing to see all of the different uses for objects. For example, a basket of silky scarves may first be used to explore texture, then as a wrap for their baby, a river or grass for their wooden animals, tied around their ankles as chasing snakes, wrapped around them as a beautiful dress up and so much more!

How do you achieve this?/ Any essentials to creating one?

When I create spaces, I try to create it as natural as possible. I use baskets to store toys, and often these end up being used in their games. Soft tones and colours in fabrics create a calming space that can be used in a variety of ways. When bringing colour into the space I bring in natural items to create this, wooden toys and blocks, cardboard tubes and boxes, shells, rocks and gems, and even foliage can be used.

The space needs to be accessible to your child and comfortable or it will not be used as much. If they cannot see or easily reach their toys it becomes frustrating, if the floor is hard it is not as nice either. Low shelving and even just open lidded baskets on the floor work wonderfully. Pair that with a nice mat or some pillows and you can create a cosy nook! Some times hanging down a soft piece of fabric can create an enclosed nook for them to create in too which is lots of fun!

Keeping things relatively organised and uncluttered is really helpful. By having a spot for everything it makes for a lot of a faster re-set for us, and makes it easier for them to help as well. Baskets also make it really easy to do fun things like moving their set up onto a big mat outside, or to even to pop them in the car and enjoy them in a different environment like the beach or park!

What ages do you think this is important for? 

I think creating inviting spaces is actually important for all ages! I find by having spaces filled with natural items throughout our home a lot less overwhelming than a jumble of coloured plastic strewn around. But of course, setting up these spaces in the early years is very important as we are the ones who choose what sorts of materials we make available too our wee ones. I love this quote again by Pennie and Kimberley, “Creations come out of the creator’s experience. They are spun out if the raw materials filed in ‘super sensory packages of information’ within the creator”.

Tips to creating a capturing space on a budget? 

To create a space on a budget I think it is really important to invest in the right things! I suggest in buying some nice investment pieces (such as The Woodlands beautiful creations) and then using natural and second-hand items to build up the rest of your collection. For example, rather than buying plastic tubs (that get broken so easily) invest in some baskets, this is far more aesthetically pleasing to the eye and better for the environment too.

I buy so many of our items from the second-hand shop! Give them a wash and they are good to go, and once again it is better for our environment! Some of the things we keep an eye out for are pottery cups, plates and tea pots and other kitchen items, Jars and baskets for storage, fabrics buttons and yarn, pillows and knitted throws, doilies, items for dress ups such as scarves, ties, bags and hats. I have found some beautiful shelving second hand that was affordable too! It really is fun to find objects and use your imagination as to how they could be used, even then your

children will always surprise you and use them in amazingly creative ways! Heading to the op-shop is now one of our favourite things to do together during our days as you never know what goodness you will discover.

And lastly head into nature together and collect items! Think shells, sticks, stones and pumice, rocks, foliage to dry. I like to collect these together and add them to their space.

Thank you Emma!

I absolutely love what she had to say and wholeheartedly agree. Another tip is to let the kids play without getting involved. It can be so very tempting, but for example put a pile of blocks infront of them and see what they do... you may be surprised! It won't necessarily become a building site, it may infact become an ocean full of fish or a galaxy with square planets. Let the childs imagination run wild and see how deep into their worlds they can go.

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