Play Zones: Setting Up An Effective Learning Environment


“The Environment is the third teacher” (Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach to early education)

Freedom! And the open road!  This is how I translate the gleeful look in T’s eyes when he is released from his cot in the morning.   He has now mastered crawling – commando-style!  This marks the end of the let’s-sit-here-and-play-with-this-toy era and the beginning of the self-choosing, free-play era.

This means rethinking his play space.  Previously, I had all of his toys in vague categories in baskets and would get the toys out myself.  But there were still some areas that became dumping grounds for non-easily-categorised items such teethers and soft toys.  It was all looking a bit messy.

So I decided to manage the layout of his learning environment in the same way that I would plan my classroom (oh yes!): by creating different play “zones”.  This way, I can make sure he is accessing all the different areas he should be, in preparation for school.  In schools, teachers spend a great deal of time planning the layout of their classrooms to make the resources orderly and accessible.   As parents, we are our children’s first teachers, and so I think it is just as important for us to think carefully about how the play space at home is laid out.

The Environment as Teacher

The above quote is taken from the Reggio Emilia educational approach.  You have all probably heard of the Montessori method, which bears many similarities to Reggio Emilia.  In both these approaches, the setting up of The Learning Environment is seen as a vital part of educating young children.   Both of these approaches are now seen as “best practice” by early education professionals.  I truly believe in these methods of education and my absolute dream is to work in a school that follows the Reggio Emilia way. In essence, for your learning environment to be an effective educator, it should be:

  • FLEXIBLE – to adapt to the changing educational needs of your child, (and so it is not a major chore for you to update)
  • ATTRACTIVE – to excite the senses and to invite curiosity and discovery
  • CLEARLY LAID OUT – so her toys are easy to find and to tidy away, encouraging independence and free choice

With these three things in mind, I have reorganised T’s play space into the following  ZONES:


 This was relatively easy for me, as we already had a big storage box that was full of unused items that I rehoused.  I just put the books in there with a sheepskin rug and his play mat and his old v cushion.  I get this all out in the morning and put a few books out for him – it takes less than a minute to do this and to tidy it away again.  T has already learned to crawl over here when he wants to read, and climb up to the book box to find what he wants if he is not impressed with my selection!


This area can also double up as a role-play/home corner for exploring roles when he gets older.  I can’t wait to start setting this up!!


This is the main playing space in our house.  This is where I have stored the bulk of T’s toys such as construction toys, puzzles and games, musical instruments, puppets and vehicles.   I highly recommend some sort of system that involves boxes and baskets if you plan to do this too.  But you have to have a system that suits your taste and your living space and this will be different for everyone.  Whatever system you decide on, you should aim for the toys to be:

  • AT YOUR CHILD’S LEVEL so that she can reach them all independently
  • IN SOME SORT OF ORDER (ie divided into categories) so that she can find all her toys quickly and easily and also tidy them away
  • EASILY SWAPPED AROUND to match your child’s changing interests and needs
  • EASY TO CLEAN!  This last point is optional I suppose…but for my piece of mind, I need a storage system that is easily wiped down with some Dettol every week!

I had this old IKEA Expedit and bought some brightly-coloured plastic boxes to fit inside. I have then put clear plastic boxes on top which I change around regularly.  Expedit’s are a great low-cost solution as you can use such a large range of baskets and boxes to complement them, that they will suit almost every style of house.  Ikea’s Trofast system is especially designed for storing toys and is robust.

My storage system is in the photo at the top of this post.  It certainly isn’t the most beautiful storage system, but it is practical!  The contents, from left to right are: puzzles (ie shape sorters, stacking rings etc.), train set, cars and vehicles and two boxes of picture and peg puzzles.  The pink box next to that contains a variety of sensory toys, including musical instruments.



On top of my storage unit I have placed toys and activities that I know will interest T at the moment.  In a sense, the entire house and almost every toy or indeed book he plays with will develop his fine motor skills, so there isn’t really a zone for this.  But these baskets give me the chance to have some control over what is on offer to him, whilst still giving him the independence to choose, as they are on his level.  I generally change the toys whenever I can see he is getting bored of them, to hold his interest and to make sure he is getting use out of everything.



This will be where T can experiment with messy art and craft and mark-making materials. At the moment, I just have an old (very cheap!) side table that I have covered with pvc to protect it but I am on the hunt for a sturdy plastic table and chairs.   I also have a box for storing all his art, craft, and messy play materials, and a plastic pvc mat to protect the carpet when we are doing messy things.  This table also doubles up as a mark-making table, which will evolve into a writing and drawing table as he gets older.

6.  OUTDOOR ZONE.  I have not done this yet myself (time and money constraints) but when I do, I think the key word here will be: STORAGE! I hope to have a shed for storing sand and water equipment and any outdoor physical toys such as bikes, slides, slides swings and footballs.

When he wants to do messy play or mark-making outside, we can just transport the boxes out there and I will have a table and chair out there too.  I do not plan to do much else as, with the outdoors, really it is just a case of having good storage, getting all the resources out  when they are needed, and planning how to set out the resources.

How will YOU plan your space?

Everyone’s home and taste is different so you will not necessarily want or be able to have everything laid out in the way I have here.  But that is the beauty of planning a learning environment – it is unique to you and your child and the only limit really is your own imagination!  The size or layout of your rooms shouldn’t prevent you from creating  little zones that your child will want to play in and explore.  Your reading zone may be on the sofa with some cuddly cushions.  Your mark-making zone may be at the kitchen table.  The important thing is that your child gets to know where everything is.  Then, even if he or she can’t reach the resources he needs, he will know where to go to indicate to you what he wants.

Have fun planning your space and look out for my next post – Play Zones: Collecting Resources For A Balanced Learning Environment.

Did you enjoy reading this post?  If so, sign up to this blog by email or like my Facebook Page and never miss another!  As I always say, I’d love to hear any comments here or on my FB page.  It’s always nice to hear how other parents do things and share ideas with each other.  Happy playing!

6 thoughts on “Play Zones: Setting Up An Effective Learning Environment

  1. Looks wonderful! I’m aiming to create a similar space for my little girl. Very hard in a small space but this is very inspiring!

    • Thank you so much! It’s a work in progress really – I know that as he gets older I will need to replace the boxes with something sturdier and wipe-clean. Ikea are SO brilliant for toy storage to suit small living spaces. I only wish I lived nearer to one! Good luck creating your little play space – would love to see it when you’ve finished.

      • Thank you! I’ll do a post on it soon. Ikea are brilliant, they’ve served us well in this journey of parenting so far! By the way, I’m with you on the Reggio dream… what a beautiful method of educating a child 🙂

  2. Pingback: Download Your Free Play Planner Now! | Play It Again Mummy

  3. Loves the attention to details in here. Very inspiring and reassurance. It has helped me on thinking what’s coming ahead!!
    Love reading all this. Please keep going..! 🙂

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