Creating Space for Children to Play

It is a happy talent to know how to play.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

As a parent, Music Together teacher, and documentary/lifestyle family photographer, I truly believe in (and understand the science behind) the importance of play.

What is play? Play is freely chosen, self-motivated, and experimental. It takes place in an environment where there are no restrictions on how to act, think, or do, and where exploration, discovery, and practice are possible without fear of consequences. Most of all, play is fun. And fun is learning. Well documented in scientific research, play is essential to intellectual and emotional development. 

When we make time and space for play in our children's lives we are nurturing and cultivating their potential. We are helping them become who they are meant to be. 

Mom and baby blowing bubbles at Together Vivo! Park Playalong © Diana Sherblom Photography

boy focused on instrument at Music Together Vivo! Park Playalong © Diana Sherblom Photography

boy and girl playing instruments and watching each other at Music Together Vivo! Park Playalong © Diana Sherblom Photography
What play looks like in Music Together...from a Music Together Vivo! Park Playalong

Here are my tips for creating a play space and guiding play in your home:

1. Define an area (or areas) for play.  This can be a room, a part of a room, or an outdoor space. No space? Try a section of wall--there are many possibilities--marble runs, feltboards, chalkboard paint, even racetracks. Or create a moveable spot with a mat that folds up and holds toys like this. Or make a temporary place to play, like an easily cleanable tabletop (get a hunk of clay or smear it with shaving cream and let your child make designs). Whatever area you choose, it should be one the child knows is a place where he or she is able to manipulate objects and the environment.

You can use paint color, a rug, a baby gate, or other visual and physical cues to let your child know this is their play area, especially if they are younger. Provide a table or mat that you don’t mind getting dirty or beat up. Play is messy! Don’t forget the bath as a great place to play--buy a splash guard if you are worried about spills.   

2. Baby/toddler/kid-proof the area as much as possible. Choose play materials that are safe for your child's age--so be mindful of choking hazards, toxic materials, and small or sharp pieces for the under five crowd. 

You can and absolutely should still supervise young children for safety, but the less you need to say “no” the better. Play, creative thinking and intellectual development happen best when the child is in control of his or her environment and can make choices about how to interact with it.

3. Provide a variety of toys and objects that are great for open-ended play. These are objects that can be used in multiple ways and for a variety of purposes. For example, a cardboard box has endless possibilities for creative play: tunnel, house, spaceship, store, giant jack-in-the box, art project... For younger children, especially, consider the sensory input of playthings (soft, hard, rough, smooth) and include natural objects when possible. 

Another tip: if your child is playing with a toy that has a "purpose", resist the urge to correct them. It's ok to use a drum as a hat or a pretend umbrella--I do it all the time in class.

Examples include:  blocks, materials with contrasting sensory input (velvet, burlap, scarves), cardboard boxes and tubes, household objects like old pans and plastic containers, art supplies, objects that make sound, or just plain old clay/playdough, mud, water, sand and natural objects like shells, pinecones and sticks

Here are a few other art and music toys our children enjoyed: boomwhackers, bathtub instruments, water drawing mat, fingerprint art palette  

4. Older children (and even adults) need play time too! 
Sometimes this looks like daydreaming. Sometimes, it looks like bouncing a ball against a wall. Tweens and teens need to imagine, they need to explore, and they need to make choices relating to their personal interests. A tween or teen might want to design and work on an art or woodworking project, or write poetry, or figure out how to break dance (another use for that cardboard box). 

Having the time and space set aside to dream, research and then experiment intellectually, physically, or with project-specific tools, will help them build life skills that will lead to confidence and resiliency as adults.   

5. Let your child play! Supervise young children (make sure your toddler isn’t eating the pinecones) but don’t direct the play. You can support play by:
  • modeling (your child is always watching you and will imitate what you do)
  • reflecting and making observations and questions (if your child is ready to show you something) “you’re stacking the blue blocks” "you used a lot of red in that picture" "Wow, that makes a loud sound" "What a great idea! How will you do that?" "How did you make this?" Avoid simple value judgements like "That's a good picture." or "That's a nice tower."
  • imitating your child
  • allowing your child to invite you into and lead you in their play
  • recognizing when they need space to work on their play alone and when they want (or need) you or a friend to join in. If your child is bored or needs help finding his play groove, find a cool project and guide him until he is ready to experiment on his own. In our household, baking soda, vinegar and food coloring were supplies that often alleviated boredom for hours.
  • providing support and supplies for older children who dream up a project and pursue their interests

girl surveying play area © Diana Sherblom Photography
Boy looking through straw contruction ©Diana Sherblom

girl reading book on rug, surrounded by toys © Diana Sherblom Photography

Have you created a space for play in your home? How have you seen your child grow through play? Tell me about it below...

Find out more about Music Together Vivo! classes or connect with me to book a playful documentary family or child photography session.


  1. I really value your ideas and am going to share this post with my family as they add new children to the world. As a teacher, I was diligent in creating spaces for my students to explore, learn, and create to build a foundation that would guide them through their school day. I am so glad you pointed out making observations instead of judgements! This is such a poor habit that adults have.

  2. Thanks Amy! I love that you made play a priority in the school environment. I think our schools need to do more of that.

  3. So much great content here, Diana! With 3 young kids creating safe yes spaces has been so important to our ability to get anything done. The kitchen is my fave space. There is a chalkboard wall, easel, and toy fridge for the kids to play with while i cook. The baby also loves exploring the one cabinet that he is allowed in with all the pots and pans. My current struggle right now is to minimize their stuff, so it’s not overwhelming to clean up. Maybe you can do a post on that next. ��

    1. Kaleen I'm not sure I have any wisdom on avoiding clutter, minimizing kids' stuff or cleaning up--ha ha!

  4. Another gem of an article,Diana! For us our daughter's bedroom is a play zone. She is closing her door and gone into imagination world. She loves playing by herself and doesn't need any involvement from us. What I am really curious about is - till what age would she enjoy "play"? She is 8 now. I often think about when we (adults) lost this ability to dive into "play" the way kids do..

    1. Thank you so much Polina! I think children need to play at all ages, and even adults need play. I think play changes as we get older. For an older child, it might be more of dreaming or imagining something that she'd like to do, and experimenting with an area she is interested in. My 13 year old loves retro video games, and has spent hours figuring out how to build a cabinet for a video game he created on his laptop. The play component is the unrestricted creative thinking and learning while doing, and problem solving--how do I connect the coin slot I bought to my computer and joystick and make it work? What kind of wood do I need to use and how to I measure? As adults, I think play is any time you do something that is just for you. For me it's that time when I dream up ideas for hobbies,like gardening, or business, or projects, without placing any restrictions or practical irritations on what I'm thinking, and allow myself room for experimentation. Sometimes I do this by dancing. And sometimes I just like to sitting on a beach doing nothing. Really play is anything done just for fun. And I think everyone needs time for that in their life!

    2. Diana, thank you SO MUCH for such thoughtful reply! I love it!! According to this photography is my "play". How exciting it is that my play and my work overlap! 😉

    3. Yes! I try to keep that in mind with my photography too. I excel when I play, and don't impose restrictions or "supposed to's" on my art. But there is always a balance with the practical side of things when your play overlaps with work or business. The creative professional's challenge!

  5. I love the idea of "open ended" toys for play – I feel so many parents nowadays focus on developing kids' skills and doing things "right" from when they are teeny-tiny. Imagination should always be welcome <3


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