Unplugged Play Spaces

Whether you're turning over a whole room to rumpus or just carving out a corner for playtime, these four strategies will help you set up a space that fosters creativity and generates a ton of fun.

  • Photograph by Joe Polillio

    Strategy 1: Give 'em a Hideout

    Every cub needs a cozy den for reading, dreaming, and sharing secrets with real and imaginary friends. A. Create a kid cave by tossing an old blanket over a table or set up an indoor tent. This reasonably priced wood-frame model comes in lots of colors and is made in the U.S. (Twelve Timbers, $64). B. Our felt campfire sparks the imagination and might prompt some fireside storytelling sessions. (See next slide for instructions.)

  • Photograph by Joe Polillio

    How to Make a Felt Campfire

    Using our template (download below), cut strips of flames from four 12- by 18-inch sheets of stiff felt. Ours are 12, 18, and 24 inches, with the longest made by stapling two strips end to end. Form rings by stapling each strip's ends together. Cut a circular base from brown felt and add a ring of rocks.

    For the marshmallow stick:
    Cut a 12- by 11-inch strip of white felt. Roll one end of the strip around the handle of a thin paintbrush or pencil, then add a line of tacky glue to hold it in place. Roll the rest of the strip, then add another line of glue at the strip's end to secure the roll. Allow the glue to dry. Pull the marshmallow off the brush, then slide it onto a twig.

  • Photograph by Joe Polillio

    Strategy 2: Make It Easy to Make Stuff

    A chalkboard-paint art wall lets your crew create with abandon while supplies stay neat and tidy. A. A wooden dowel holds a roll of paper for drawing, and the yardstick anchors the paper's end. B. Thrift shop frames, given a unified look with a single color of spray paint, act as a fun gallery for chalk drawings or works on paper hung with a bit of painter's tape. C. A metal strip is the perfect home for magnet-backed containers of markers, crayons, and chalk. The tea-tin holders can be taken down and stuck back up as desired. D. A high shelf holds supervision-needed supplies, such as scissors, glue, and paint.

    See next slide to see how to make the art wall.

  • Photograph by Joe Polillio

    Art Wall

    1. Paint the wall with chalkboard paint. (We used Black Studio Finish Chalk- board Paint from Benjamin Moore.)
    2. Measure the length of a roll of drawing paper, then trim a 5-inch wooden dowel so that it's at least 6 inches longer than the roll. Apply two coats of acrylic paint to the dowel and to a wooden yardstick and let them dry. Using hanging hardware suitable for your wall, secure two curtain-rod hooks, positioned so that they'll sit about 2 inches beyond each end of the paper roll. Again, using appropriate hardware, hang the yardstick (ours came with a predrilled hole near each end; drill holes if needed). Leave about 1 inch of space between the yardstick and the wall. Insert the dowel through the paper roll's central tube. Suspend it on the hooks and tuck the paper's end beneath the yardstick.
    3. Paint frames with spray paint as desired, then hang them.
    4. Hang a metal strip (we used a Mighty Magnetic Strip from the Container Store, $12.99). Attach four magnets to each of three tea tins using a strong craft glue, such as E6000 (adults only). We added another magnetic hook and a plastic hanging basket.
    5. Suspend a shelf from the upper part of the wall (we used a LACK shelf from Ikea, $14.99).

  • Photograph by Joe Polillio

    Strategy 3: Invite Nature In

    Children love to bring home rocks and seashells. Nurture that impulse by dedicating a spot to a mini nature museum. A. Encourage kids to do a little research on their finds and label them (field guides are a great help). B. Keep a notebook handy for jotting down and dating sightings: "Crows on porch" or "Salamander at the pond." C. To make kids feel like real bioscientists, arrange specimens in test tube racks, petri dishes, and other lab ware (we found lots of fun options under $10 at homesciencetools.com). D. A small terrarium adds a living element to the display. This one comes as a kit, complete with glass container, plants, soil, and cute decorations, and it sets up in minutes (Lush and Lovely Terrariums, $25; lushandlovelyterrariums.com).

  • Photograph by Joe Polillio

    Strategy 4: Leave the Rest Wide Open

    The best play space of all may be an empty expanse. Give your kids a roll or two of painter's tape and let their sense of make- believe take over, à la Harold and the Purple Crayon. Roads and farms, four-square courts and hopscotch boards: anything is possible. The low-stick tape can be used on most carpeting and flooring (and furniture too!), comes in several different colors (we've found blue, green, and yellow), and can be removed without a trace when playtime is over.