Q&A | How can I design a play space for kids of different ages?

In today’s episode we are discussing how to develop a play space that is suitable for children of multiple ages. Do we really need baby toys? Can we find toys that grow with children? How do we balance safety and developmental needs? These are questions we are diving into in this episode.

Hi there. Welcome to episode 214. Today I am answering the question, how do you create a play space for kids of different ages? Hi, this is Denaye. I'm the founder of Simple Families. Simple Families is an online community for parents who are seeking a simpler, more intentional life. In this show we focus on minimalism with kids, positive parenting, family wellness, and decreasing the mental load. My perspectives are based in my firsthand experience raising kids, but also rooted in my PhD in child development. So you're going to hear conversations that are based in research, but more importantly, real life. Thanks for joining us

Hi there. Thanks for tuning in to Simple Families today, this is Denaye and I'm going to start things off with a quick announcement. So starting in January, I added a second show to the podcast each week. So on Tuesdays a new episode with a Q and A format launches. And on Wednesday I do a longer form topical or interview type of episode, but starting next week I'm going to be combining and streamlining both of these things into one. So instead of having two separate episodes, I'm going to have one episode with two different segments. So I'm just trying this out to see how it goes. You all can let me know what you think and give me feedback. I would love to hear from you. All right. I'll start us off this week by sharing something simple that I'm loving. Now those of you who follow me on Instagram know that we have a rather sizable garden at our house.

I want to add the disclaimer that the garden was already existing when we moved in, and in many ways I have bit off more than I can chew with this garden because I know nothing about gardening. And when we first moved in three years ago, I felt like I should plant all 10 raised beds and maybe a few blueberry bushes and really embrace gardening to its fullest. This lasted at least four days before I realized that it just wasn't happening for me. There's something really romantic about the idea of growing your own food and it was something that I thought that I really wanted to do. And then once I started trying to do it, I realized that this is not the season of my life, that I'm going to be successfully growing a significant garden like this. And I think it's always great to remind ourselves that just because we want to do something doesn't mean we have to do it right now.

So I have decided to write off the idea of creating this magnificent organic vegetable garden for the future. I don't even know when the future is going to be. Maybe it'll never happen and if it doesn't, I'm okay with that. But right now I'm not growing my own food. It's not within my bandwidth. And as I become more and more aware of what is and what isn't my bandwidth, it really helps me to manage my feelings of stress and overwhelm. I don't over commit. So moving into spring at my, something simple is gardening. I've decided that this year we are going to be moving away from a vegetable garden and instead and moving towards the idea of like cottage garden, if you're not familiar with what a cottage garden is, go on Instagram and search hashtags cottage garden and you'll see in these images that a cottage garden sort of looks like a beautiful hot mess, kind of like unmanicured, overgrown, whimsical chaos.

And as unappealing as that sounds, they actually look kind of beautiful. Now my husband doesn't totally agree on this and he is not on board and he has said that he will not be participating in this project. Essentially what it means is I'm going to be not weeding the garden and planting a lot of wild flowers and kind of just letting it go within reason and they will reiterate the fact that I have absolutely no experience executing any of this, but I figure if the goal is turning it into a beautiful hot mess, then at least I'll be able to execute the hot mess part of it successfully. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Right? That'll be fine. So that's where we stand with my something simple. I am transitioning our organic vegetable garden into a cottage garden in hopes of having something that is lower maintenance but it's still enjoyable and beautiful and maybe more simple.

We'll call that my spring experiment for this year, so following along on Instagram, I will definitely share some pictures as we move along and don't have any high hopes that I'm going to be doing anything dramatic because it is going to be simple and low budget. If you are doing anything simple outside and in your garden this year, I would love to hear about it. I would love your ideas. If you have any words of wisdom or tips as I get started, please send those to me too. All right. Before you move into the question for this week, which is how do you design a play space for kids of multiple ages? I'm going to take a quick 62nd word from our sponsor. The sponsor for today is prep dish. Prep dish is a meal planning service. It's something that I never knew that I needed, something that I never thought I would need.

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All right, the question for today is coming from Marie. Here it is. Marie said, my question is how to have a play space when you have children of different ages. I have an eight month old baby who's at the stage of moving around a lot and putting everything into her mouth. I also have a four year old who's really into Legos and art, which are dangerous for a baby. Is there a secret to having a shared play space? All of the beautiful Montessori inspired images I see don't incorporate multilevels. I feel like I'm constantly telling the baby no ouch and telling the older one put it up and put it away or that's going to hurt the baby. Play pens are too small and they don't allow her solid footing. Am I overthinking things? I thought for sure you'd have some ideas.

Marie, I don't want to simply just give you a list of toys that are good for kids of all ages and I don't want to give you a schedule for which kids should play with what toys at what time. Instead, I want to introduce a couple of mindset shifts. The first is your job description. As a mother. Your job is to protect and to love and to provide for your children, but it is not your job to make sure that everyone is happy and has everything that they want all the time. What does that mean? That means that you're going to have to say no. You're going to have to make some accommodations and set some boundaries. Can get really caught up in this idea that certain toys are for kids of certain ages. Yes, there is definitely a safety risk in some toys having certain small parts around babies and children under three but even aside from that limitation, if you go to a toy section, you're going to find that toys have all sorts of age recommendations.

This toy is from zero to two this one is from two to four. This one is from six to eight. If I could rewind and do something different, if I was just starting out on motherhood yesterday, what I would be buying today is stuff that is good for kids of all ages. I'd start by buying toys that are durable and are going to last and are going to grow with my kids. Not toys that are designated for certain ages. I don't really believe in baby toys. I actually think baby toys are pretty much unnecessary. Most babies can really benefit from just crawling around and exploring surfaces, chewing on basic wooden blocks. I think there's a lot of misconceptions around this idea that babies get bored. The truth is babies don't get bored because every single experience and sound insight in their life is brand new and fascinating to them.

I think as parents we can sort of start to believe that our baby is bored and want to offer them new and interesting toys and things to look at and things to do all the time. But I think that can get us into this habit of constantly needing to provide new and novel things for our kids. Constantly needing to be the entertainers and it's just not necessary, especially for babies. But even for older kids from a developmental and educational standpoint, it is just as valuable for a baby to be exploring a big plastic spatula from the kitchen as it is for them to be exploring some sort of carefully created infant specific toy they're touching and feeling and demonstrating curiosity. We just don't need a lot of highly specific things for babies. So that's my first tip. When you're designing a space for babies, if it's your first baby, you're going to be inclined to buy all the baby stuff.

Try not to, it's not necessary. It can end up just costing you a lot of money and creating a lot of clutter. If it's your second or your third or fourth kid, you're going to quickly find that the babies just want to play with the stuff that the big kids have anyways, so baby toys become less relevant. The more kids that you have. I often hear from parents that the big kids want to play with the baby toys more than the baby does. Thinking about our place space, it's definitely designed for kids of all ages. The only things that are really small and would be dangerous for a baby would be our Lego set and some art supplies, which are the two things that you mentioned, Marie. Therefore, if we have a baby come over to visit, I just put those things up high. Those are not things that we have to have available to our kids all the time.

Most babies don't like playpens. They want to be out exploring and being curious, so I would encourage you to design a space that has toys that are good for kids of all ages. Your big kid will be just fine without small parts for most of the day. There's no reason that you have to have Legos available all the time and you're just not going to be able to have Legos available all the time. Legos are going to have to be something that you do during nap time or they're gonna have to be something that are done under close supervision. It's okay to put some things up high because there are plenty of things that we can still have down low that babies and toddlers and big kids like. One example of this is Magnatiles babies love Magnatiles exploring the shapes, holding them up to the light.

They can really enjoy this kind of thing under adult supervision. Wooden blocks are another thing. Great for kids of all ages. Fun for bigger kids to stack, fun for babies to bang on the floor and to chew on. If you take a look at public place spaces, our public library, the mall in their areas where they have some toys for kids, you can look around and get some ideas on things that fit kids of multiple ages. So we've talked about Legos. Let's talk about sets. Something like Calico critters. So if you're not familiar with Calico critters, they're like these little tiny figurines and they have dollhouses and doll furniture. Once a kid gets into something like Calico critters, it tends to be really easy to buy them Calico critters for their birthday and for Christmas and for Easter and for just the heck of it.

And they can accumulate very fast and there's lots of small pieces. What I'll say to that is if you don't have any Calico critters and you have a baby, don't buy any Calico critters. You could make choices about what's coming into your home. You can say no. Just because your kids love them and they go to play with him at their friend's house, doesn't mean that you have to have them at your house. Doesn't mean that you can't say no if your kids request them. One of the feelings that we really fear is envy. We fear that our kids are going to envy their friends and want the things that their friends have. Yes, they will. That's human nature that is going to happen and we can't run from it. So if your kid goes over to their friend's house and their friend has Calico critters and they love them and they want them, if you feel like you need to buy those Calico critters because their friend had the Calico critters, that's fine.

Just know that those feelings are not going to go away for the rest of your child's life. This pattern is going to emerge and re-emerge that they want, what their friends have. They want to be doing things the way everybody else is doing them and there's nothing wrong with that per se, but just remind yourself that you don't have to keep up with the Joneses. It's okay to say no. Just because they love them doesn't mean they need them. The same goes for quantity. If you've got a few Calico critters and your kid wants more and more and more, well if they're playing with them, we should keep them all. You know, if I have 50 pairs of shoes and I really love them all and I wear them all, does it mean that I need them all? Does it mean that I wouldn't be just fine with 10 pairs saying no and letting our children experience and sit with feelings of envy is healthy and normal and it sets them up and gives them practice for managing those feelings in years to come.

I also want to speak a little bit to your mention of the Montessori inspired spaces, so I love Montessori. My son went to Montessori school for three years. I love the philosophy that underlies Montessori. I would say that Montessori heavily influences our parenting and the way we keep our home, but I would not call us a Montessori family. We are just a family. We do not fit into any carefully defined parenting theory. The minute we try to define ourselves by some sort of parenting philosophy or theory like Montessori or attachment parenting or Waldorf parenting or whatever it is, is the minute that we're putting ourselves into a box. If you found yourself doing that, throw that box away because that box is full of nothing but pressure, nothing but constraints. It can feel like guidance at first, but it's a slippery slope. It can very quickly turn into a list of boxes to check and add on to the many ways that we're feeling inadequate if we're not fitting inside that box.

I think it's wonderful. If you want to read about these different philosophies on child development and education, you want to learn about those and incorporate those into your home. Awesome. You're going to have to learn to pick and choose and take what works for you and leave what doesn't. Now, I will say that I love Montessori. I love following the development of the Montessori community online, but I do see a lot of perfection chasing there. So just be mindful of this. Just because it looks good in pictures doesn't mean that it feels good. Doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to work for your kids or for you or for your family. So simply put, how do you design a place space that's good for kids of all ages? Try to stay away from the age specific toys, avoid baby toys, avoid getting too many large sets of tiny little things, or at least wait until all your kids are much older.

Your children will not be deprived if they don't have these things. In fact, the opposite. They are going to learn how to be creative and they're going to learn how to innovate. My kids have spent most of this week playing with their shadows. When we think about how much time and energy kids spend playing with things that don't involve toys at all, we can relax about finding the perfect things for them. If you do have some small things like Legos, it's okay to put that stuff up high and only get it out when the little kids aren't around and just remind yourself that in your journey of finding balance and harmony in your home, it's going to mean trying a lot of new things, setting boundaries, making mistakes, and finding the way that works for your family. Thanks for tuning in. I hope you've enjoyed this episode and I'll talk with you soon.

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.