I love creative uses of small spaces. Make it a multi-functional use, and I’m kind of in heaven. While we live in a moderately sized home, our main floor — what I consider our daytime living space, is a bit cramped. My challenge is to find ways to make the most of our nooks and crannies. I want these spaces to be 1) functional 2) aesthetically pleasing, and 3) honor both the adults and 3 kids that live here. (Check out this post of other ways we create Kid Spaces in Adult Places.) The way we use our train table is one of my favorite creative uses of the small space we have.
Soon after having Jax, our very good friend who has two older boys gifted us her KidKraft train table. Even when our 8-year old twins were Thomas the Train age and we were living in Texas, we didn’t have the luxury of enough play space to house a large train table. So our coffee table became our train table back then. The fact that we were given this train table (with two trundle drawers to boot!) was perfect because we had sold our mission style coffee table the summer before in hopes of finding a more modern style that better fit our current home. We never found the perfect modern piece, so this KidKraft piece has been our coffee table since Jax was about 6-months old.
We’ve been using the table in creative ways for a while now, but now that almost 18-month old Jax is Thomas the Train age, we’ve only recently started using it to its full potential. I hope that our use of 1 table in 4 ways inspires you to get the most out of your train table (or coffee table — keep reading and I’ll tell you how!).
1. Train Table. The most obvious use of a train table is as, well, a train table. We mount our track down with semi-permanent two-sided tape when our kids are younger so they can play with it without the track coming apart. When they are older, we take the tape off so they can build their own Island of Sodor. We keep a bin full of trains in one of the trundle drawers for easy access. In case our big boys want to build some lengths of track, we keep lots of extra track in another bin. As “big” as our twins think they are, it melts my heart to see them having just as much fun with these toys as Jax.
2. Dry Erase Table. We only erected the Island of Sodor recently. Until then, our train table spent most of it’s time as a dry erase board. We simply bought some thrifty white hardwood panel board from our local big box home improvement store (about $13), had the guys at the store cut it to the dimensions of our table, and “wala” — we had a dry erase board. We opt for Crayola Washable Dry Erase Markers because they are, well, washable.
3. Paintable, Markerable, Colorable Mural. With the dry erase board inserted, wrap the top of the train table with newsprint, and you have a large space for painting, coloring and all things crafty. At this age, Jax loves dot a dot paint, markering with big, fat markers, and coloring with triangle crayons. I stalk Hobby Lobby after VBS season to grab the large 36″X100′ rolls on clearance.
4. Sensory Table. We love sensory tables around here. (see this post for directions on how to make your own sand/water/sensory table). We simply cut a piece of press board that fits into our train table, then routered holes to fit 5 smallish storage bins. You can put just about anything in these bins. Right now, we have 1) balls in assorted textures, colors, and sizes 2) rice, 3) blocks in assorted textures, colors, and sizes, and 4) cotton and colored puff balls, and 5) oatmeal in our bins. I’ve also emptied the bins and played a game where Jax and I toss balls into them — the possibilities are almost endless. I only use sensory material that can be easily vacuumed up because this is indoors and atop a wool rug. We save the water and other irrevocably messy stuff for outside or in the basement.
We have our train table sitting in front of our couch (like a coffee table would be situated), and we have our couch kitty-corner in our living room. We have 3 “tops” for our table (the train, sensory press board, and dry erase board). The train top is our “default” top and spends the most time atop the table. When the dry erase board and sensory press board tops are not in use, we store them behind our couch (due to its corner placement, you can’t see what’s stored behind it — genius).
Have a coffee table but no train table? No problem! This was our situation when the twins were toddlers My husband simply constructed a “topper” that slipped on top of the coffee table and had a lip that wouldn’t allow the trains, markers, etc. to roll off. The easiest way to do this is to cut a piece of press board the size of your table top, then cut base board to fit around the top. Nail the press board in the center of the each piece of base board so you have a “hat” to fit on top of your table. Half of the base board sits below your coffee table top, and half of the base board sits above the top to prevent anything on your table from rolling off. Then, cut a piece of particle board (or other suitable material) to fit inside your topper for your train table. Cut the dry erase board to fit inside your topper. While you won’t be able to construct a sensory table with this method (unless you are willing to cut holes into your coffee table top), you could cut an additional piece of particle board and paint with chalkboard paint and have a large chalkboard surface.
So there you have it: 1 table 4 ways. You know as well as I do that toddlers demand variety, and using our train table in this way delivers just that. It also prevents our whole living space from looking like Toys R Us.