Curb the Summer Boredom

I joined the hosts of Fox6’s Real Milwaukee this morning to talk about adding a bit of flexible structure to the lazy days of summer. The producers have not linked to the resources I mentioned yet, so I wanted to publish a quick post to so you have what you need at your fingertips!

Click here to view the segment.

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Here are the links that will help you get started creating your own summer sanity saver (aka: Summer Binder):


1 Table 4 Ways

1 Table 4 Ways

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!).

Train Table

Train Table

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.

Dry Erase Table2. 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.

Newsprint Table3. 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.

Sensory Table4. 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.

Mixin’ It Up in the Playroom: Handmade Toys for Tots

Handmade Toys for TotsI love toys. I especially love smart toys – ones that prompt little brain neurons to fire and make new connections. I’m partial to toys that don’t have tons of bells and whistles (all those sounds make me feel like my mind is going to blow), and that kids can use in different ways as they develop.

I also like to mix things up a bit in our playroom. I’ve shared recently how I trade out our toys via our toy rotation (see Kid Spaces in Adult Places). But sometimes that’s not enough – for me. It’s probably enough for Jax, but I get SO bored with the same ol’ playthings. While I’d love to go out and buy new toys for Jax every time I need a change, our family budget couldn’t handle the hit. And as tempted as I am to raid our Jax in the Box toy inventory to satisfy my need for new stimulation, that’s probably not a wise business practice. My solution has been to come up with creative ways to make toys out of things I have around the house or materials I can purchase very inexpensively. These are the ones that are Jax approved.

Sensory Tray

Sensory Tray

1. Sensory Tray. I put this together when Jax was around 6-months old and sitting up. He was constantly touching new things and exploring their textures, so I thought this modified egg carton might do the trick. We play with this together and basically explore the objects as I name the texture, “That feels squishy … Ooo that’s soft.” Because I liked the idea of being able to see though it, I chose a clear plastic egg carton. I used objects of different textures that I had around the house and hot glued them inside each egg-holder space (what’s that called anyway?). While you can choose just about anything, these are the items that made the cut for our tray: puff ball, elbow noodles (glue them well so they don’t fall out when touched), sand paper, cotton balls, white duct tape (sticky side up), golf ball, Easter grass, aplix swatch (the scratchy side), bristle head of a bottle brush, squishy ball, soft yarn and a smooth rock.

Clothespin Drop

Clothespin Drop

2. Clothespin Drop. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this one. When Jax was around 10 months, he started to get a kick out of putting smaller things into bigger things. He also loved the sound things made as they fell to the floor – a trick he performed over and over when sitting in his highchair. So, I recycled a large-mouthed plastic cashew container, bought some old-fashioned clothespins at the dollar store, and introduced Jax to the Clothespin Drop. At around 12-months old, I introduced other plastic containers with mouths of varied sizes. This became progressively more challenging for Jax as he threaded the clothespins through the container’s opening. At 16-months old, this is still one of his favorite activities.

Ball Throw

Ball Throw

3. Ball Throw. Like lots of little boys around 10-months old, Jax discovered the  joy of balls. Any ball of any size and any color, Jax loves them all. He especially loved to roll them on the floor and soon learned to toss them. As I was unpacking my van-load of groceries from Costco one day, the thought occurred to me that the plastic container the organic apples came in would perfectly house several plastic balls (that we use in an indoor plastic pool for our “ball pit”). So, I replaced the apples with balls of assorted colors. Jax gets a kick out of dumping the balls out and tossing them in. What I love about this “toy” is that the balls almost always roll into one of the grooves – the result of which gives Jax a pretty satisfying feeling of accomplishment evidenced by the grin that appears on his face.

Muffin Tin Sorter

Muffin Tin Sorter

4. Muffin Tin Sorter. I borrowed this concept from my twins’ pre-primary Montessori classroom (wow – that seems like many moons ago now that they are eight!) Leveraging Jax’s desire to put things in things, I dug out my seldom used mini-muffin tin and grabbed a handful of colored poof balls (one of which I also used in the sensory tray). I offered Jax the puff balls in a small plastic bowl which I set along side the muffin tin. Almost as if by instinct,  he used his pincer grasp to place each puff one-by-one into a muffin hole. He does this until all the holes are filled, then returns the puffs to the bowl. In a few months, I’ll introduce a large spoon into the picture, and he can scoop the balls up with the spoon and place them in the holes. At around 20 months or so, I’ll give him a set of tongs with which he can pinch the balls and set into the tin. This progression requires progressively more fine-motor control and develops his hand and finger muscles for pencil-holding.

4-Pack o' Bottles

4-Pack o’ Bottles

5. 4-Pack o’ Bottles. Okay, I may be from Wisconsin, but I don’t recommend introducing your child to wine during their toddler years. The evolution of this toy has a story. Jax loves to play in the refrigerator – really he does. He loves to take condiments off the door shelves, line them up on the floor and replace them in random fashion. One day, a six-pack of beer bottles sat on the shelf and Jax had a ball putting the bottles in and out of the cardboard carton. Later that afternoon, I was in Target (one of my favorite Mom hangouts) and thought I’d look for something non-alcoholic with which he could perform the same action. Well, the the only options I could find involved beer or wine. I opted for this Sutter Home 4-pack because the bottles were perfectly sized for Jax’s little hands. I wrapped the carton in white duct tape, emptied three of the bottles, and refilled them with different colored water (which I colored with food coloring). I’ve been out of red food coloring for a while, so opted to leave one bottle filled with wine. Or perhaps I’m unconsciously throwing myself a life-preserver. You know, for those nights after the kids go to bed and you really need to wind down (and you’d actually drink Sutter Home because you’re feeling that desperate). In all seriousness, this is currently one of his favorite toys. He totes the carton all around the house, rolls the bottles down his slide, lines the bottles along the counter of his play kitchen … I could go on and on.

Color Bins6. Color Bins. I literally stole this concept from a high-end toy company. I loved the color-themed bins they were selling. Each bin contained several small objects of the same color. When spotting this smart toy online, I quickly pictured Jax sorting the objects by color, then sorting them by object type (balls, squares, etc.). Then I looked at the price-tag and decided I could re-create this idea myself. I purchased hard, clear plastic bins with easy-to-remove lids from Target. Then I raided the “1 Spot” for small toys that would fit into the bins. Although Jax won’t be ready to identify colors for a while, he loves lining up the bins, taking the lids off and exploring the objects as he empties them and fills them back up.

None of these ideas involve rocket science, but they’ve kept things fresh for us during playtime. I keep all of these homemade toys in drawers or bins that Jax doesn’t have ready access to, and I pull them out when there is a lull in the day. This helps preserve the fun involved in each one.

Kid Spaces in Adult Places … Tackling the Playroom

Kid spaces in adult places.

Kid spaces in adult places.

The playroom. If you are anything like me, you have a love-hate relationship with it. The colorful plastic it contains can be unyielding. It takes over your once adult-oriented, smartly decorated retreat.  And the thought of figuring out how to make it kid-friendly and something that doesn’t swallow your house can be overwhelming. Yet, it provides hours of educational entertainment for your wee one.

Through three kids, two states and two homes, I’ve definitely concluded that one size does not fit all when it comes to choosing the best space for your kiddos’ toys or how to organize them. Not only do home layouts differ, but the needs of our kids’ play spaces change as they get older. With those caveats  in mind, I’m going to open up our home and share how we’ve organized play spaces for Jax, who’s now 16-months old.

Their Home, Their Space Too

My philosophy is my home is my kids’ home too. As such, there’s a little bit of their stuff everywhere. My current house is a 2,200-square foot two-story with a finished basement. The basement is the 8-year old’s playroom with lots of itty-bitty pieces that Jax would surely pop right into his mouth if left to his own devises. So, there is very little of Jax’s there because we rarely venture down those stairs together. Only if I’m really desperate for a change of scenery do we find ourselves playing among the Legos, Snap Circuits and other 16-month old death traps.

The first floor, our main living area, is an other story. There’s a little bit of Jax in every nook and cranny.

View from our living room. Jax's main playspace is just beyond the staircase. Dinning room is to the right, and kitchen is through the doorway on the far right.

View from our living room. Jax’s main play space is just beyond the staircase. Dinning room is to the right, and kitchen is through the doorway on the far right.

As a stay-at-home mom, it’s important to me that he be able to roam the space safely and that there are things for him to do around every corner. That doesn’t mean that I have lots of his toys scattered everywhere. It means that what is out in the open and unlocked, he has access to. I know some parents believe that toddlers need to learn not to touch the “untouchables” in their home. I get that philosophy – I just don’t apply it. In my house, if it’s off limits, he can’t access it – it’s locked in a cabinet or high on a shelf. Now, as my kids get older this changes – my twins understand that some things are off limits. But for the littlest family members, I just don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze at this stage. First, I don’t want to have to hover over Jax all day making sure I’m telling him “no, you can’t touch that” and making sure he’s safe. Second, I want Jax to feel a sense of security, and eventually ownership, in his home. I think too many “no’s” and off-limit spaces make kids anxious. That’s just my personal parenting philosophy. All-righty then.

I need my main living space to be Jax-friendly and allow me to actually get something done during his waking hours when I’m not on the floor playing directly with him. My main floor is four semi-open concept rooms (kitchen, formal sitting room, living room and dinning room) all circled around a middle staircase leading upstairs. The kitchen opens directly to the formal sitting room. To the left of the formal sitting room is the living room. The living room shares a large open space with our dining room, which is connected via an open doorway back to the kitchen. It’s basically a big square with a smaller square (the stairway) in the middle. Hope you could picture that.

Because the formal sitting room is simply an extension off the open kitchen, it made the most sense to make Jax’s main play space there. Twelve months ago, this room was adult-friendly with two leather club chairs and two deep-seated wicker chairs cozied around our fireplace. It was a space into which we invited our dinner party guests to enjoy an after dinner drink. Fast-forward one year and it’s a Fisher-Price, Melissa & Doug metropolis. Tis’  but a season of life I say, and transforming this into a toddler-friendly room makes this current stage of life manageable for both of us.

Jax’s Main Play Zone

Keeping toys visible and accessible invites independent play.

Keeping toys visible and accessible invites independent play.

I believe that if toys aren’t visible, kids won’t play with them. I also believe in arranging their spaces so they have the greatest degree of independence possible for their age – this decreases frustration and promotes a healthy sense of self-worth. With those tenets in mind, I chose open shelving that Jax can access easily. He can see his toys, and he can take them out and put them back himself.

The canvas baskets above house toys that are “special” or require adult supervision. Keeping these hidden reduces Jax’s frustration in that he “forgets” they are there and rarely asks to play with them during times I’m not able to oblige. I also keep his puzzles up there mainly because I don’t have the table space to keep them out. I take one or two down, place them on the floor for the day, and rotate them often.

Kids feel safe and secure when they can predict their environment. A simple way to respect this need is by putting their toys back in the same place each day so they

Labeling shelves with a picture of what belongs there provides young children with a sense of predictability while helping them learn where to put toys away.

Labeling shelves with a picture of what belongs there provides young children with a sense of predictability while helping them learn where to put toys away.

know where to find them. Taking this concept a bit further, I like to create laminated

picture “labels” for our shelves. On the shelf, I mount a picture that corresponds to the toy that belongs there. This reassures Jax that, “Yep,this toy goes here,” and also  helps remind him where to put his toys back when we clean up before nap and bed. Granted, at this age I do most of the pick-up, but the pictures help as I introduce this self-responsibility concept. And, the pics remind Dad and big brothers where the baby’s toys belong – bonus.

A low bench with storage provides additional open toy storage and a play table all-in-one. | A turning bookshelf is a great space-saver.

A low bench with storage provides additional open toy storage and a play table all-in-one. | A turning bookshelf is a great space-saver.

Every few months I “rotate” several of his toys on these shelves. I haven’t figured out if it’s because I need a change or if he does – but boy do I get bored with the same ol’ same ol’. Keeping his favorites out, but replacing things he doesn’t seem that interested in mixes it up for both of us. I keep a bin in the garage of age-appropriate toys and label it with the date of the last toy rotation. Of course, I change out the shelf labels too:-)

Rotating toys every few months keeps things fresh.

Rotating toys every few months keeps things fresh.

Adding art at kids' height gives them something beautiful to look at.

Adding art at kids’ height gives them something beautiful to look at.

I think us tall adults, at least tall in comparison to our toddlers (I’m 5′ – so “tall” is all in one’s perspective ) forget that these little people have a very different view of the word. Artwork is almost always placed so adults can enjoy it, and the little guys are stuck staring at empty, painted walls. To give your littlest family members something beautiful to look at, frame inexpensive prints and hang them at their level. In Jax’s playroom, I used 3M Command Strips to hang this painting I did during a very fun girl’s night out (highly recommend such an outing, by the way). It’s not a Rembrandt, I’ll admit, but it’s more pleasing than blank red walls.

More Spaces for Play

Keeping toys visible and accessible invites independent play.

Keeping toys visible and accessible invites independent play.

Giving kids spaces to explore around the house encourages independence and gives them something to do while you are getting your own stuff done. I don’t know about you, but I spend more time in the kitchen than I’d care to admit. Therefore, Jax spends lots of time there too. I’ve intentionally made sure he has multiple things to do in the kitchen so, if he tires of one activity, I can encourage him to rotate through the others available for him. Most of my cabinets are locked (I love Kiddco Tot Locks – work like a charm and they don’t ruin the aesthetics of your cabinets), but I keep four drawers/cabinets available for him to explore. I also have a Learning Tower (that I bought used from a friend) that brings Jax up to counter height. From there, he can organize nesting blocks, eat a snack or “mix” ingredients just like Mom as I’m baking. Finally, I’ve hauled our old Little Tikes kitchenette into our small kitchen. Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle because it takes up valuable real estate, but seeing the pleasure Jax gets putting things in and taking things out of the cabinets and microwave of his own kitchen makes it worth while. In several months he’ll be ready for full-on pretend play, and I’m sure the kitchenette will be center stage as he mimics me baking bread or prepping dinner.

A home-made chalkboard creates a mini-play space.

A homemade chalkboard creates a mini-play space.

So Jax has safe, kid-appropriate things to do as he wonders the house, I have little spaces in nooks and crannies set up for him. Two of his current favorites are his chalk board and activity cube. I’ve fashioned a chalk board out of a framed bulletin board I bought at Hobby Lobby. Seeing as the bulletin board wasn’t going to be Jax-friendly until years down the road, I removed the corkboard from the frame, painted its backside with black chalkboard paint, and simply placed it back into the frame chalkboard-side out. I keep fat chalk and an eraser on the floor under the frame, and he’s free to scribble at his leisure.

Kids love to play in small nooks around the house. The space between our front entrance and hall closet creates a perfect little play “cave” for Jax. Because we sometimes need to get into that closet, I can’t put anything too cumbersome there, but his Parent’s activity cube fits perfectly. I can move it easily, and it’s the

Randomly placed toys invited children to explore their space.

Randomly placed toys invited children to explore their space.

perfect size for Jax to move around the cube in his own “special” space.

These are just some of my current solutions for our family and humble abode. Sure, if I had a million dollars, I might make other choices. And if my home layout were different, my choices would reflect that (my spaces for the twins were very different when they were Jax’s age because we had a rambling ranch). And what works at this stage in your and your child’s life will need to be adjusted as you move into the next chapter. So roll with it. Make changes, experiment and find what works for you.

I’d love to hear your comments and how you organize your space to best fit the needs of you and your Littles.