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How To Design A Play-Based Preschool On A Budget

Shakespeare was right; the play is the thing. Research keeps proving how important play-based learning is to capture and cultivate cognitive growth. Many child care providers and preschool teachers are starting to wonder how to embrace play-based learning in the classroom.

Though it’s hard to measure the plethora of experiences brought about by play-based learning, teachers can design the environment to be conducive, engaging, multi-faceted, and safe. Imagine your classroom is a theater, fun is the storyline, the children are the players and directors, and you are the stage designer and producer. That might open up your imagination to see what’s possible. Here are four tips on creating a play-based classroom in your program on a small budget.

Open Up The Floor

Watch your children and observe what they need to play. You will find that space is almost more important than toys. Toys have a limited set of offerings, but an open space to dance, roll balls, build, and create large-scale artworks is a huge win. We are not saying to get rid of all your toys! But instead, open up the classroom and floor space, or the outdoor space so that children can explore with their whole body.

Ask yourself. How can I make what I have more fun?

Recognize what fun things your children like to do, be it dress-up play, sensory play, or music play, and increase its offerings tenfold. Have a supply of cardboard boxes? Tape them together one week and make an exploration space. You can source many fun items at vintage stores, through parents, or DIY projects. You can also take walks or increase park time.

As children grow, their sense of fun changes; older children may like board games, for example, where toddlers are likely to want to do bigger body games in the yard. Either way, follow the fun, and you will find joy. A quick tip: you can always ask the children what fun things they would like to do in the classroom or simply ask yourself! A teacher having fun with the children creates a wonderful connection.

Keep It Mentally Stimulating

Play-based programs find the learning in fun and not the other way around. While the children are playing, add language, literacy, math, science, and games throughout the day. Add a pulley to your yard so their buckets get a lift while learning about physics, or keep drawing boards and pencils on hand when going out on walks so the children can journal/sketch what they see. Children are brilliant and look for new games and challenges to test and prove their abilities.

Don’t Forget The Rules!

While play-based classrooms are not heavy on instruction they do still require children to understand the rules and guidelines. One of the keys to play-based learning is that the teacher is still highly observant and communicative with the children. Although they are not instructing the child what to do, they are still is involved and aware of what is happening. Teachers in play-based classrooms are attentive to children’s needs and make learning lessons out of any safety issues.

For example, if a new challenge is brought out, such as a plank of wood to practice balance, teachers still take the time to introduce it and go over the dos and don’ts of using this play prop joyfully and safely.


How to design a play-based classroom requires intention and creativity. Intend to keep things open, fun, stimulating, and safe. Don’t crowd your classroom with worksheets, charts, and something you think they should learn but may not want to. Keep the space open and interactive instead (think about how parks and children’s museums are set up, do you see lots of toys and materials in these spaces?)

Ask parents for ephemeral materials such as boxes, natural materials, or dress-up clothes. Use large wood planks, tree stumps, or the outdoors as a play-based setting. Increase sensory play when making art. And, of course, be mindful of the children to ensure that they are aware, safe, and having a blast.

Looking for a play-based classroom near you? Click here to discover a program nearby.

Feature Image: Manzanita Wonderschool 


Wonderschool is a network of quality in-home early childhood programs. Our mission is to ensure that every child has access to a home away from home that helps them realize their full potential. We work with experienced educators and child care providers to help them start their own child care or preschool out of their homes, whether they live in apartments, condos, or homes that they rent or own.