Does it sound a little old fashioned? A play kitchen, some pretend food and a couple of baskets?
At school and in the nursery, it’s always one of the most popular areas of the classroom for one simple reason: children are driven to copy adults and what adults do.
Children can play alone, engrossed in their own activity, or together, enacting wild and convoluted stories. All these types of play are free to flourish in the home corner, a space away from adults where children can imagine that, for once, they are the ones in charge. In this guide we’ll look more closely at what makes a good home corner and understand the different kinds of play it fosters. Plus we’ll give you some home corner ideas and resources to try out for yourself.
Home corner is a term you’ll mostly hear used in schools and pre-schools, for the area of the classroom where imaginative play happens. Often it’s set up as a kitchen but it can really be any kind of environment that your child recognises, for example a doctor’s surgery, a cafe or the cockpit of an aeroplane. The point is that the space feels familiar and contains props that evoke a setting they can relate to, inspiring pretend play, whether alone or with others. Children can spend considerable amounts of time in the home corner acting out the myriad actions and behaviours they see at home, from making a cake and pouring tea to mopping the floor and feeding a baby.
But why is this so important – and so appealing? It’s because our children want to be like us. They observe how we go about our daily lives and they imitate us. If you drink coffee, they’ll pretend to drink coffee. If you support Arsenal, they’ll support Arsenal.
Imitation – a special kind of play
At 100 Toys you’ll often here us say that children learn through play but this isn’t entirely true. There are other ways to learn. Rote learning, however unfashionable, is one of them. And imitation is another. Toddlers don’t ‘discover’ how to use a washing machine. They watch us carry out household chores and then make up their own game where they pretend to be us.
The home corner is perfect for imitative play. Our children want to copy us, to play in the way they see us work around the home. If you wash dishes at the sink, a toy kitchen with a sink will get a lot of use. If you only ever use a dishwasher, it won’t.
The importance of imaginative play
Dramatic play, the kind of imaginative play a home corner inspires is important for children as it allows them to make sense of the world around them. In acting out the rituals and behaviour of the people and places they see every day, children are rehearsing for life, consolidating their knowledge and understanding of the situations and scenarios they find themselves in. The busy parent, the friendly doctor, the barking dog, the grumpy brother – they are all encountered in the home corner. It also provides opportunities for children to work together, express their feelings and use language to communicate roles and respond to one another’s needs and requests. And it deepens their understanding of manners and social mores, such as waiting in a queue at the Post Office or leaving a tip in a cafe. The play that happens in the home corner is some of the most comprehensive and multi-dimensional play a child can experience.
What are dramatic play and sociodramatic play?
When your child tells a story through their actions, this is dramatic play. “I am cooking pasta and now I am laying the table”. Sociodramatic play takes this a step further: “I am the daddy and you are the baby. Cry and ask for your dinner.” Other players are included and language becomes key. This is the highest form of symbolic play and finds its purest expression in the home corner.
How to make a home corner
Making a home corner needn’t be onerous. In most cases you can re-purpose furniture and toys that you already have at home to create an easy home corner of your own. A cardboard box becomes a shop counter; two chairs a waiting room; an upturned dining table a ship. You can quickly adapt and change your home-corner to reflect your child’s interests and in most cases a home corner can quickly be put away or dismantled if you need the space back.
What’s the best furniture for a home corner?
A play kitchen is the obvious choice, of course. It offers so many opportunities for imitation and dramatic play. It’s instantly familiar and children know exactly how to play with it.
But there are other options with lots of play potential. For example, a puppet theatre with curtains can become a post office counter or an ice cream van window. A play house with access on both sides can act as a boundary but also an entrance to any number of settings, from a home to a bus. The more versatile your props and structures are, the greater the opportunities for play. If you have the space, you can create sections or adjoining ‘rooms’, adding another layer of play potential to your home corner. The Gluckskafer Playhouse encapsulates this kind of modularity perfectly. It can be split in two and turned into a shop, a theatre, a house and a hundred things in between. The Tender Leaf Woodland Stores is an equally versatile alternative.
And there are plenty of DIY options. Two chairs, back-to-back but a few feet apart, with a sheet draped across make an excellent enclosed space. The shelves of a bookcase become the shelves of a shop. A cupboard filled with wooden blocks can be a pharmacy’s medicine collection. In the 100 Toys house, the children like to upturn the sofa and armchairs and push them together to make an enormous shelter that has served as a castle, a clubhouse, a restaurant and a dozen things besides.
Dedicated home corner furniture is nice, but if you don’t have the space, it’s easy to find a creative alternative.
Home corner ideas
Depending on your child’s age, you might want to choose a theme that encourages reading, writing or maths. Put notepads and pencils in your café, a pot of coins in your shop. There’s no need to hover and make sure the writing and numbers are correct. Your child is learning that mark-making and counting have real, everyday uses, and that’s enough.
Choose locations that have meaning for your child. Converting your puppet theatre into the passport control desk at the airport might give you days of richly immersive play if you’ve just come back from holiday but it will be meaningless to a child who has never been abroad.
Cafe or restaurant
Aeroplane or bus
Waiting room/hotel reception
Post office sorting office
Nursery or classroom
But you don’t have to limit yourself to scenes from everyday life. Even fictional locations can be familiar. Imagine the possibilities for play in the following:
The Three Bears’ house
The Three Billy Goats’ bridge
The giant’s house at the top of the beanstalk
A bed with a pea under the mattress
Three cardboard-box ‘houses’ for the Big Bad Wolf to blow down
Can you see how a home corner can be anything? A pretend kitchen has unique benefits, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also double as Grandma’s cottage next time Little Red Riding Hood comes to visit.
Props to put in a home corner
The props you’ll need for your home corner will vary according to its use. It’s nice to have child-sized cutlery and crockery in your play kitchen but (as long as they’re safe) it’s perfectly fine to borrow the grown-up version from your kitchen.
In some ways, the more detail you can add, the better. Instead of recycling all of those take-away flyers you get through the door for your local restaurant, you could put them in the home corner for use as menus in your pizzeria. Your old phone could become the policeman’s radio, the loose parts tray a cash register.
Younger children benefit from this kind of structure. For them, symbolic play is more difficult. But a five-year-old will have no trouble going to the block corner and finding the piece she needs to stand in for the computer she lacks in her office. Make open-ended materials available nearby and your home-corner players will never run out of resources.
Little touches like flowers and plants, a newspaper or some letters to open at the breakfast table, can really bring the whole thing to life. Some other items to include in your home area:
Bowls and cake tins
Play (or real) food
Appliances (use old, non-working appliances. Not only are they safer but children can also recreate their sounds and functions. Examples include an old telephone, a computer screen, hairdryer, vacuum cleaner, radio)
Table and chairs
Hair brush, toothbrush
Plants, watering can
Dolls (humans and animals)
Clothes (hats, coats, uniforms, shoes)
Store cupboard items like pasta, cereal, tins
Dog baskets, cat beds, balls
Mirror, hatstand, hats, umbrellas
Doctor’s kit, clipboards, masks, plasters
Top tip: A baby doll and cot will bring your home corner to life like nothing else. Children love nothing more that adopting the role of the adult, caring for a baby, attending to its needs.
Bringing symbolic play to the home corner
As we saw above, symbolic play is the ability to make one thing stand in for another. Toddlers like to eat pretend food using a real spoon, or to feed their toys. The props they use for their play have to be real or realistic. But as children get older, they start to use objects that bear little resemblance to the thing they’re trying to represent. A block becomes a shoe or the king’s treasure. It is now a symbol. Eventually, they’ll leave the symbols behind and use only their imagination – they themselves become the symbol.
Encourage symbolic play with open-ended toys
For example, your child has invented a game that involves ‘cooking’ dinner. If there is a toy kitchen to hand, stocked with pots, pans and pretend food then the play will develop quickly and easily. But what if there are no resources available at all? The urge to play a cooking game will still be there so your child will improvise. A cardboard box becomes the oven, a paper circle the hotplate on the hob. A cereal bowl stands in for the pan and a handful of marbles is tipped in to represent the food. It’s all stirred together using a pencil and the meal is complete.
Don’t forget the writing materials!
If you’re wondering how to encourage more mark-making and writing at home a simple way, the answer is simple: put a pencil and some paper in the home corner. From making shopping lists to issuing parking tickets, they’ll find ways to tot things up and fine wrongdoers! With preschoolers this will often be ‘emergent writing’. These are scribbles that they ascribe meaning to and may or may not be decipherable to the adult eye. The key thing is that they understand writing has value and that it is used in a variety of everyday situations.
Maths in the home corner
Like writing, introducing maths in the home corner is easy and natural. A pot of coins to pay with and count, a selection of measuring jugs and rulers marked with numbers, a calendar, a set of scales.
There’s no need for you to hover and make sure they get the sums right. That’s not the point. The important thing is that using numbers becomes normal. A child who arrives at school thinking that maths is interesting and fun is much more likely to persevere when more formal methods are introduced.
One of the best thing about home corner play is that you don’t need any toys at all. Everything is left to your child’s imagination. However, younger children sometimes need a nudge and even preschoolers enjoy using realistic props. Here are a few worthwhile additions:
Make sure everything in your home corner is safe (no sharp objects or choking hazards) and don’t worry about making everything perfect – this is not a Pinterest-friendly exercise in interior design but a place to help your child answer some of life’s biggest questions, like what does mummy do at work? And, what time is tea? Then you can relax, knowing your child is deeply absorbed for many happy hours in great quality, imaginative play.
I'm Alexis, father of four and founder of One Hundred Toys, Get Set Five and A Year With My Child.
I taught in London primary schools for thirteen years, specialising in the early years.
I studied at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London, both for my PGCE and my as-yet-unfinished masters. I'm especially interested in schemas and how they help us understand the motivations behind toddlers' play.