The Home Corner | The Heart of Your Child's Play
The home corner is the heart of your child’s home.
It’s where she goes to become.
As a baby, she used the toy kitchen units to pull herself up to standing. As a toddler, she posted things into the oven, always filling, more and more. As a preschooler, she baked and scrubbed, peeled and fried. And as her imagination soared, she transcended the space, turning it into a hotel, a shop or a rocket.
But, above all, she went into the home corner because she wanted to practise being you.
Table of contents:
- What is a home corner?
- Your child wants to be like you
- Is the home corner the same as the role play area?
- Turn your home corner into a role play area
- Best role play toys for the home corner
- Props to put in a home corner
- Home corner ideas
- Would you like to help me?
- In the home corner with a toddler
- How preschoolers play
- Final word
What is a home corner?
At its simplest, a home corner is nothing more than a corner of a room dedicated to imaginative play. A toy oven and sink, some crockery and utensils. It’s a place to rehearse the essential, the everyday. Cooking, cleaning, family fun and family drama. In many ways, it serves the same role as the doll’s house. The difference is, of course, that your child is in the action, rather than observing it. She is an actor, not the narrator.
Your child wants to be like you
One of the most powerful ways children learn is through imitation. A lion cub learns to hunt by watching its mother. Your child learns about modern life by watching you.
If an adult is doing it, it must be important, your child thinks.
If you enjoy baking, your child will recreate your successes in the play kitchen. If you spend your afternoons engrossed in DIY, she will find something that looks like a hammer and get to work.
Of course, there are other types of learning.
There's heuristic play, for example, where toddlers make discoveries by exploring materials and their properties. This works well with wooden blocks or water play but trial and error is not the way to learn about ovens or using a knife.
This is the home corner’s unique gift - a way to play at being an adult without the danger.
Is the home corner the same as the role play area?
When we think of the home corner, a kitchen is most often what comes to mind. A sink, an oven and a cupboard.
Role play is what happens there.
I am cooking breakfast for the baby.
Let’s bake some decorations for the Christmas tree.
But role play is about more than just recreating domestic activities. Our children are rehearsing for life.
And life is about more than just the kitchen.
With a few small tweaks, the home corner becomes a role play area: a hospital, a supermarket, a fire station or a hotel.
The play is the same - making sense of their world - but the context changes. This is brilliant because it leads to richer, more varied language. Children talk and collaborate, share feelings and learn to listen to others
Turn your home corner into a role-play area
In my teaching days, we had a home corner that was little more than two walls with windows set into the corner of the room to make a square enclosure. There were no signs to indicate what it was.
The real magic came from the prop room (aka the garden shed where we kept all the furniture). There were kitchen units, weighing scales, clip boards, tables, crockery, old computers, telephones… My assistant never threw anything away and it was a treasure trove of mystery and wonder.
As a parent, my access to such a cornucopia of accessories is limited. There’s enough clutter in my house without dedicating a whole room to gathering defunct and broken equipment.
But I have a secret resource - my children’s imaginations!
Giving them a dressing up box or clothes peg helps them get into role quickly but you don't need much: your child will happily pretend that her builder's jacket is a policeman's high-vis vest. And just because you have a play kitchen, it doesn’t mean your role-play area is limited to domestic themes. As we will see below, you child will find all kinds of creative ways to incorporate it into her play.
Best role play toys for the home corner
Home corner toys come in all shapes and sizes. Dramatic play is so open-ended that almost everything in your toybox will find its way into the home corner at some point. But there are a few staples you should consider adding from the start.
If you put one thing in your home corner, it should be a play kitchen. It can be simple, it can be small, but a kitchen provides a focus for the play and anchors children to the activity for longer stretches.
Aprons and other accessories
What does every aspiring chef need in the kitchen? An apron, of course. Dressing up is a way of immediately stepping into role. Put on the helmet and you are a policeman, pick up a satchel and you are a postman. It’s like waving a magic wand.
Do you have a chef’s hat? Oven gloves and tea towels? Each accessory thickens the stew and the creative possibilities increase. Why not also add a toaster, a smoothie maker, a babyccino maker or some pots and pans?
What is a kitchen without meals to serve? Toy food is the most straightforward option, especially if your child is still at the mouthing stage. Older children enjoy ‘cooking’ acorns, pine cones and conkers, but they can be both messy and a choke hazard. It’s rewarding to find creative solutions from around the home but if you have a toddler, a safety-tested toy might be the best choice.
Home corner furniture
And once you have cooked those meals, where will you serve them? Playroom furniture can be a surprisingly versatile addition to your home corner. As your child branches out into more role play, the table and chairs can be used in all kinds of ways. Sit on your chair and you might find yourself at the barber’s, in the cockpit of an aeroplane or addressing your loyal subjects. The table serves as a post office counter, a market stall or the reception desk in a hospital.
The table also becomes somewhere for your child to enjoy other activities, from mark-making to construction, keeping the rest of the home clear.
Soft toys and dolls
Props to put in a home corner
What does your kitchen look like? This is what your child would like to replicate. Is there a television? A phone? A clock? A radio? A shelf full of recipe books? A bin? You don’t have to create a carbon copy, of course, but try to think beyond pots and pans to tell the full story. In our kitchen, the notice board is one of the most important things. It’s criss-crossed with ribbons so it’s child-friendly and easy to use. Flyers for ballet and riding lessons, party invitations and thank-you cards, take-away menus for our Friday night pizza. It’s our family life contained
In early years teaching we have the idea of the print-rich environment. This is the idea that you fill the room with numbers, letters and words. Your child notices them and starts to recognise them. The first letter of her name is the same as the ‘p’ of ‘pizza’, she sees ‘3’ for her age on the menu and ’27’ for her birthday on the calendar.
Putting a notice board, calendar, clock or recipe books into your home corner encourages your child to ‘read’, even if she doesn’t yet know all her letters.
Think about everyday life. What does your child see you do around the home? Do you place grocery order online? Perhaps you have an old laptop that you could put into the home corner. There’s no need to plug it in. Your child will happily type away, looking for letters on the keyboard that she recognises.
[Pressing ‘p’] I’m ordering pasta.
[Pressing ‘c’] This is for cupcakes.
[Pressing ‘b’] Butter for the bread.
On Friday evenings, we get a takeaway pizza. If I put a menu for the restaurant on the noticeboard and left an old or pretend mobile phone next to it, it wouldn’t be long before my children started making ‘calls’ to place their orders.
When I was teaching, we took this a step further and got pizza boxes and stuck them to the back of the tricycles in the playground and the children ‘delivered’ the orders to their friends. We numbered the vehicles, giving them simple licence plates. We placed orders using string phones, calling from one shed to the other.
A margarita pizza? Of course. It will be 5 minutes.
Freddie, take this pizza to number 3, Church Street. You can use bike number 12.
Play on this scale isn’t feasible in most homes but I offer the example as inspiration. I’m sure you and your child can find ways to bring the play out of the home corner and to bring it to life.
Other prop ideas
The trick with the home corner is to keep it fresh. Extend your child’s play by adding materials that enable her to recreate more events from everyday life. Tupperware boxes to make a packed lunch, a basket to prepare a picnic. Pencils and paper to write a recipe.
Don’t throw it all in at once. Like toy rotation, it’s best to put a few things out at a time and only change them when your child has explored all their possibilities.
Less is more. By limiting what you put in the home corner, you encourage your child to make do with what she has and pretend.
Younger children need more props. Their capacity for imaginative play isn’t fully developed. But a preschooler will happily reach for a wooden block or other open-ended material if she can’t find what she needs.
This block is my pepper pot. This pencil is spaghetti.
As your child moves from toddler to preschooler and beyond, you can start to introduce materials that will extend her play.
- Newspapers and magazines
- Take-away menus
- Recipe books
- DIY manuals
- Novels and picture books
- Pretend money
- Pencils and paper
- Museum maps and guides
There’s no limit to what you can include. If it inspires new ideas, put it in the home corner!
Home corner ideas
A big bowl, a medium-sized bowl and a little bowl. With these simple props your child will immediately know what to do.
I need three chairs, and three beds.
These blankets are the beds. Now I need some porridge. And three spoons!
Off round your home she will go, in search of what she needs to tell the story.
Can you think of any other stories that might work well in a home corner?
- The Magic Porridge
- The Gingerbread Man
- Stone Soup
- The Little Red Hen
Birthdays and other special times of the year offer the chance to introduce variety into the home corner. ‘Bake’ a cake, lay a party table, hang bunting; Halloween, Christmas and Easter. It’s easy to breathe new life into your play.
As ever, with the home corner, be on the lookout for opportunities to introduce reading, writing and maths. The post office is perfect for this: address letters, weigh parcels, calculate shipping and take payment. Maybe there is a photo booth or a shop. Think about your local post office. What else do you do there?
Use toys instead of people
Halfway between role play and small world play is role play with soft toys. Teddy Bear sits in the highchair, wearing a nappy and bib. He is weaning and his parents are making puree for him in the kitchen.
When my youngest was home for those long afternoons while her older siblings were at school, she enlisted her soft toys to join her in the home corner. It was the next best thing to having a playmate.
Don’t do this!
In the old days, when I started teaching, we’d often turn the role play area into a travel agent’s, filling it with glossy brochures of faraway places. It encouraged lots of great dialogue.
The problem with this kind of role play today is that no-one goes to a travel agent's anymore. This kind of role play is outside your child’s day-to-day experience, making it hard to engage with. She knows about the post office and the sweet shop, the petrol station and the greengrocer’s.
But your child can still 'book online'. An old laptop (it doesn't have to be plugged in) will do just fine. Or even a cardboard box. This is imaginative play, after all.
The trouble is, online booking doesn’t encourage much dialogue and isn’t particularly fun. The way to bring it to life is to think of ways to add encounters and dialogue.
My brilliantly creative assistant once turned the role play area into an aeroplane. There was a desk across the room that served as the travel agent's. The agent wrote out your ticket - lots of good emergent writing practice! - and you then went to the home corner to pack your bags. Next up was another desk, for check in, before you boarded the plane (six chairs in three row with an aisle in between). The play kitchen was the plane's kitchen, serving in-flight meals using the home corner's buggy (minus baby!) as the trolley.
Would you like the chicken or the beef?
Is there a vegetarian option?
The time of year was important, too. We did this in early summer, at a time when the children were starting to think about their holidays. They brought all kinds of holiday-related vocabulary to the nursery from discussions they had had at home about their own trips.
Of course, this only makes sense to your child if she has been on a plane. If not, why not create a bus or train station? The key is to choose something familiar.
Would you like to help me?
I’m chopping bananas for the fruit salad. Would you like to help me?
You are giving your child real-life experience and showing her the right way to do things. This is how we hold a knife. This is how we mix dough. We always wash our hands before preparing food.
You will give your child a blunt knife and something soft to cut. A banana, not an apple. And she won’t go near the oven. But by involving her you give her the inspiration and vocabulary to enrich her home corner play.
Often, home corner play degenerates because children run out of things to do. In the same way that we read books to fire our children’s imaginations, we should show them the variety of activities possible in the kitchen.
In the home corner with a toddler
If you have a toddler, it’s important not to expect her to play great imaginative games.
Toddlers are still exploring the properties of materials and how to interact with them. Home corner play for them is all about simple activities like pouring, stirring, filling, emptying. It’s all action and often messy. The oven door is opened and closed, the dials are twisted and the cupboard is used as a post box, stuffed to bursting with whatever is to hand.
And that’s OK. The preschool years are just around the corner.
How preschoolers play
Older children play differently. They have spent the toddler years understanding how to pour and mix. Now they are interested in telling a story. This is known as imaginative or dramatic play when done alone, or sociodramatic play if enjoyed with others.
The home corner is now a restaurant or a hospital kitchen. You can pin menus to the backboard or put recipe books on the shelf. Your child is thinking symbolically. This book is actually a tray of freshly-baked brownies; the pinecones in the muffin tin are cupcakes.
Everything is more sociable.
Come and play with me, Daddy. You are the diner and I am the chef. What would you like to eat? Here is our menu. May I recommend the pasta. It’s delicious.
Of the six stages of play, this is the highest. The youngest children play alone or alongside their peers but in co-operative play children play with others and work towards joint outcomes.
What better place to do it than the home corner?
Children learn in many ways. The home corner is special because it combines so many of them. But above all, it is about relationships. The simple back and forth of everyday conversation is one of the most powerful tools we have to extend thinking - and it’s brilliant fun.
by Alexis Ralphs