Tinkering Spaces: Mariah Bruehl of Playful Learning

mariah bruehl headshot

Today I’m joined by Mariah Bruehl of Playful Learning, for the second interview in Tinkering Spaces, a new series of informative chats that center on designing kid-friendly creativity spaces, or tinkering spaces. If you’re scratching your head because you can’t figure out where to put your children’s art materials, hatching a plan to turn your laundry room into an art room, or shifting furniture to make room for a new easel, these interviews are sure to give you food for thought.

Welcome, Mariah! You’re the mind behind the inspiring website and blog, Playful Learning, and now a gorgeous book by the same name. Because of your book, I’ve been inspired to make some adjustments that make my home more child-friendly, and through your Playful Learning Spaces e-course I’ve enjoyed going through the steps of designing a thoughtfully assembled learning space. In short, you have so much to share with us about designing a fabulous studio space, and I’m thrilled that you’re here to talk with me today!

RACHELLE: Can you tell us a little bit about the “atelier” you created for your daughters and how the space is designed for rich learning experiences?

MARIAH: Our atelier was inspired by the amazing art studios that I was able to experience during a study tour at the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. In these beautifully created spaces, children are presented with a rich variety of materials through which they are invited to create in an open-ended manner. It is through the exploration of these thoughtfully selected materials that children are able to fully express their understanding of the world around them.

During my time in the classroom I learned first hand how the environment impacts children’s behavior. When I stopped working I decided to implement some of the best practices in classroom design at home, and was so pleased to see how little things I did around the house made such a big difference for the girls. Our space is set-up so that they have access to resources and materials that support their current interests. I like to make sure that they can independently access (and put-away) what they need. While I like to plan learning experiences, I also love to see what they come up with on their own during unstructured times. They love to dream-up and create their own projects and inventions!

RACHELLE: If you had to be selective, what three things do you love most about the space?


  1. It is is an inviting and peaceful place to create.
  2. The writing center, which has inspired the girls to make writing a part of their daily routine.
  3. The confidence and willingness to take creative risks that the girls demonstrate when they are in the space.

Tinkering Spaces Interview with Mariah Bruel | TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE: Now that your children are in grade school, how has your home studio space evolved since you first designed it?

MARIAH: While I am continuously rotating the materials based on my daughters’ interests, the basic premise of the space has remained relatively consistent over time. I am a strong believer in providing even the youngest children with high quality materials, presented in a beautiful manner. Both Montessori and Reggio inspired schools use beautiful glass vases and dishes to create inviting displays for children. I have found that when we create environments that respect children, children learn how to respect their environment. When they were younger, I needed to be with them while they were working in the studio. Now that they are older, they love to create independently.

RACHELLE: I’m drawn to all of the natural materials that you incorporate into your home studio and playful activities. How do these materials play a role in learning and what goes into the way you choose them? 

MARIAH: Children are naturally curious and always seeking out information about the world around them. What better places to explore and learn about than their own backyard and local eco-systems? During our outdoor explorations we like to gather treasures, which usually end up in our atelier and are used creatively in some sort of project or learning experience. While I was teaching in the classroom I invested in a large leaf press, which has proven to be an incredible source of beautiful and natural art supplies. We enjoy using our precious collections (pebbles, shells, acorns, leaves, flowers, etc.) for any number of science, math or art inspired activities. We always have them on hand, because we never know what we will use them for next!

Tinkering Spaces Interview with Mariah Bruel | TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE: I love your simple ideas for carving out a beautiful and accessible studio space. Can you give us some ideas about how we can organize and store completed projects?

MARIAH: Each year, I order one new archival box for each of my daughters. Throughout the year I save up their work in a large basket and then as we move into summer, the girls and I pick out the pieces that mean the most to them or that represent a developmental milestone. I label each box with their name and the date and keep them all together in the basement. The girls love to look through the boxes from previous years and take pride in the growth they see in themselves. Taking photographs of their work (while in process and when completed) is another great way to save children’s work without taking up any space. Children love looking back through old photographs!

Tinkering Spaces Interview with Mariah Bruel | TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE: I live in a small home. What advice do you have for someone with limited space?

MARIAH: Most of the people I work with both in homes and in schools have space constraints. My favorite advice is to take advantage of little nooks. Often times there are numerous corners, or little spaces throughout our homes and classrooms that are not being fully utilized. It is amazing what a big impact a thoughtfully placed basket that contains interesting books and other special items can make on a child. I am also a big fan of taking advantage of wall space, and of creating caddies that can be carried around from place to place.

Tinkering Spaces Interview with Mariah Bruel | TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE: If you were only restricted by your imagination, what would your ideal children’s art space include?

MARIAH: Ahhh… what a fun question! Large windows, open space, fresh air, quality art materials, musical instruments, scientific tools, appropriately sized furniture, good food, good music, and, yes… access to creative technology. I feel that creative spaces should be interdisciplinary and allow for self-expression through multiple mediums. Oh! I get giddy just thinking about it :-) To me that is a vision in which all schools should strive for.

RACHELLE: Is there anything else that you’d like to share?

MARIAH: As you mentioned above, I do offer an online course on creating Playful Learning Spaces for children. It is a fun way for people from all over the world to come together and form an online community that offers feedback and support to each other as we work towards creating dynamic and engaging spaces for the children in our lives. A new session will begin on January 18th and I would love to offer a space to one of your readers.

Thank you so much for having me here at TinkerLab. I am a huge fan of your work :-)

RACHELLE: Thank you for being here with us today; I always learn so much from you and the feeling is mutual!

Do you have an inspiring Tinkering Space to share?

If you have an art studio, maker space, or tinkering garage that you think our readers would be inspired by, we would love to hear about it! You can fill out this short form and we’ll be in touch.

Mariah has graciously offered to share a a space in her upcoming e-course, Playful Learning Spaces, with one lucky reader. Playful Learning Spaces ($125 value) is a six-week online course that is designed to guide parents and teachers through the process of designing thoughtful spaces for children. Throughout our time together we will explore and share ideas for creating areas that invite children to engage in reading, writing, science, art, and more. We will also discuss organization, storage, and selecting materials for different ages and stages of child development.

Readers who leave a comment by Friday, January 13 at 9 pm PST will be entered to win a space in the course. Winner will be chosen by random number generator. Open internationally.

A winner has been selected. Congratulations, Mansishankar11, and thank you to everyone who entered to win!


Kiwi Crate: Hands-on Projects Delivered to Your Home

Kiwi Crate Review spinning tops

kiwi crate

Have you heard of Kiwi Crate? I’ve had the pleasure of knowing this smart, forward-thinking start-up since its early days, and I can’t tell you how proud I am to be associated with them.

I’m a DIY-kind-of-gal, but I also recognize that a lot of my readers don’t have the time to make everything from scratch. And that’s where Kiwi Crate comes in. For $19.95/month, Kiwi Crate delivers a set of thematic hands-on projects (ages 3-6) that even I can’t help but swoon over.

When the charming + thoughtfully packaged crate arrived, N was eager to dig in to all of the three projects. At once. And it took everything in me to curb her enthusiasm and slowly work our way through the crate.

The crate I’m sharing today happens to be about color, but the variety of themes will keep you and your kids interested as they vary each month from Dinosaurs to Outer Space (see this beautifully photographed review for a peek at both) to Gardening. Fun!

As someone who once wrote and designed lesson plans for art museums, I’m impressed with how Kiwi Crate has designed their packaging. The instructions are simple, clear, and well-illustrated, and the materials are wrapped up beautifully like a box of gifts. Since N was beyond excited to open the box and wanted to get started right away, I guess that says it all.

Project #1: sun catchers with colorful transparent plastic.

Sun catchers were already a popular activity in our home, but Kiwi Crate took it to another level with pre-cut mat board frames and contact paper, cut-to-size. The set-up was easy, clean up was a snap, and once N was done her sun catchers were ready to display. She enjoyed propping up and admiring her handiwork as we worked on another project.

Project #2: Color-mixing spinners.

The spinners they included are made of wood and far more beautiful than anything I’ve been able to find.  They included pre-cut circular paper discs and a full marker set for her to decorate.

Her spinners, ready to go!

Color mixing at work! This was by far my daughter’s favorite project.

Project #3: Bleeding tissue paper bag

While N’s excitement for the crate could have blown through all the projects in one sitting, I saved this for another day. This sweet little kid-sized cotton tote came as a bonus project. The instructions asked us to soak it in water, lay squares of pre-cut bleeding tissue paper on the bag, and add more water to transfer the ink from the tissues to the bag. We let it dry overnight, and had a nice little tote bag for storing our park snacks in. A couple weeks after making this, I had an event at Kiwi Crate. N ran to get the bag, telling me that I had to carry my wallet and keys in it so they could see how we made it. Awwww. They were impressed.

If you’re looking for an experience-based, process-oriented gift for a child in your life, or thoughtfully curated projects that can save you planning time, Kiwi Crate subscriptions are 3, 6, or 12 months and shipping is free. And I just noticed that if you sign up for a year, you get one month free!

Kiwi Crate also has a Blog and a Facebook page that are both worth following for more good ideas and company updates.

What themes would you like to see in a Kiwi Crate? Could you go for a little Kiwi Crate magic?

Note: I’ve been an advisor to Kiwi Crate since May 2011.

Architecture as Art


“Architecture is a science arising out of many other sciences, and adorned with much and varied learning; by the help of which a judgment is formed of those works which are the result of other arts.” -Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Roman architect and writer

We have a basket of blocks that come out every now and again, and when they do I’m always reminded of how much learning comes from building, stacking, and organizing blocks into innumerable configurations.

Do your kids play with blocks? What do you do to make them more appealing and fun for them?

Science Experiment: The Floating Egg

sink or float

As I hovered the egg over a jar of water, I asked my 3.5 year old, “Will it sink or float?”and it reminded me of Dave Letterman’s funny sketch, “Will it Float?” Have you seen it? This science experiment is really easy to set up + clean up, and the lesson learned on the density of water actually stuck with my 3-year old daughter long after the experiment was over. Fun and success!

The set up

  • One egg
  • Clear container: I used a wide jar, but a tall glass would work and you won’t need as much salt
  • Water
  • A few cups of salt
  • Spoon to mix the solution

Step #1:

Place the egg in plain water and talk about whether or not it floats. Pretty simple — it most definitely sinks!

Step #2:

Start adding salt to the water. We added ours little by little, and tested the solution by adding the egg back into the water. My 3 year old poured while my 1-year old mixed. I love these moments when they work and play side-by-side.

Finally, it floats!

Baby Rainbow loved this step, as she could finally reach the egg, and had some fun picking it up and dropping it back into the water where it “bounced.”

The Science behind the Experiment

The egg won’t float in regular water because it’s heavier than the water. But adding salt to the water makes the water more dense than the egg, and it floats! We have a book called “Let’s Visit Israel,” and my 3-year old will talk about this phenomena when we reach the page about floating in the Dead Sea.

Taking it one step further

Steve Spangler Science has a great idea for dragging this out into one more step. Fill half of a tall glass (that an egg will fit in) with this salty solution and then slowly pour plain tap water down the sides of the glass, being careful not to mix the two solutions. Gently drop the egg in the solution and watch it sink past the plain water, only to stop on top of the salty water! How cool is that?!

Do you have a favorite science experiment?

This post is shared on It’s Playtime. 

Sensory Play with Tapioca Pearls

boba in milk

Have you ever had Boba Tea or Pearl Tea? You know those chewy, soft balls that sink to the bottom of milky tea that you suck up through a fat milkshake straw? The drink originated in Taiwan as a novelty for children, and has since taken the world by storm with bubble tea houses popping up everywhere. I have yet to be converted to boba, but I when I spotted a bag of multi-colored dried boba in one of our Asian markets, I saw the opportunity for play and exploration.

To read more, I’m writing over on the Kiwi Crate Blog today about our sensory boba adventure.

What do you think about tapioca pearls as a food or art material?

This post is shared on It’s Playtime.


Top Post of 2011…

The best way to make children good is to make them happy. – Oscar Wilde

A couple days ago I shared my Top 10 Posts of 2011, and today I’m sharing my most popular post of 2011…Cloud Dough!

This post was featured on Ohdeedoh, BabyCenter, Craft Gossip, and it’s all over Pinterest. Playing with Cloud Dough is a wonderful sensory experience that both children and grown-ups have a hard time staying away from. When I made the first batch up for my kids, I couldn’t keep my own hands out of the tub of floury goodness. For more cloud dough fun, Flight of Whimsy is responsible for giving me this awesome project to begin with and we made a Gluten-free version that was almost as delightful as the floury version.

For more child-related “best-of” posts, click on any (and all) of these blogs for more inspiration:AngeliqueFelix.comThe Golden Gleamhands on : as we grow,Toddler ApprovedRed Ted ArtThe Iowa Farmer’s WifeThe Outlaw Mom BlogLet Kids Create,  Come Together KidsCreative With Kids,  Science sparksMama Smiles,  Rainy Day Mumteach mamaKitchen Counter ChroniclesThe Imagination TreeJDaniel Fours MomTeach PreschoolDe tout et de rien: Activités pour le PréscolaireMama Pea PodCrayon FrecklesSun Hats & Wellie BootsFrom Tantrums To Treasure HuntsMy Creative FamilyClassified: MomPuddles and GumbootsArt For Little HandsCreative Connections for KidsAt home with AliNurturestoreThe Chocolate Muffin Tree,Critters and CrayonsThe Mommies Made Me Do It

If you have a blog, please share YOUR top post of 2011. Just one post per blog, please!