Tinkering Spaces: Mariah Bruehl of Playful Learning

How to set up a home learning space from Playful Learning

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.

tinkering spaces: mariah bruehl of playful learning

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.

tinkering spaces: mariah bruehl of playful learning

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!

tinkering spaces: mariah bruehl of playful learning


  1. Mariah’s courses are wonderful–my kids recently took her photojournalism class and loved it!

  2. Mariah’s courses are wonderful–my kids recently took her photojournalism class and loved it!

  3. Mariah’s book was waiting for me under the tree this Christmas (ok, I may have ordered it for myself!) and I would love to take her class in 2012!

    • So many of my readers already have this book — I love this group!!

  4. Mariah’s book was waiting for me under the tree this Christmas (ok, I may have ordered it for myself!) and I would love to take her class in 2012!

  5. Interested in learning more about Reggio Emilia.

  6. Interested in learning more about Reggio Emilia.

  7. That sounds like an awesome course to participate in! We’ve been working on creating our discovery room but it can be so hard to focus on figure out how we really want to make it open ended and beautiful at the same time.

  8. I would love to win a place in this e course, sounds perfect for me at this time,

  9. I would love to win a place in this e course, sounds perfect for me at this time,

  10. I have limited space as we live in an apartment. I keep Plaything organized by using plastic net zipper bag. It takes up shape of the object stored in it and I find them better than using zip locks specially for medium size toys are miniature cars etc. Also I have put different set of stuff in each room which helps to engage my daughter all the time.

  11. I have limited space as we live in an apartment. I keep Plaything organized by using plastic net zipper bag. It takes up shape of the object stored in it and I find them better than using zip locks specially for medium size toys are miniature cars etc. Also I have put different set of stuff in each room which helps to engage my daughter all the time.

  12. Great interview!! I love the spaces that Mariah has designed! I found out about her site a few months ago and am so inspired! Thanks for the chance to win a spot in her course. It sounds amazing!

  13. Great interview!! I love the spaces that Mariah has designed! I found out about her site a few months ago and am so inspired! Thanks for the chance to win a spot in her course. It sounds amazing!

  14. I have this book on my night stand, received it as a holiday gift.  I have to finish “The Happiness Project” first, but can’t wait to dive in.  Sounds like it’s right up my alley.

  15. I have this book on my night stand, received it as a holiday gift.  I have to finish “The Happiness Project” first, but can’t wait to dive in.  Sounds like it’s right up my alley.

  16. Love the idea of a writing center!  The big question is how to make all this stuff happen in TINY RENTAL spaces (you can’t really create wall installations to hold stuff, but you also can’t use up a lot of the floor space…) without ending up with an overwhelming mess!

    • That’s true. We always went ahead and poked holes in the walls anyway. Maybe this is a question for my FB page.

  17. Thank you so much for the inspiration. I am a mother of two boys (4 and 1) and I now stay at home full time. I was a 2nd grade teacher for many years and couldn’t agree more with some of the ideas you have shared here. What I find to be most important is the influence the environment has on children. I am constantly striving to create a space at home that my son can create in. Having access to the materials he would like to explore, rather than being limited to the materials I choose, is key. I always find he thinks of things I never would have dreamed of. We also face the dilemma of a small apt. so it is a challenge but also find to think about what wall of nook of the apt. I can turn into a center for him. I think it drives my husband nuts as I’m always asking him to hang (and rehang) things until they are just right for my son.

  18. Looks fabulous! would love to win this prize!

  19. Thank you for brining new ideas and resources. I am going to start looking at the nooks and corners in my home!

  20. I would love to take part in this course.  I am the director of a small private preschool with limited space–I need all the help I can get!

  21. I love Reggio and am in great need of this class for my three little artists’ studio

  22. Trying to re-organize my infant, toddler, and pre-schooler’s playroom to incorporate so many of these ideas! LOVE them! Thanks, xoxo

  23. I have a friend who took this course and couldn’t say enough good things about it. I’d love to try it!

  24. I could SOOO use this!  I’m trying to redesign/reconfigure our guest room to be a combo craft room/playroom and still serve as a guest room and yet the room is not a large room so I am extra challenged.  Thanks, Maureen (jnomaxx at hotmail dot com)

    • That’s a good challenge, Maureen. Have you taken a look at Mariah’s book yet? 

    • Hi Vaibhavi! Great seeing you here 🙂

  25. We are trying to open an arts integrated charter school in Southern New Hampshire, and this would be a great opportunity for us as we develop the space. Thanks so much for the info and ideas!

    • A friend of mine has been working on this arts-based charter school in Oakland, and it was just approved. Maybe you’ll find some good ideas there too.

  26. I would *love* to take the class  I’m studying Psychology and want to get my Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and I have studied Reggio Emilia and Montessori methods.  I’m a mom to a 5 year old so I want to make everything fun and comfortable for her to learn in.

  27. I really enjoyed this interview!  Many thanks to you both:)

  28. I really enjoyed this interview!  Many thanks to you both:)

  29. I would love to take the course! It sounds fantastic. I am constantly looking for ways to better arrange spaces in our home.

  30. I would love to take this course! I am always looking for ways to improve our home spaces.

  31. Loved the interview! It has inspired me to create something similar at home. Let’s see if I can find similar materials. The online course sounds really interesting. Thanks!

  32. Great inspiration to get started.  Would love the class to take it to the next level.

  33. **sigh** This book was the only thing I asked for from Santa this Christmas, and I GOT IT!  I am having so much fun and soaking up all the wonderful ideas and vivid photos.  I would LOVE to pair that with participating in the online course!  I hope I get picked!  Thanks, ladies!

    • how about that?! the ONLY thing you asked for  — if i didn’t already have a copy, i may have done the exact same thing!

  34. Enter me! Enter me! That sounds like a great class. I am currently working on adding a room to our house that will function as our family room/studio. This would be soo helpful.

  35. Would love to take her class!  What great information shared…thank you!

  36. Very inspiring.  Would love to learn more.  Thank you!

  37. Wonderful ideas. I’d love to take your course! Any tips for outside spaces? I’m currently working on a school garden plan and would love to incorporate art making spaces.

  38. I would love to learn more, sounds so interesting! My children are 3 and under and I would love to learn about creating spaces for their age and as they grow. We have a school room that I would love to see inspiring excitement in learning and development.

  39. As a first year preschool teacher in a nature based preschool I would love to take part in this course:)

  40. Great interview. I struggle with figuring out how/what materials to keep out with a three and one year old about. We have a wonderful space for them to roam but I would love to learn how to make it more inspiring for all of us. Would love to take the class!

  41. Oh, I would love to win this!!

  42. I have used many of her ideas in our learning lab and would love to take this class!

  43. Mom to three and six year olds and religious ed teacher (in a Montessori-inspired, yet creative-in-response) religious education program. Always looking for new ideas. When my older daughter was four and my little one was toddling (and getting in to her stuff), I turned her closet into her workroom. I cleared it out, added some adjustable shelving, and put an Ikea desk and chair in. She had access to her materials with a door that closed! She truly spent hours at a time in there. Now both girls have access to the materials and they are not tucked away in a closet. 🙂

    • i love this idea, amanda! i just turned my daughter’s closet into a reading nook, and she’s in love with the cozy little space. she literally melted down last night when her little sister went to bed before her and she was deprived of bedtime stories in her hidey-hole. thanks for the comment.

  44. What a cool giveaway!  Thanks for the opportunity!

  45. I would love to win this course! Homeschooling mother of 7 with my 8th only a few days away- I’m always looking for innovative ways to keep my Children’s passion for learning burning.

    • Wow, Heather, congratulations!!! Sending you good baby vibes and hope you have a smooth delivery. Thanks for the comment.

  46. I recently found tinkerlab and have already done several of your fantastic projects with my soon-to-be two year old son.  I’ve just set up an art studio for him, but I know it needs much more inspiration — and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I just might be the winner.  Thanks so much!

    • That’s awesome, Grace, and I’m thrilled to hear that my blog has been a source of inspiration. Fingers crossed 🙂

  47. I love this concept and am always trying to get new ideas as to how to how to meet my girls’s developmental level and interests.

  48. Was reading a little about the Reggio Emilia method and really keen to learn more.. To create a learning space for my little one.. 🙂

  49. This is so wonderful. I have the book on my list for a while to get. This interview is very inspiring. Yes, creative spaces for our children!

  50. To love life is to know many things and to know many things one must first experience them through their heart and mind. I look forward to experiencing more!!! 

  51. I would love to attend your course! Thank you very much for the oportunity!

  52. my home and my mind are in a mess. My new year resolution is to get things organized. I would really like a chance to have help for creating lovely spaces for my children.

    • I felt the exact same way last year, Ajaranak. For what it’s worth, I found a lot of inspiration in Tsh Oxenreider’s Organized Simplicity. You can do it — baby steps!

  53. I’ve learned a great deal from the shared art spaces on Tinkerlab, Artfull Parent, and Pink and Green Mama. I look forward to an opportunity to learn more about creating a better creative space for my daughter.

  54. Oh yes, I would love a spot in this course, I’ve been eyeing it for some time now!

  55. Ooooh, I would love a spot in this course!  Thanks for the chance!


  56. Excellent interview!  Mariah is such an inspiration in our home!  It sounds like our ideal creative space would look almost identical too! ;o)
    ~ joey ~

  57. I love that Mariah adds music to her list – music plays such an important role in our daily family life. we start our morning with a dance party sometimes to music on the ipod and sometimes to our own marching band. Love it! Love your blog too 🙂 thanks!

    • When I first read your comment this morning, it reminded me to turn the music on earlier today. I love a good dance party too! thanks for the reminder!!

  58. I love how music, science tool, technology and food are all included in Mariah’s list of an ideal art space. 

  59. I love her art ideas and spaces.  I am getting so many great ideas for my PreK class and toddler!

  60. My children and me absolutely love Mariah’s book 🙂 And of course we will love even more to be able to join her course so, pleaseeeeeeeeeeeeee, choose us 😉

  61. I love the Playful Learning blog, too! Thanks for sharing the great interview and a chance to win!

    Sarah M

  62. Oh my!  I love this interview!  I just recently bought the book Playful Learning and have completely changed my thoughts on activities, toys, etc.  We are getting ready to redo our playroom and I want to take the eCourse so bad but just can’t swing the fee right now…would LOVE LOVE LOVE to win it!!! 

    • Yay! Happy to hear that this inspired you, Christin!

  63. I love the archival box idea. Right now I’m stuffing everything into one big plastic file folder box, which I know is not sustainable.  I do want to save stuff, but hadn’t really figured out how to limit it in a reasonable way.

    • I also store work in rubbermaid storage bins and the archival boxes are very appealing! Sometimes it’s hard to tell which pieces are milestone pieces in the moment, and with a little distance it becomes more clear. One thing that I do is store whatever I can’t bear to part with, and then revisit the pile a few months later once my kids are a bit older and I have more of a long-range understanding of what they’re creating. 

  64. Thanks for the chance to win this great course! 

  65. Thank you for your ideas and inspiration.  My biggest challenge is organization in a small space.  My girls like both independent and family play.  I feel I could do a better job of rotating and organizing activities/supplies so they are inspired and can follow their personal creativity.

    • I feel the same way, and I’m constantly rethinking the way my little space is organized. Do you have a garage, storage area, or basement where you could keep those rotating materials? Are you on Pinterest? I have this board that you might enjoy: https://www.pinterest.com/tinkerlab/art-studios-for-kids/

  66. I really want to register for this e-course!

  67. Would love to win a spot having been a fan of her blog.  Read her fabulous book too!

  68. As a parent of 4 children and a play based preschool teacher I am always looking for creative ways to make an old space feel new, organized and exciting! Love your blog and can’t wait to get your book! Joy

  69. I have really enjoyed this and your first Tinkering Spaces interview. I love thinking about ways to set up our home in a way that fosters creative learning and then to sit back and watch what the kids come up with. 

    My 7-year-old son has recently shifted from being super excited about art to being super excited about writing. This interview has made me think about how I could change up our “art area” to make it a great space both for him to write and for my younger two to draw/collage/paint.

    • Thanks, Amy! It’s so rewarding to watch children play and invent in a space designed with them in mind. I’m happy to hear that this gave you some ideas on how to make your art area more inviting for writing. Mariah certainly has some useful ideas in this area, and I’d recommend her book if it’s not already on your reading list.

  70. This is so wonderful.  thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to help other families like this 🙂

    • it’s truly my pleasure (and mariah’s too, i’m sure!).

  71. Thank you for the interview and giveaway. I would love to be a part of this e-course.

  72. I really want to make my classroom more childlike and child inviting. I love the writing center. I also need help with clever storage for my daughters toys that are taking over the house. 

    • Mariah has so many good ideas — do check out her book if you have a chance. I’m sure you’ll love it, Carrie-Anne.

  73. My husband and I have just cleared a room in our home to dedicate solely to our twin boys future atelier. We purchased Mariah’s beautiful book and have highlights, bookmarks and tabs everywhere. What a great resource for ideas, inspiration and information on creating a thoughtful space for children to discover. I was so happy to stumble across this blog from Mariah’s Playful Learning emails. What a great find as well. I’m so excited to enter for the chance to win a spot in the upcoming ecourse! We are so in need of help in trying to put it all together while at the same time, not breaking the bank. Happy New Year!

    • My book is getting dog-eared too, Diana. Congratulations on making room for an atelier. Your sons will love it, and it will make your family life richer, I’m sure. Thanks for the comment, and I’m so glad you found my blog!

  74. I love Mariah’s book and would love a spot in her course!!! Thank you!

  75. One day I hope to have a home that is filled with wonderful spaces for both of my children to learn and have fun. One thing at a time. We will get there. 

  76. I have the book and would love to learn more by taking the course.

  77. I have been following Mariah’s blog and love her thoughtful ideas. Would love to delve into this course.

  78. What an informative interview. I would like to join the course.I have a 2 year old son and I want to be THAT mum!

  79. I really love these ideas and have recently signed up to the blog. I am going to try and hunt down some archival boxes now…

  80. Great ideas! I’ve been working on creating an art space for my kids this past several months by tranforming our dining room into a “studio.” We have an added challenge of having a child with a developmental disability; supplies have to be somewhat accessible but safety and ease of cleanup is an issue as well.

    My favorite change so far has been the addition of a long bookshelf for all of our craft books, with 24 Bell jars mounted below it for beads, pom-poms, ribbon scraps, shells and other small supplies. Just looking at it makes us want to make something. The lids are screwed in permanently and the jars’ contents are visible but safe at the same time.

  81. I love Mariah’s blog! I have tried to create playful learning spaces in our small home, but would love the additional inspiration her e-course will offer. Thanks TinkerLab!

  82. I have seen a number of great creative spaces for children, some backed with obvious money, however, others with less funding. I am from the latter version. I also believe in letting my child be a co creator with me. I have choose small child sized materials, but also some big stuff, like rolling pins and manila envelopes, or pillow cases and stamp pads and rolls of contact paper. We decide when to rotate items or rearrange things. Clear totes and photo labels of objects for storage are great.

  83. I’d love to join in the course!

  84. What a neat interview! I’m very interested in this course

  85. I would love to take this course! And I’d like to know more about using glass containers with young children. I’m afraid they’ll break it!

  86. So inspiring (just like the rest of your blog). Thanks for the chance to win!

  87. Dying to take the course – thank you for the chance to win!

  88. I love the writing center! But the amount of paper the 8, 6, and 4 year old go through… good thing we have a scrap bin for them to use as well.

  89. I am quitting my job to take care of my kids and would love to get ideas on how to organize small spaces for projects etc. can’t wait to get started!

  90. Oooh!  I’ve been working on better utilizing our learning space and would LOVE to participate in the course!

  91. I have lots of ideas and good intentions but need some organizational guidance!

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