It's a project that will appeal to everyone in the family: Kids get a special surface (three of them, in fact) to play on, and adults can clean up faster because toys will be confined to one area, not scattered all over the house. Begin with a table that's a comfortable height for kids: The top should be about 18 inches from the ground. Either a coffee table or dining-room table with its legs cut down works well. Attaching low sides to the tabletop prevents toys from ending up on the floor, where they can be crushed, tripped on, lost, or picked up by a toddler.
Next comes the fun part -- designing and painting three playscapes. One is painted directly on the table; apply the other two on the top and bottom of a lightweight board cut to fit the table. Attach straps to the board for easy lifting, removing, or turning over by an adult. We painted a sweeping country motif for setting up train tracks, a city grid of streets and buildings befitting any driver's fantasy, and a domestic floor plan that will delight all the small dolls (and their owners) living in your house. Under-table bins make cleanup easy. We chose large boxes, but several small ones would serve as well. If you label the containers, kids can quickly find whichever set of toys they need.
Who wouldn't want to cruise the downtown streets of a play table? Speeding is permitted, racing encouraged, and spectacular crashes the norm. For architecture-oriented children, it's the ideal place to erect buildings of plastic or wood blocks.
A child has just set up train tracks in this bucolic landscape. But they could just as easily have used it as a setting for a toy farm or ranch, a home base for action figures, or a location for a make-believe magical kingdom.
Here is a household to care for and furniture to arrange -- and rearrange. And because the home floor plan is so flexible, kids can create other places to work (and play): a school, a hospital, or a department store.
How to Finish Your Table
After sanding and priming a straight-sided wooden table, sketch your city design with a pencil. Use masking tape to outline the shapes of the buildings (our tape covers the entire street grid). Fill in the buildings with indoor latex paint. When they're dry, remove the tape.
The best way to make street and building edges straight is re-taping. Place masking tape so the outside edge lines up with the outer edge of the buildings. Make the corners as square as possible. Paint the streets. Wait for paint to dry completely before removing tape.
A 3-inch edge around the table helps stop small toys from falling off and forms a frame that keeps the removable play board in place. Using screws and a drill, attach four lengths of wood to the sides of the table. Paint the table legs and edges a matching color.
Cut four 10-inch pieces of cotton twill. Fold in half and turn ends under for reinforcement. With wood glue, attach a pair of straps to each end of the board; staple with a staple gun. Although light, the board should be lifted by an adult or by an older child with adult supervision.
Use 1/4-inch medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or plywood. Measure carefully so it can be put in and taken out of the frame easily (if the board fits too snugly, it could stick). Instructions for making the city grid (above), but the country landscape and house floor plan are made using the same techniques for prep and painting. To create designs like ours, outline the edge of small plates to form the trees in the country landscape; paint the rest freehand. Stick on tape for the white lines on the streets, and apply adhesive shelf paper for the tiled kitchen and bathroom floors. Of course, the play table can be used as an ordinary table -- for board games or craft projects, for instance. But while a coat of water-based polyurethane will help protect the surface, your kids might avoid playing certain games, such as jacks, which are likely to mar the finish.