Planning a preschool classroom makeover before students return this fall? Veteran teacher Kathy Timson has some tips for going easy on your budget. When I moved to the Chicago area last summer, Timson took over my role as teacher/director at Glacier Way Cooperative Preschool in Ann Arbor, MI, and transformed the entire learning space for under $500. The classroom sat vacant an entire school year, when we shifted to remote and outdoor learning, and was in desperate need of sprucing up. “It was a lot of elbow grease and a lot of shopping at thrift stores and garage sales,” Timson told me. Here’s some expert advice on classroom makeovers from Ms. Timson and other resourceful educators.
Thrift Stores and Garage Sales
Timson furnished a writing center with child-size red chairs from a Habitat For Humanity ReStore for only $5 a piece, and picked up two small tables at garage sales to use in the dramatic play area.
Some cities have PTO thrift stores, which help fund student enrichment activities at public schools. Preschools and families donate items. “The daycare at a local community college and local nursery school went out of business, so I had awesome luck at the Ann Arbor PTO thrift shop for manipulatives, puzzles, and art supplies,” Timson said. When daycare centers, restaurants, or offices close down, teachers may also have luck contacting them directly to purchase supplies at a steep discount.
Items from nature cost nothing, and help children appreciate the outdoors. Timson enhances her learning spaces with plants, rocks, and tree logs her husband helped cut. Megan Gessler, the director of Little Trees Nature-Based Early Learning Program at the Morton Arboretum, near Chicago, suggests that teachers and children work together to gather natural loose parts. “Children notice the seeds coming from the trees - cones, acorns,” Gessler said. “I have a wealth of manipulatives at hand that are free.”
Need a new playground fence, or a fresh coat of paint on your classroom walls? Local painters and carpenters may be willing to donate labor or supplies for a classroom makeover. Contractors that specialize in cleaning out or breaking down items in homes can stumble upon goldmines of classroom supplies. I hired a contractor to do some work on my house, and he donated large supply closets and cubbies - all in perfect condition - that he removed from a customer’s home. He keeps a list of supplies I’ll need for my venture, Oak Leaf Cooperative School, in his pickup truck, so he can look out for them on the job. His wife runs a daycare center, and has offered to donate wagons, tricycles, and other playground staples.
Donations, Online and In Real Life
In Kathy Timson’s classroom, a spin table she got for free through a Buy No Stuff group on Facebook is a popular attraction for “spin art,” and a hand-me-down shelving unit houses books near a cozy area rug. Other items donated via Facebook for her makeover: a wooden doll highchair, dress-up clothes, art supplies, books, and bulletin boards. The local library also donated books to enhance the classroom’s sparse, outdated collection.
Schools can hold donation drives or ask currently enrolled or alumni families to pass along items or books their children have outgrown. Gessler, of Little Trees, encourages parents to provide jackets, boots, and other outdoor gear for her nature-based program. If parents don’t have supplies to donate, they can share their talents. At Glacier Way, a former board president’s husband, a professional carpenter, volunteered to repair a broken playground fence.
Do It Yourself
An old TV stand, low bookshelf, or table can work wonders as a simple mud (and snow) kitchen or all-purpose outdoor workspace. To spruce up classroom furniture, Timson repaired, repainted, and refinished old easels and shelving units. And she “Frankensteined” a donated play kitchen stove/sink with two broken ones already in the classroom to create a large kitchen feature for her dramatic play area. Light tables, a fun tool for exploring light and shadows, often cost several hundred dollars. For an inexpensive, DIY version, Timson ordered light boxes from Amazon.com.
Eagle Scouts and Other Partnerships
This summer, a group of Boy Scouts are revamping the entire Glacier Way playground as part of an Eagle Scout project. The troop will remove an old fence and equipment before beginning construction. Their leader helped with planning. “We gave him some ideas for what we want: a mud kitchen, a larger sandbox moved out from under the black walnut tree, more ‘natural’ items,” said Timson “He had some ideas of his own. I cannot wait to see the finished playground!”
At Little Trees, a tinker table and mud kitchen were the result of an Eagle Scout project. And Gessler enlisted vocational school students to build a garden bed and stage for dramatic play.
You don’t have to go on a Marie-Kondo-style cleaning spree to minimize classroom clutter. Simple fixes, like rearranging storage baskets by color, can make learning centers more visually appealing. “One thing that made a big difference was arranging the storage baskets that weren't broken (those all got tossed) so that each shelving unit only had one color basket on it,” Timson said.
Liana is the founder and president of Oak Leaf Cooperative School, a nature-based preschool launching soon in the Chicago area. She is also a blogger, content writer for Jovial, and proud mom of twin toddlers.