Let's Make: a Faux Wooden Table for a Preschooler's Montessori- and Reggio-inspired Play Space

Oh, Montessori moms, your lovely spaces fill me with such envy and sadness. I'd love to have the budget to have beautiful child-sized wooden furniture, with their softly rounded corners and natural wood grain, and the space to set up a peaceful, blissful (uncluttered) prepared environment. Every plastic bin and piece of plastic furniture I bring into our tiny space feels like settling. The perfectionist in me feels discouraged, but the life enthusiast must let go and move on. So, rather than whine and pine away, I decided it was time to make do and makeover an inexpensive plastic table that could be dismantled and stored when we needed to make space for other things. And because my Google searches for "Can I makeover a plastic table?" and "sticking wood to plastic" were of no help, I thought I'd share my mini makeover experience with you, in case you'd like some Montessori-inspired fakery for your kid's space, too.

Choosing a Table 

We'd been weighing the pros and cons of our options for weeks: IKEA Lack series, custom-made, standard Uratex, or market-stall monobloc. I knew it had to be affordable (cross out IKEA—quadruple the U.S. price here); I really wanted to have it before the month ended (cross-out custom-made); but I also wanted it to be beautiful and well-made (cross-out market-stall monobloc).

In the end, the Uratex kid-sized table was the practical choice. We bought ours from the Uratex showroom/warehouse on Marcos Highway in Marikina for Php599 (much cheaper than the Php799 advertised retail price). We chose a 24" square table. The 20" high model (also available in adult and baby sizes) was the most suitable height for a three-year-old preschooler.

To give it a faux wood look more appropriate for a Montessori-inspired environment, we headed over to our local hardware depot and selected vinyl planks in walnut from a mid-range brand (no sense buying planks that would cost more than the table). Then, I crossed my fingers and got my hands dirty. Here's how it turned out:

What You Need

  • 4 to 6 wood-look vinyl flooring planks (the number you need will depend on the width of the planks. Ours were 6" wide, so we used 4.)
  • Straight edge or metal ruler
  • Heavy-duty cutter
  • T-square (optional, but will give you a straighter edge)
  • Cutting mat or cardboard, to protect your surface
  • Pencil, if not using a T-square
  • Rugby or contact cement
  • Paintbrush (for applying rugby)

What to Do

1) Measure your tabletop. Note: Don't rely on the dimensions printed on the box or given by the store. The Uratex tabletop is advertised as being 24" square, but it's really 59 cm. (not 60!) square.

2) Lay your first plank on a flat surface and measure out the length you need. Most planks are sold at 36" long, so you'll need to cut off about a foot to make them fit the table.

3) Mark where you need to cut. Either use a pencil and ruler or a T-square.

Hold the ruler down firmly with your other hand so it doesn't shift.

4) Lay your straight edge or ruler on the mark where you will be cutting. Hold it down firmly in place. With a cutter (break off the old blade edge first so you start with a sharp blade), first score a line using the ruler as a guide. Repeat the cut, this time with more pressure. You'll only need 1-2 cuts.

5) Grasp both ends of the plank and bend to break it where you cut. It should snap cleanly. Pretty cool, I know. No ninja strength required. 

6) Repeat for each plank. You can either measure and cut or use the first plank as a guide. I prefer the second way better since what will matter is that your planks are the same size relative to each other.

Who doesn't love a clean break?

7) Lay out all the planks on the tabletop without rugby to check alignment, placement, and other little nitpicky things you'll want to check and fix before you commit, such as uneven edges, wood grain, and plank order. When satisfied, wipe both surfaces to where you will be putting the cement; they need to be clean and dry for better adhesion. 

8) Pour rugby down the center of the length of the back of the plank then, using your brush, spread from end to end. I found it was easier to spread the rugby from center to the edges than to dip the brush into a container and brush on the rugby. The rugby dries pretty quickly so you'll want to work quickly.

9) Lay the plank on the tabletop and align with the edges to your satisfaction. Repeat the step above and place the other planks in the order you decided on in Step 7. You'll have a few seconds (minutes?) to nudge and tweak the plank's placement before the rugby bonds. 

10) Allow to dry based on the time noted on the rugby container. Ours set in 30 minutes.

The Why Behind the (Faux) Wood Table

I'd read a blog post last year that spoke of the benefits of having various tables available around the house and it occurred to me that E didn't have a table that she could freely work at, on which I could also set up invitations to play and Reggio-inspired provocations. In her book Project-Based Homeschooling, Lori Pickert writes:
When you make your child's workspace a priority—helping him create a clean, organized, attractive place to draw, write, build...you make a place that draws him in and encourages his creativity without having to say a word.
Of course, that means shelves and containers and beautiful materials, too. I've been slowly building a respectable collection of loose parts and tinkering tools, but without a space to set them up on, they usually end up living in a bin on a shelf. I love our backyard play space, but it's always felt a bit incomplete without a table. We'd been using trays on the dining table, but because it wasn't a dedicated space, messes were rarely tolerated, and we had to clean up right after each activity because we needed the space for meal times. A lot of our playtime battles stemmed from me feeling like she wasn't respecting my space, my rules, but what she really needed wasn't more rules but her own space.

Pickert adds:
If you say to your child, "You are capable," but your space requires him to come to you for help setting up materials, cleaning up, finding tools, etc., then the environment is contradicting your words. It's sending the message of weakness, dependency, and inadequacy.
Ugh. Guilty. I felt even worse as I recalled watching my little improvisor turn everything she could into "a table" for her projects and play time: a shelf extender, a breakfast tray, an upside-down plastic bin, a step stool, etc. Okay, darling. Message received.

Mom's indecisiveness is the mother of all invention.

All in all, I'm happy with my little morning project. We paid an additional Php236 for the planks and rugby/contact cement, so the table still cost less than a wooden table would have. Plus, the vinyl planks come in so many different shades and were so easy to use that I can see myself using this technique for other home improvement/upcycling projects. Let's faux wood-ify shelves! Trays! Storage containers!

Best of all, upon seeing it, my daughter declared that she would like to have her lunch in the garden and promptly brought over her placemat and plate, in true Montessori style. Progress! I love how she took ownership of space.

I hope my accomplished project will lead to many projects of her own. We're ready for future tea parties and art sessions, for building and booming, for messy play and mindful play, for quiet times of focused work and rowdy goofiness of Mom-and-E time. Not bad for less than 1000 pesos and 30 minutes of work.

Have you revamped a monobloc or plastic table? Have you experimented with spray paint, tile, laminate stickers? I'd love to see how your project turned out. Please do share your photos, stories, pegs, and tips!