There's no getting around it: We want our kids' rooms to be fabulous because these rooms symbolize all our hopes and dreams for our children. On a rational level, we know that a perfect room won't ensure them a perfect life, but emotionally, it's a different story.
If you had your way, you'd create a castle in the air for your precious little (or not so little) one. But back here in the real world, most parents don't have unlimited time or money to devote to this important project. If you have an endless budget, the sky's the limit. But for most parents today the question is, "How can we provide rooms that nurture and protect our offspring, stimulate them, and grow along with them, without putting their college tuition in jeopardy?"
In this article, you'll see how to create imaginative, kid-friendly looks without breaking the bank. You'll learn how an intelligently designed room can help nurture a child's development at various stages of life. You'll also see how to meet the needs (and even the wants) of several kids in the same room. Plus, we'll show you how to translate your child's personal preferences into a livable decorating scheme that won't fade from favor with the next new fad.
When planning your child's room, remember that today's open-plan homes and distinctly casual lifestyle have their roots in the human craving for closeness. So you don't need to live up to some elaborate showpiece of a bedroom. For almost the first decade of life, most children's best-loved decorating accessory is you. It's a sad child who is expected to make a fancy toy-filled room take the place of a loving adult's presence. Any child psychologist can tell you that, from birth through the grade-school years, most children prefer to play and study in the room you're in, no matter how small or simply furnished. (Anyone who's ever tripped over toddlers in the kitchen knows how common this situation is.) So don't worry if you can't construct Sleeping Beauty's castle or a pirate ship worthy of Treasure Island in an 8 X 10-foot room. Even when money is no object, elaborate theme bedrooms delight doting parents and grandparents, but they're often too static and limiting to a child's own creativity. When we remember that children do much of their developing through the exercise of their own creative and analytical processes, we can focus on providing the tools rather than the finished pieces to enhance that development.
Sure, kids clamor for everything they see on TV or at a friend's house. But many parents know the frustration of buying the latest electronic novelty toy promoted in commercials, only to have it cast aside overnight in favor of pots and pans and a pair of wooden cooking spoons or a cardboard appliance box and some crayons. The same dynamic appears when you're furnishing a whole room for a child. Focus on providing safe, sturdy furniture and play structures, easily accessible storage, and appealing colors and patterns. The kids will supply the magic of imagination.
Of course, if you're longing to hire that trompe l'oeil painter or master carpenter, go right ahead. You can still provide an inspiring framework for imaginative play. Just keep it relatively generic. A forest playhouse can house Winnie the Pooh today, Robin Hood tomorrow; a seashore mural is great for today's Little Mermaid and tomorrow's scuba diver.
Learn about the basics you'll need to decorate your child's room on the next page.
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What Your Child Needs
All of childhood -- some would say, all of life -- is a balance between seeking safety and seeking growth. A child cannot fully grow without having easy access to a haven of comfort from which to emotionally regroup and consolidate new learning. Equally, a child can't fully enjoy the comfort provided without regular challenges that foster growth. Kids who aren't comforted enough and kids who aren't challenged enough often find life more difficult, and achieving this balance is a big day-to-day job for any parent. Fortunately, love and a sound understanding of what is appropriate to expect at each age go a long way. A room designed to offer plenty of comfort as well as some enjoyable challenges can help go the distance.
Everyday life takes its toll on any room where real people live, but kids are especially hard on dressed-to-impress spaces. A love of physical activity is hard-wired into kids because developing physical dexterity (both large- and small-motor skills) is essential to survival. Since the beginning of time, kids have loved to climb, peek through cutouts, and curl up inside cozy hideaways. Today, bunk beds with a safe, sturdy ladder, a hanging curtain, or a divider with peek-a-boo holes and a simple "tent" made from a small table and a sheet can easily satisfy these cravings. Kids also love to throw, lift, and build things. Lightweight toss toys work well if the room's not full of knickknacks, and all kinds of blocks and boxes let kids create structures on their own. Children with disabilities should be given play structures that let them safely enjoy these or similar skill-building activities to the fullest extent they can. Special-education professionals can offer advice on appropriate ideas and resources.
If you're fortunate enough to have a contemporary "bonus" room or an old-fashioned recreation room, make the most of it with barrier-free, all-ages equipment and furnishings. If you've got a yard, set up outdoor play structures that offer as many safe skill-building activities as your space and budget allow. Opt for a wooden play set if possible; it generally costs more than a metal set, but wooden units will age much more gracefully in your yard. Wooden units also offer the tree house option most kids adore.
If you have children of varying ages, the younger child's safety will have to be the design priority. If you can set aside a space for the older one with age-appropriate structures, that's ideal; if not, equivalent activities plus field trips can even things out. For example, a swing set with ship-style riggings to climb would be great for a seven-year-old -- and potentially dangerous for a three-year-old. Tumbling mats would let both kids play full out, and trips to a local climbing wall or other big-kid activity can provide your older child with the extra challenges he or she is ready for.
Providing comfort is at least as important as providing challenges. In today's hectic world, first on the agenda should be a design that makes it easy for you to be with your child. If space allows, put an extra twin bed or a futon-style couch in your child's room. When you're up half the night with sick or fretful little ones, it's more comfortable for you and profoundly comforting for them. Or, think long-term and invest in a trundle bed, and when your child makes the move from crib to twin bed, you'll still have that extra bed when you need it. (Don't worry about an extra bed just for sleepovers, however. Most kids of all ages enjoy the novelty of camping out in a sleeping bag on a pal's floor.) A rocking chair will save your back and help you soothe an ill or frightened child. If you provide the framework for security, your child can build on it to create his or her own castles in the sky.
Preteens and teens crave the comforts of home as much as younger siblings do, but their budding independence often makes them less willing to express it. For most kids in this age range, social and academic pressures as well as other stressful situations make them seek a haven at the end of a stressful day. Preteens and teens want more privacy than younger kids do, but that doesn't mean you have to provide a phone, TV, and Internet-access computer in their bedrooms. Increasingly, experts (and many families' own experiences) advocate keeping these portals to the outside world a bit more centrally located. Big kids do, however, need privacy to talk with friends, recharge with music and creative hobbies, and do homework without interference. They also need places to put things where they won't be disturbed by younger kids.
A room or a part of a shared room that's clearly off-limits to siblings is essential; a music system with a headset is almost as important. (Set audio level limits to prevent all-too-common hearing loss.) A family room alcove that lets young people work and play on the computer within discreet view may be a sensitive way to temper privacy with safety. The dialogue will be ongoing, but if you can provide a measure of age-appropriate privacy, even teens who covet designer jeans may cheerfully bypass designer furniture. Many teens who, as youngsters, did homework at the kitchen table now are happy spreading homework out on the bed, as long as they can have their music. Good lighting for reading, a comfortable bed for nearly adult bones, and a chance to express their growing individuality make a big difference to preteens and teens.
Sticking to a budget is always difficult, and it's no different when decorating your child's room. Find spending tips on the next page.
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What You Ought to Spend
The last decade has seen some fantastic children's rooms, but whether you can go all out or not, think twice about spending a lot on major pieces with short-lived appeal.
If you want to create a room for your child to grow on, invest in the best-quality furniture your money allows. While home entertainment furniture may change more often to accommodate new technologies, a well-made bed, bookcase, armoire, and end table can take your child from preschool to college and beyond. (They'll also teach your child something useful about choosing quality.) If you're wondering whether better-quality furniture is worthwhile for a child's room, divide the price of the furnishing by the estimated number of years you'll be able to use it. In many cases, the better-made classic piece will be the more economical choice in the long run.
And remember, "classic" doesn't have to mean "traditional." Simple Shaker style, sturdy Mission, midcentury Modern, and romantic Victorian can all work well in a child's room. Cheerful colors, fresh fabrics, and easy-care finishes let "serious" furniture shine in your child's room. With a simple change of fabrics and colors, this same furniture will be on the job for many years to come.
Charming child-size novelty furniture abounds, and if you've got the room, a kid-size table and chairs or a mini armchair are inviting. But a round end table and a comfy ottoman do a similar job and can be used when the child is older. Indulge the latest whims with paint, wallpaper borders, and accessories. They make a big impact and are relatively easy and inexpensive to change.
Check out the next section for tips on how to furnish your child's room within your budget.
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Finding the Right Furniture
If you are having a difficult time finding good-quality furniture that fits your budget, check out unfinished furniture stores and ask to see their solid wood pieces. Unfinished furniture is generally lower priced than factory-finished pieces, and many of these stores sell furniture finishing products that are easier to use than ever. Some ready-to-finish furniture stores even offer how-to classes. For customers with more money than time, many of the stores will even finish chosen pieces for you.
Antique stores are also good places to find well-made beds, bureaus, and rocking chairs with a charming look, but think twice about buying an old crib or playpen; most aren't safe for babies by today's standards. Family pieces, whether they're true heirlooms or just serviceable hand-me-downs, may be good bets, though. As they did for past generations, these old pieces can carry precious memories for your children. If you're using your great-grandmother's heirloom rocking chair and it may have been painted with lead paint, be sure to have it refinished with one of today's safe lead-free finishing products.
If you end up with a mix of old, new, antique, and ready-to-finish pieces, don't fret. Some of the most charming, stylish rooms around were deliberately created this way. In fact, even affluent families that didn't inherit pieces scout flea markets and antique shops to get the look.
How to pull a disparate mix of pieces together? If your child's room is small or the pieces are frankly flea market, you can unify the look by painting most of the furniture pieces in a soothing go-with-anything hue. Fresh white, antique white, sage (gray-green), and hunter (dark green) look good with every color. (Exception: If a woodtone piece has a beautiful grain and is in good shape, just give it a clear or transparent stain finish.) Treat focal-point pieces to a custom finish to help make them stand out in the space. For example, in an Early American-style room with mostly hunter green furniture, paint the bed or armoire in barn red or antique white. A contemporary-style room with bright white furniture would look great with a bed in fire engine red or turquoise blue. (For visual balance, repeat this accent color in at least two other places, such as curtains and wall art or an area rug and rocking chair cushions.)
As long as your child is safe and comfortable, don't fret too much about getting his or her room "just right." No matter what the decorating scheme or how much you spend, you can be sure of two things: 1) Even the neatest child's toys, clothes, and paraphernalia will create a level of visual clutter that is unavoidable, and 2) The most vibrant, attractive thing in the room will always be its young occupant!
Lighting is another important aspect of kids' rooms decor. Learn more about it in the next section.
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Lighting Kids' Rooms
Lighting is an important element that's often neglected -- and not just in kids' rooms. You'll need task lighting in several different areas, so don't try to make do with the single ceiling fixture found in many older homes. To start out, you'll be logging some hours in the rocker with bedtime stories, so be sure you have a good reading light positioned nearby. A comfortable reading spot like this will encourage your child to read for pleasure, too.
A low-wattage light is helpful for midnight diaper changes, and a smaller night-light is a must-have from a kid's point of view. A study desk needs good task lighting, but if there's a computer in the room, position lights so there's no glare on the screen.
For everyone's safety, make sure at least one light can be turned on from a wall switch by the door. Put one lamp on a dimmer switch for maximum flexibility without fuss.
Rooms that are shared can bring on even more challenges when it comes to decor. Find tips for solo and shared rooms on the next page.
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Solo Rooms and Shared Rooms
Space for each child to have a room of his or her own has become the American ideal, but shared rooms are still very prevalent. Even when kids have their own rooms, they'll often play with siblings in whichever room seems handiest. A younger one may even prefer to sleep in the same room with a sibling and use his or her own room as a shared playroom. Whatever makes your children feel safe and comfortable is what's right.
Keep in mind that, while younger children have a hard time sharing things, older ones mind sharing space. If sharing a room is necessary and one or both are "big kids," be sure to create clear divisions, at least visually. If two kids of widely different ages share a room, the older one will be more bothered by the situation. To compensate, try to give the older one an extra drawer in the bathroom or an extra piece of storage furniture.
When dividing a typical bedroom, avoid decorative screens, unsecured wall units, or other pieces that may topple during the usual horseplay. Sturdy back-to-back bookcases or armoires are a smart way to create a sense of private space for each occupant, but wait until kids are old enough not to climb them. A movable curtain made of a sheet and hung on a ceiling-mounted rod can work, too. If there's only one window or the door is placed so that both sides of the room don't have easy access, you'll want to keep the room's sight lines open. In this case, you can define each child's space with a different area rug, a higher headboard, and other subtle cues. Most useful and easy are color schemes that set off each space.
Defining Shared Space with Color
When you ask Jamie and Jenna what colors they like and you hear "pink and purple" from one and "blue and orange" from the other, don't despair. It's true that two entirely different color schemes are usually too jarring to live with in one room and will make it look small and cluttered. But there's no reason why you can't take one color from each and add a third tone that's compatible with both for a fun look that pleases everyone. For example, pink and orange can be cooled with green for a cheery garden feeling; blue and purple can be warmed with yellow for a fresh seaside look. Jamie's side of the room could be predominantly purple and yellow with hints of blue; Jenna's could use lots of blue and yellow with accents in purple.
Whatever the scheme, keep big furniture pieces in a soothing, space-expanding white or classic wood tones, and choose pale tints of color for the room's walls and trim. (Most paint color swatch cards show a range of lighter versions of each color. Use a tint of one favorite hue on the walls and another on the doors and trim to make everyone happy.) Lavish the favored colors full strength on everything else, from small chairs to bed ensembles. Whose is whose should be no problem!
The same color scheme can work in a children's suite, whether that's a single bedroom with adjoining bath, two rooms that share a connected bath, or, most luxurious, one or two bedrooms with a bath and adjoining playroom. As an alternative, you may want to use cool, restful colors (blue, purple, and most greens) in the bedrooms and warm, lively colors (pink, orange, red, and yellow) in the playroom, with a mix of cool and warm tones in the bath set off by lots of white. Whichever approach -- one scheme throughout a suite or a different scheme for each room -- be sure to include a favorite color of each child.
Once you've chosen a pleasing color scheme everyone can live with, let common sense, comfort, and safety govern your purchasing decisions. When it comes to hobbies, computer games have an undeniable lure, but you can encourage more healthy mental and physical activity by providing a fuss-free space where kids can be kids. If your child loves to make music, a well-insulated space will make it easy to encourage this talent. If she paints or he makes model dinosaurs, provide wipe-clean laminate surfaces and good lighting. If horseplay is an everyday thing around your house and you have space for a real playroom, opt for recessed can lighting, thick wall-to-wall carpeting in a soil-hiding color, and comfortable chairs in a pattern that will camouflage spills and wear.
In our final section, we'll discuss decor for kids' baths and study areas.
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Study Spots and Baths
What about study areas? Given that the kitchen table may be the most appealing and a computer desk in the family room may be the safest solution for Internet searches, formal study areas in kids' rooms may not be used all the time. But for children who are easily distracted (and that's everyone when the TV is on in the same room), a quiet spot to study is a must. Good lighting that falls over the student's shoulder without a glare, a comfortable place to sit, and a work surface at the right height for writing or laptop use are just the basics. Try to indulge your child's personal preferences, however. For example, if he or she finds background music helpful, give it a try. Whatever you can do to build good study habits now will benefit your child for a lifetime.
If your home includes a bathroom to be used by children, safety will matter most. Antiscald devices on sink and tub faucets, rounded countertop corners, rugs with slip-proof backs (or no rugs if your floors are heated), a rubber-footed stool for the littlest ones, and grab bars as towel bars are sensible options. (Grab bars need to be reinforced with wood blocks anchored to wall studs, so if you're rehabbing the bathroom or building a new one, plan grab bars in from the start.) Beyond that, indulge in whatever decorative flights of fancy your child enjoys. If the bathroom is part of a bedroom suite, you may want to continue the bedroom's color scheme or reverse it: For example, a mostly blue bedroom with some yellow accents and a predominantly yellow bath with blue accents.
A lot is demanded of your child's room -- and of any room in which children will spend much time. It has been many years since children were seen and not heard or were judged as small adults with big shortcomings, but a kid-friendly home doesn't have to mean wall-to-wall crayons and chaos. Children from cradle to college need structure, consistency, and routines as much as adults do, and a well-planned room can help. Creating a home environment that welcomes and accepts children without sacrificing the needs of adults can be a challenge. But what family project is more rewarding, year after year?
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Mary Wynn Ryan is the author of numerous interior design books, including The Ultimate Kitchen, The Ultimate Bath, Cottage Style, Fresh Country Style, and Garden Style. She has written about home furnishings and interior design for various magazines and served as Midwest editor of Design Times magazine.
Heidi Tyline King is an accomplished writer and editor. She has written extensively about America's arts, culture, history, nature-based attractions, and decorating projects, including All About Paint and Wallpaper, Beautiful Wedding Crafts, Pelican Guide to the Florida Panhandle, The Unofficial Guide to the Southeast with Kids, and others.