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.