Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).
Help Pandemic-Weary Homeowners Create Kid-Friendly Spaces
Many families are struggling to find room for their children to attend remote school, play, and sleep peacefully. That has some parents seeking new layouts and furnishings to help keep home life humming smoothly.
January 28, 2021
- Due to COVID-19, many parents prefer houses that don’t need time-consuming, complex remodeling.
- Create zones within rooms that can adapt to different needs, such as sleep, play, and study.
- Select child-proof furnishings that hold up to wear and tear.
Years ago, children’s bedrooms were the focus of the younger generation’s home life. That’s where they slept, played, and did homework.
But at some point, kids’ toys started spreading out to the living room and their homework ended up on the kitchen or dining room table. Now, the pandemic has exacerbated these trends and made houses seem much smaller.
The result is more parents looking to experts on how to reorganize existing rooms, especially for young children who may not be able to verbalize their needs and anxieties. Many buyers are seeking different types of room arrangements since they don’t know when the pandemic will end, or if another will arise. Many also represent a variety of family compositions, including single parents, adult children, or three-generational households.
“We need greater flexibility to adapt,” says architect Marissa Kasdan, director of design at KTGY Architecture + Planning’s R+D Studio’s Tyson, Va., office.
Designers, architects, real estate salespeople, and child psychologists are sharing advice on how to furnish children’s bedrooms and a home’s communal spaces to meet everybody’s needs. But Chicago-area designer Paula Winter of Paula Winter Design offers one important caveat: “It’s helpful to consider your child’s personality,” she says. “Some want to be more alone, and others like being around others.”
Most experts on children believe the prime purpose of a bedroom should be sleeping. Screens should be kept out of the bedroom so that sleep is not disturbed.
“We recommend that studying and playing are kept outside the bedroom, if possible,” says Lisa Medalie, PsyD, DBSM, founder of DrLullaby, Digital Sleep Solutions for Sleep Problems in Children in Chicago. “When kids are doing homework or playing in the bedroom, these are competing cues and triggers. Kids are likely to be tempted to play, resistant to bedtime, or think about school when such activities persist in the bedroom,” she says.
But not every family has separate rooms where children can pursue non-sleep tasks. Lisa Cini, a senior living and multigenerational expert and author of Hive: The Simple Guide to Multigenerational Living (iUniverse), advocates for setting up zones. “Parents can think of the bedroom almost like a kindergarten room with spaces for naps and sleep, play, and learning, so all are distinct,” she says.
Winter agrees on the benefit of zones, which may repeat certain functions. For example, in some bedrooms, she includes several places to sit—to work at a desk, read in a chair, congregate with friends on the floor or at a window seat.
Areas can be visually and physically separated with a different floor surface such as tile and an area rug, standing screen, movable wall, pocket door, curtain, low bookcase, or even pretend teepee. A desk or table can be positioned to minimize distractions, says Alessandra Wood, vice president of style at San Francisco-based Modsy, an online design service, which surveyed parents to learn the effects of how COVID-19 influences ways families use their homes.
If the square footage in a bedroom doesn’t permit different zones, sometimes an extra or oversized closet can be converted into a homework center. It can be an easy DIY project with lumber planks for a desk and bookshelves, a child-sized adjustable chair that “grows” as the child does, good task and recessed lighting, and a file cabinet or rolling cart to organize supplies.
The good news is that most children’s furniture is on the small scale, so rooms don’t have to be large to accommodate multiple functions. Some furnishings can also be concealed, such as a Murphy or trundle bed.
Even before the pandemic began, parents with children have looked for homes with a variety of shared spaces that better fit their individual needs.
The death of the open floor plan: One casualty of buyers’ current needs may be the open plan because it fails to mitigate noise and distractions. “Open layouts are not for all anymore. Many want to go back to a separate dining and living room or a small family room off the kitchen,” says Sandra Cuba with Premier Sotheby’s International Realty in Winter Park, Fla.
Instead, there’s increased interest in having a “flex” room that can function differently for each family’s needs.
Separate different child areas: Chicago-based Lexington Homes designed one townhouse model for its Lexington Trace development in Warrenville, Ill., with a finished lower level with natural light that could work as a children’s e-learning area or playroom. An optional half-bathroom can be added. When the pandemic ends or children are grown, it can be converted into a movie theater, home gym, or home office, says principal Jeff Benach.
Other parents and design professionals are looking to attics and spaces above a garage or in a basement, if available, for the same learning purposes, especially when children are older and can be left alone, says Usha Subramaniam, a real estate salesperson with Compass in suburban Westchester, N.Y.
The trend has even given rise to a new professional niche. Orlando-based designer Lauren Nolan focuses on installing at-home classrooms through her business, Childhood & Home. She likes to create cheerful, calm, and eco-conscious study spaces with designated areas for technology, play, and arts and crafts.
Working together: Not all parents want to have their children out of sight, says Chicago real estate salesperson Jennifer Ames of Engel & Volkers. “They want the capacity to supervise and keep an eye on them while they’re on Zoom,” she says. Designing a multipurpose shared space for school, work, and leisure is no small design task! says Winter.
The Chicago-based Belgravia Group has developed one layout in its new condos at Triangle Square in East Bucktown that places a flex space adjacent to and within view of other rooms, says Elizabeth Brooks, executive vice president of sales and marketing.
Some parents also favor layouts with multiple rooms where kids can pursue different activities—some messy, some quiet. Architect Eddie Maestri of Maestri Studio in Dallas went this route in remodeling his own family’s new house. “The boys usually want to be where we are,” he says. Now his 8-year-old twins have several rooms to choose from, including some designated for screen time which is off limits in their bedrooms, Maestri says.
KTGY Architecture + Planning has also followed this approach with its new “City Home” model. Designed for urban areas, the plan offers two spaces that might be used for work or school at home, but are flexible for alternative long-term functions, says Kasdan. “We are finding that flexibility is key with all of our designs as residents use their homes in new and varied ways,” she says.
Since having adequate storage can be a problem, the City Home also includes extra storage within the unit and more in a nearby corridor on each building level.
Choose proper materials and designs: Parents and designers are wise to select child-proof furnishings that hold up to wear and tear, dirty hands and feet, rough play, and spills. For example, Winter suggests sturdy fabrics, upholstery treated with stain repellent treatments (safe for children and pets and for busy families) or built-in stain-resistant upholstery, sectional sofas that can be separated, tables that can be easily cleaned or worked on (solid surface materials or laminates), and ones with no sharp corners.
It’s also helpful to have extra seating, which should be selected based on age-appropriate designs and their function, Winter says. This might include benches or poufs, coffee tables that raise to dining height, as well as bins, containers, see-through bags, and recycled packing boxes to organize toys, games, books, and more.
Create a Sleep Sanctuary
Sleep is key for mood stability, focus, and health. To make a bedroom function best for sleep, Dr. Lisa Medalie, a Chicago-based child psychologist, says remove all screens and electronics from the bedroom. From her experience using sleep tracking devices called "actiwatches," children often sneak into devices at night if they have access. “It is not worth the temptation. Children are not yet ready to be responsible for inhibiting the desire to watch videos, play games, and talk with friends,” says Medalie, creator of a sleep app, “DrLullaby.” To make a bedroom more appealing, Medalie says let children be involved in picking decorations so it feels like their space. Use room darkening shades and white noise to block extraneous sounds and light. She also says using a nightlight or “bedtime buddy” will improve comfort and ease their nighttime fears.
Converted Garages and Sheds
Cuba has clients who bought a smaller house and converted the garage with air conditioning into a virtual office for one parent who now teaches from home. “It has allowed her to have a quiet, organized place to focus on her students and her own two kids to use their bedrooms,” Cuba says. Subramaniam has clients in her Westchester, N.Y. market who have added sheds to their property so they could have a quiet space away from the kids, she says.
Though not all climates permit use of an outdoor space all year, many families can install an awning or bring in a patio heater to extend use of the area. And they can outfit a space for active play with simple additions, such as a jump rope, zipline, tree swing, hopscotch board, and kid-sized table and chairs. Last summer, Cuba found that more buyers clamored for a bigger addition—a swimming pool.
Remodeling expert and speaker Dan DiClerico installed a NanaWall to open the back of his Brooklyn house to the outdoors. During the first wave of the pandemic, their backyard became his kids’ refuge to do homework, enjoy open-air playdates, have family meals, play sports, and store favorite toys and sports equipment.
Once the pandemic is over, many experts predict homeowners will continue to want their homes more flexible as needs keep changing. Plus, many predict remote work is here to stay for a significant percentage of the American workforce. “These ideas aren’t likely to go out of style,” Subramaniam says.