Playrooms inspire opportunities for creating spaces perfectly suited to our youngest residents
BY DANIELLE POPE | PHOTOS BY: DASHA ARMSTRONG
Simplification is one of today’s most popular design principles, and it isn’t just for grownups.
Even our youngest residents require inspiring, clean and simple designs for stimulation and development. That’s why designers are focusing on how to create beautiful playrooms using minimalist philosophies — think Montessori and Waldorf-inspired — that build the most engaging areas for children.
To help demystify the process, Spruce asked some of our region’s experts about the essential features families should include, what to highlight and what to leave out to fashion a room specially made for play.
The philosophy of play
Understanding the historic philosophies behind play can offer insight on modern playroom design etiquette.
The Montessori Method focuses on providing children with pathways to independence and capability. While the term has become a buzzword for parents today, the philosophy was created in the early 1900s by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, who believed children thrive when given independence and choice. Waldorf education, regarded in the same era for its use of simple, nature-based toys, was inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s ideas that children learned best by using their imaginations.
How does that translate into playful design? Designers say everything from colour palette and size of furniture to choice of toys can be influenced by those principles alone.
“From a design standpoint, we’re aiming for a space that can stimulate minds without overwhelming them,” says Sara Peddle, registered interior designer with Western Design+Build. “We don’t want to create an overly complicated area with lots of gadgets … kids will play with whatever you give them.”
Peddle brought some of these ideas into the recently completed Little Phoenix Childcare Centre, connected to the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre. The daycare takes a trauma-informed approach to creating safety while inspiring children. From neutral colour tones and child-sized tables and toilets to soft hardware options and nature-based themes (like felt acoustic clouds overhead and a “river” tiled into the flooring), the space is geared for young spirits.
“We wanted to focus on keeping the atmosphere natural and welcoming, while building independence for these kids,” says Peddle. “One play station was simply a low-height table full of leaves, and the kids loved it. It was really eye-opening.”
Playrooms focused around these child-centred ideals have a few things in common. To support independent play, activities are kept within reach so children can choose what interests them. Toys are rotated and limited in number to offer space for play — think eight to 10 options placed on an open shelf, rather than overflowing toy boxes.
Montessori playrooms concern themselves with making each activity serve a purpose for development and mastery, while Waldorf themes focus on wooden toys and objects that stimulate discovery and imagination. Both schools typically steer clear of battery-operated toys, thought to act as busy-making distractions.
On a practical level, to keep the area functional as well as calming, thoughtful storage can reduce clutter while adding charm.
“The main thing that makes a room memorable is its personality,” says Jenny Martin, principal of Jenny Martin Design. “A playroom should encourage creativity and be a reflection of its homeowners. Designing a space that truly captures the family it’s designed for is what makes the process so special.”
Martin doesn’t hesitate to go bold, using a combination of colour, pattern and décor to create playful spaces. However, she says, storage and functionality should remain a priority.
“It’s really important to understand how a space will be used. Depending on children’s interests, different storage solutions and room layouts will be more useful than others,” she says. “For an arts-and-crafts lover, it’s important to have lots of storage for supplies, while another family might need an open-concept layout, leaving more space to run around. Custom shelving, hidden storage and baskets are some of our favourite ways to contain the chaos.”
Scale is crucial in supporting autonomy. That means selecting size-appropriate furniture, placing items within reach and creating cozy spots for someone just a couple of feet tall.
“We have to remember children are so much smaller than us, so things like large patterns can be overwhelming,” says Laura Thomson, senior designer and project manager with Western Design+Build. “Where we mount things matters. Kids feel very independent when a coat hook is at their level, say, 11 inches off the ground. It helps them feel like they are their own little person as they grow into such a big world.”
Thomson says tailoring a space to your child should include technical adjustments — as simple as switching out the lighting and as involved as customizing the views.
“If you have the budget, look at different shapes of windows,” she says. “Integrating something like a bubble window gives children a special nook they can sit in and look out of, and even interact with their friends. Think about window height and how they get there, too.”
If window renos are out of scope, Thomson suggests “light tuning” by incorporating circadian rhythm lights — either overhead or via lamps — that can be adjusted to emulate the sun setting in preparation of naptime.
Creating a tactile environment is key, and though add-ins like sensory bins and different fabrics can achieve this, another option is through hardware. Thomson has outfitted some child-based projects with silicone door handles, offering safe and touchable surfaces.
A place for mistakes
As with any youthful space, safety is paramount. However, Thomson says making that safe space isn’t just about childproofing, picking kid-friendly plants and securing the windows. It’s also about leaving room for mistakes.
“Of course, we make sure there are no hazards, so electrical outlets are placed higher off the ground and concealed behind millwork. But it also comes down to choosing resilient materials,” says Thomson. “Residential carpet tiles are a wonderful option, because if they’re impacted beyond repair, one can be replaced. We can also use wall protection, like laminate paneling, so you never have to worry about a rogue crayon and, when the time is right, you have your walls back.”
Some also lean into the mess with “chalkboard” feature walls, which come in a variety of colours and can be easily wiped off.
“One of the things we run into is the idea that everything has to be Instagrammable, but it’s not about that — it’s about the end user,” says Peddle. “A playroom should not really be about what the adult wants to see; it should be about what supports the kids and what will enrich their lives. It’s about so much more than pretty pictures.”
Playrooms present the perfect opportunity to create a space that stimulates young minds without becoming overwhelming. Child-centred design focuses on building a simple, welcoming and tactile environment — this was the theme Western Design+Build used in their recent work on the Little Phoenix Childcare Centre (pictured) connected to the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre.