July 16, 2024

Architectural Concepts Guide

Elevating Home Design Standards

Here’s How I Gave My Kids the Ultimate Play Area

5 min read

I feel so incredibly grateful to have been able to pivot my expertise in child development and teaching to start creating educational playrooms. I literally woke up in the middle of the night with the idea to transform children’s playrooms by designing and organizing them just like a classroom. I decided to call this new business idea Smart Playrooms. My professional mission has always been to truly make an impact in a child’s life—either by motivating them to want to do better as a student or instilling a love of curiosity to help them want to learn more. Being able to continue to make this impact on children’s lives is so rewarding.

Since founding my company in 2012, I have designed hundreds of educational playrooms in the U.S. and overseas, including Europe and Africa. Smart Playrooms focuses on designing spaces that are customized to the ages and interests of a child while taking their cognitive and emotional development into account. They are also sensory rich and inviting spaces that nurture and encourage open-ended, creative play, while combining interior design principles with functional organizational systems.

While I spend most of my time designing these playrooms for my clients, I was able to take some time during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to create an incredible space for my own family. Garages are often underused spaces, and while my family was stuck at home learning and working, I realized we needed our very own sensory rich playroom.

Here’s how I created the ultimate play area in my detached garage for my three growing kids, ages 13, 21, and 25.

Design for Now and the Long-term

I first did an extensive intake into each of my kids. I wrote down what their interests are today and what they might be doing in the next five years. This extensive intake always guides my design work for my clients and, well, working for myself was going to be no different! If I was to invest in the space, I wanted to make sure that if we stay in our house for 10 years, my smart playroom would still be used and of interest to my kids—even if they move out.

Attaching items to the walls and ceilings takes no space, so this is often my go-to long-term playroom planning trick. It also means the floor remains open and flexible. For my garage playroom redesign, I also chose not to glue or attach the floor mats to the ground as I may want to remove them later (or maybe even want to drive my car into the garage when it snows!). Simple tips like these can focus on your child’s current interests while also making it easy to change things up down the line when kids grow and subsequently so does their interests.

Karri Bowen-Poole’s converted garage space.
Courtesy of Karri Bowen-Poole

Create Zones

As an educator, I know that when a room is divided into zones, kids will play for longer and be more creative. Designing the space into activity zones means that everything a child needs for an activity is right at their fingertips.

My garage ended up being divided into four different zones. The first zone is a family-friendly gym space with hooks in the ceiling for hanging workout equipment like climbing ropes and floor mats perfect for yoga, as well as storage spaces. There’s also a sensory nook zone with a yoga hammock, monkey bars, rock climbing wall, a spider swing, and soft lighting that can be dimmed. The third zone is a teen lounge and a TikTok performance area. It includes performance wall lighting, floor cushions, an open space to move and dance, and a movie projector to allow the kids to watch movies as well. The sleepover nook is above and runs the length of the garage. There’s a wall ladder to climb up there and includes comfy floor mats with space for about eight kids to comfortably sleep up there.

Along with encouraging my kids to spend more time in the space, these zones can also offer developmental and mental health benefits. For example, swings and foam pits are known to have therapeutic cognitive benefits. Sensory equipment and materials have also been found to help children remain calm, focused, and motivated.

While these zones should be customized for your child’s interests, parents can benefit from sensory rich environments too. As a dedicated yogi, I also wanted to use the space for yoga and meditation. Being able to now use a space that is beautiful and visually not distracting has been transformative for me.

The author’s daughter in the sleepover nook.
Courtesy of Karri Bowen-Poole

Don’t Forget About Older Kids

Developmentally, tweens and teens are at the age where they typically want to socialize with their friends, so it’s a good idea to create an area where they can hang out and have some privacy. The space should make your child feel like it was created just for them, so make sure to tune into their interests and their color choices. For example, my kids like modern, clean minimalist design so we went with white on walls and the ceiling with neutral gray on the mats.

Keep It Simple

My motto as a playroom designer, teacher, and mom is less is more. Be more intentional about choices. Purchase only things that will be used and think about your budget before you start to design any space. Creative, successful, functional designs are more about being thoughtful than spending a lot of money! Really think through what you will use the space for, how it will grow with your kids, and then how to maximize it so everyone can use it.

And donate anything that your kids have outgrown. Keep in mind, Facebook parent groups are a great way to connect with other caregivers to give away old items your kids no longer need. In our home, I relish being thoughtful about storage and what to keep and discard. The only items I store in my garage are items the kids actually use (or ones that I hope they will use!) like the beach paddles, lacrosse sticks, and basketballs. Everything else gets donated.

Another plus to the less is more motto: Children take our lead and if we are role modeling being thoughtful about our purchases, energy (heating and lighting), donations, and waste, then our kids will as well. They will eventually start to take things out of their closets, drawers, and playroom that they no longer need to donate it to another kid or family that wants it. As a parent, there really is no better feeling than seeing your kids wanting to help others.


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