Room to Romp

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 5, 2008

Now that the winter holidays have passed, many families with young children are coping with more kid stuff in the house -- books, toys, mini-kitchens, kiddie tool kits -- than they know what to do with.

Whether it arrived through a chimney or via the front door, there's the same, often mind-boggling, question: Where on earth do you put it?

For many parents, the answer is a specially designated playroom in the basement, on the main level, on the upper level or even in the attic. Such rooms are often painted in bright colors, and the deluxe versions contain built-in bookcases or other shelving, a mini-table and chairs for art projects, a tile area for messy play, and a carpeted space for children to sit and play on, said Susan Leaderman, home editor for Parents magazine.

While there are no precise data on the number of playrooms in U.S. homes, Leaderman said they seem to have become more prevalent. She attributed the increase in part to the growth in the size of homes. The average new single-family house in the United States in 1970 had 1,500 square feet, compared with about 2,500 square feet by the middle of 2007, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

But parents in homes large and small point to other reasons for having a playroom separate from living spaces. High among them is keeping one's sanity.

"The best reason to have a playroom is so you don't feel like you live in one," said Cassi Wiseman. The playroom in her family's Fairfax home functions more as a storage area for toys than a play area, she said, except when the children have friends over. Then they are all encouraged to play in the room.

"We've lived in three different homes since our children (now ages 4 and 6) were born and managed to create a playroom in each home, despite the challenge of space restrictions at times," she wrote in an e-mail. In the first home, her children shared a bedroom and the third bedroom became the playroom, while in the second and third homes, the formal living room was turned into a playroom.

Safety is also an important consideration when deciding whether to have a room for children's play. "For me, the most important thing was that the kids have a place that is totally kidproof," said Sarah Green, a Columbia Heights mother who has a playroom on the second floor of her rowhouse. "The playroom is the only room where [my 2-year-old son] can kick and throw balls inside the house."

And of course, practical considerations factor into the equation in many D.C. area homes. "We were in the enviable position of buying our house after we had triplets, so we knew what we needed -- a play space that could be seen but closed off from the kitchen and laundry rooms," Christie Leu wrote in an e-mail. Leu, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md., has five children ages 5 and younger. "Naturally, play continues in the whole house, but for our own peace of mind we love the playroom where we can contain the babies while getting anything else done."

Barbara Strom Thompson, a Washington area child development specialist in private practice, sees additional justifications for a designated playroom in homes with young children. "In a playroom, there are fewer no's for children to deal with," she said. "Most everything in the room is within their reach and is safe for their use. In that way, well-organized playrooms can help foster a sense of competence and self-reliance in children."

She added that a playroom can serve as a place where parents allow children to leave up Lego, cardboard box or other structures that they build for several days at a time, which helps children feel that people respect their creations.

Still, Thompson and other experts in child development recognize certain limits of separate playrooms. "Parents shouldn't expect children under about age 7 or 8 to spend much time alone in even the greatest of playrooms, because they still want to be part of the family," Thompson said.

Amy Lear White, an early-childhood specialist in the District, agrees. "Family life is about building relationships, and that is hard to do when young children are off in a separate room," she said. Rather than having kids play in a designated space away from common areas in the home, White said, "the goal is to keep children close by so you can have conversations with them or help them with a puzzle when they get frustrated with it or have other teachable moments."

Some parents oppose the concept of a designated playroom in their home for the reasons White mentioned. Elizabeth Jones and her husband, Dennis Jones, are in the final design stages of a renovation that includes a new family room and basement in their Alexandria home. "While the family room will be the main repository for our kids' toys, we are not turning it over completely to a toy/playroom, which in my mind is a kids-only domain, but rather a place for the whole family," she said. They have an 8-month-old and a 2-year-old.

Other families opt against designating a particular room as a playroom because they have a higher-priority use for that space.

For example, Doug and Sandra McAdoo decided to give each of their daughters -- Sarah, 5, and Lele, 4 -- her own bedroom in the family's Bethesda home rather than have them share a room and use the other as a playroom, after a shared room led to the girls keeping each other awake. As a result, the living room has become "the default playroom," Doug said. "We'll never have a showplace living room, but then again, we aren't showplace people."

In fact, when it comes to house shopping, few families with young children have a playroom as a requirement or even a priority in their search, said Dale Mattison, an associate broker in the Chevy ChaseNorth Park Avenue office of Long & Foster Real Estate. "What they express is an interest in is more ancillary space, often in a family room or in the yard so it's visible to Mom when she's in the kitchen, not in an individual playroom," he said.

Mattison added that parents of young children often mention "how the kids take over the space in the home" after the family moves in, leading the adults to consider turning an unfinished basement into a playroom or building closets with shelves for toys.

It does seem to be the omnipresence of kids' toys and equipment in the home -- whether or not there is a specific playroom -- that poses tough dilemmas for parents.

Monique Tilford, deputy director of the Takoma Park-based nonprofit environmental organization Center for a New American Dream, recommends that parents "deal with excessive toys by not having that many to begin with." She attributes the overtaking of some homes by toys to the "hyper-consumer" culture in the United States, noting that money spent on advertising geared to children has skyrocketed from about $100 million in 1983 to nearly $17 billion in 2007.

Once you have a manageable amount of toys, the key is to create an environment where kids and parents can enjoy them, experts said.

Stanley Greenspan, a Bethesda-based child psychiatrist and author, said the best play space in a home is "wherever it's going to facilitate more time for parents to play with their child."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company