Designing Spaces for Children

By Sheila Gains, 2008
Colorado State University
Extension, Arapahoe County

Well-designed spaces can keep children safe as well as enhance their organizational and academic skills. Good design can strengthen families by reducing conflict over personal and shared spaces.

The first consideration when designing spaces for children should be safety. Children need safe places to explore and learn. In a young child's room, remove or secure furniture that could overturn easily if climbed, pushed or pulled. Avoid placing furniture near windows to keep children from climbing onto a windowsill or falling out a window.

Install a protective shield over a radiator or heater vents if children could get burned. Make sure window cords have a safety breakaway feature and are tied up and out of children's reach. Keep electrical cords from lamps and radios out of children's reach. Avoid furniture with sharp edges. Cover electrical outlets not in use with plastic plugs designed for this purpose. Get down on your hands and knees to see potential safety problems from a child's point of view. Giving young children a safe space to explore minimizes the number of times you need to redirect their behavior.

To gain a fresh look at the space in question and to help children be successful at keeping their space picked up, get rid of clutter by clearing the room of unnecessary items. Put some things away for later use, give others away or have a garage sale. Throw away broken or worn out items. Children do not need to be able to look at and play with everything they own at the same time. Too many items can be confusing. They will be like new toys when you bring them out again.

Now, look at storage options for items that are left. If children are expected to put things away, everything must have a place where it belongs. Labeling those places is often a helpful way for children to remember where things go. If children are too young to read, picture labels work well. Tape a picture of a shirt to the front of the drawer where shirts are kept; put a picture of socks on the front of the sock drawer. Some home improvement stores carry attractive drawer knobs representing different clothing items.

Avoid large toy boxes, as they become a junk heap of lost and broken items. Bookcases, plastic bins, and cardboard boxes work well. Clothing hooks and closet rods may need to be repositioned so children can reach them, allowing them to take care of their own clothing.

Not everything children do needs to be in their room. Maybe their reading or study area is in the den and their art area at the kitchen table.

A room's design should be able to grow with a child, so go easy on design elements like trains or princesses. Use a removable wallpaper border, picture, bookend or lampshade to express a theme. These items are relatively inexpensive and easily changed when your child outgrows them.

Flexibility will keep the need to redesign to a minimum. When thinking about purchasing furniture, think about potential for multipurpose as your child grows. For example a shelf that can hold toys now and books later. A sitting bench with storage under the seat can hold a toddler's toys, a young child's boots or a teen's schoolbooks. The same bench can be placed at the foot of the bed as a footboard or used for seating in a reading corner.

Infants and toddlers need:

  • Safe spaces to explore.
  • Lots of care and supervision.
  • Interesting things to do and look at.
  • Sturdy furniture to hold on to and pull self up with.

For very young children safety is the most important criteria. Floors should be clean and warm for crawling and walking. Leave as much floor space as possible for playing. Eye and hand coordination are enhanced if interesting things can be looked at and touched. Open low shelves for toys work better than a toy box. Children can learn to make decisions if they can see a variety of toys and pick a toy from the shelf rather than dump the toy box. If a toy box is used make sure it is safe. Children have died or been seriously injured by poorly designed toy boxes. Children can become trapped inside a toy box or have fingers smashed and pinched by lids and hinges not designed with the safety of children in mind.

Preschoolers need:

  • Furniture, equipment and environments sized for their success.
  • Open space to play.
  • Safe environments that promote independence and exploration.
  • Responsibility for keeping their space organized (they will need your help).
  • Decision-making opportunities.

Good room design can help preschoolers make good decisions and learn to care for themselves and their room. A picture label of toys on a low shelf shows your child where an item belongs. Putting toys away teaches children how to sort out and match things up as well as making cleanup faster and more fun. Preschoolers will need some help or supervision during clean up as they can easily forget what they are supposed to be doing and start playing with everything again. Remember size and scale for preschoolers by hanging pictures, mirrors, closet rods and clothes hooks at their height and eye level. Preschool age children learn independence when they can do many tasks for themselves. A child-sized table and chair can be a good investment. Having a special place to work on projects without having to clean up for meals can encourage creativity and lengthen your child's attention span. Self-grooming will be easier if the child can reach the sink with the help of a sturdy stool or box.

Elementary Age Children need:

  • Space to use study skills and complete large projects.
  • Areas to display artwork.
  • Storage for collections.
  • Privacy.

As children reach elementary age they may need space to hang artwork they create, or a place to display a collection they have started. Children of this age have strong color preferences that change often. It's a good idea to put a favorite color in inexpensive accessories rather than on walls or expensive draperies or bedspreads. Help children learn good study skills by providing a space for reading or studying away from the TV. Provide a bulletin board to post assignments and a special place where books, assignments, notes to parents and permission slips are put as soon as they come home. Children of this age often need extra storage space for musical instruments, sports equipment or 4-H and scouts projects.

Teenagers need:

  • Privacy.
  • Space to study and store school books.
  • Grooming area.
  • Some choice, ownership and control of their space and belongings.
  • A place to be with friends.

Teenagers need their own spaces to store stuff and be alone. Respecting a teen's need for privacy does not mean parents don't provide supervision and guidance, or intervene when they suspect drug abuse or other destructive or unhealthy behaviors.

Teens like to choose how to decorate or rearrange their room to reflect their tastes and needs. They often like to hang posters, notes from friends and memorabilia on walls. Provide them with a bulletin board or an acceptable way to hang art and posters without destroying the walls and your patience. Teens can develop a sense of pride, independence and responsibility when they are allowed to make decision about their room, or their part of a shared room.

Personal grooming is important to teens. A full-length mirror and storage space for grooming articles will make the morning less hectic for teens and the rest of the family.

There is no one formula for designing spaces for children. But by taking into account the needs of each child and available resources, families can encourage desired behaviors, foster learning, skill development, responsibility and prevent potential conflicts.

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Updated Wednesday, January 08, 2014