The Single Best Thing 10 Families Did for Their Homes This Year

Parenting can be tricky, humbling, and taxing, on a good day—namely, a day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the mandate to remain in isolation came the bizarre, unsettling new reality: As parents, we would need to somehow stay emotionally moored, professionally productive, and educationally nimble. At the same time that we were forced to grapple with this strange new world and figure out how to operate within it, we also needed to provide our children with stability—whatever that could look like—and present a brave face in a time of deep uncertainty.

Cubby spoke with 10 families about home improvements they implemented to make life a little bit easier for everyone—and how those changes have improved their lives, from the smallest indulgences to the most grand additions.

They turned an under-used basement into toddler central.

Twila, mom to a one-year-old son in Seattle, Washington, converted her family’s basement from a music room and party space into a play area. “Having it on the lower level allows us to have less background noise when we’re on calls while working from home.” Twila converted the space with a baby gate and Montessori-style table and chairs, as well as art supplies and wall decals “to liven it up.” Next on their plan is a wooden climbing triangle as their son gains stability and needs a challenging exercise.

They brought the preschool toys home.

For Erika in New Jersey, new toys were also essential for her 23-month-old daughter. “I’ve had to make the living room more of a community space where I can work and she can play simultaneously,” Erika explained. “She’s slightly more independent but there are days where working from home is taxing because she demands my undivided attention.” To aid in speech development, Erika purchased a Smart Felt Toy that will help her recognize objects around the house. And on the more practical end, having this pretty, carousel-themed basket for her daughter’s toys was essential—bonus points for the fact that it’s aesthetically pleasing, too.

They changed homes altogether! 

Sometimes the changes needed to be more drastic. Living in New York City with a 15-month-old daughter and almost-3-year-old son, Georgia and her husband came to the alarming realization that they would need to find a larger apartment entirely—and quickly.

“We broke our lease and moved to a bigger apartment within the same complex across the street, because we were desperate for more space,” she said.

Although their new rent is a 21% increase over their last apartment, Georgia is grateful they made the leap—even if it’s still not quite perfect. “The move was the best decision we’ve made in 2020,” she confessed. “Painful, but necessary. Our last apartment was not sustainable for us for the long-term, and we knew that when we moved in. Having more space with two kids was essential. Most apartments in New York are simply not designed for that no matter how big they are.”

They let the kids climb the walls — literally.

In other parts of the country, larger living spaces mean more opportunity to utilize rooms in unconventional ways. Like, say, a climbing wall? Diane, who lives in Colorado and has a 4-year-old daughter, knew right away that a lack of significant movement would simply not fly with her high-energy child. The first purchase she made was an indoor climber. Even though their daughter has been back at daycare since the end of April, the family is still quite limited in where they’re comfortable taking her. “So, while we do take her to playgrounds now, we aren’t assuming they’ll stay open,” says Diane.

For added peace of mind in anticipation of another shutdown, Diane purchased another plastic climber that lives in the backyard. “Both climbers definitely help get her energy out and help her regulate her emotions.”

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They doubled down on creating an at-home classroom. 

Coming to terms with sudden, significant lack of in-person peer interaction can be jarring and disheartening. This can be all the more disruptive for neurodivergent students, whose social ties and routines can be comforting and beneficial. Tanya in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, thought strategically about how to support her sons, aged 7 and 8, one of whom is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and speech delay.

Due to closures, Tanya knew that her son missing his usual ABA, speech, and occupational therapies was an issue that needed to be addressed immediately. The family hired in-home therapy for their son, and their apartment has since become a classroom and therapy center in addition to being home. Tanya bought a new modern dining room set for the space where the boys homeschool. She also invested in new rugs for the dining room and living room, and additional lighting and art. “I wanted to change the apartment so each room and area had its own signature and feel,” Tanya says.

Credit: Julie
Julie's daughter climbs the garage wall with the aid of handholds.

They turned their garage into a parkour paradise.

When you’re already accustomed to long, stationary winters, like Julie in Oak Park, Illinois, taking on the challenge of remote schooling during a global pandemic necessitated some out-of-the-box strategizing. While she and her husband were already accustomed to working from home, having their 9 1/2-year-old daughter suddenly there all the time was a new challenge. The family made the usual shifts to accommodate at-home school, but that’s not the feature that sets this home’s learning space apart.

Julie and her husband hired the owner of a local kid’s parkour space to help them turn their small garage into a clubhouse. “He built an L-shaped climbing wall and installed two rows of monkey bars with mats. We then insulated and walled the rest of the space, painted, and added some yoga hammocks and a disco light,” says Julie. The mats fold up and the swings can tuck into themselves so at the end of the day the family can still park in the garage.

Julie and her husband made very specific plans for how to finance this large-scale project. “We wanted our stimulus money to be used for a local, Black-owned business, and it was nearly to the dollar for the climbing wall, monkey bars, and mats,” she said. After such transformative renovations, Julie and her husband have found themselves wanting to work on more beyond the playroom, but they’re reining in the impulse for now. “Once you start changing a space, you start to want to change everything,” she confessed. 

They let the kid decide how to reconfigure their space.

Another way to ensure the kids enjoy their new and improved digs: Let them plan the changes themselves! That’s what Jamie of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, did when she handed her 11-year-old daughter the reins, thus giving her creative freedom and a sense of purpose. “First, she removed all the ‘little kid’ toys from our playroom and moved them to bins in the basement, and then she turned it into a cozy den,” says Jamie.

Jamie and her husband limited their daughter’s budget to $300, and encouraged her to dip into her own pet and plant-sitting money if she required more—a lesson in budgeting as well as creativity. “The den is my new favorite place,” Jamie says, who notes that it’s now their most-used space for family together time. “We spent almost no time there when it was just a mess with toys that no one played with anymore.”

Now Jamie has a new-fledged family designer on her hands. “She convinced my husband, who teaches college classes online, that he needed a better setup for his office in our basement. She made him a spreadsheet and a plan that focuses on color, comfort, and backdrops that would look good on video conferences.”

Credit: Meghan Splawn
Meghan's family in their newly improved back yard.

They turned unexpected time off into time to improve.

When Meghan and her family relocated from Atlanta to Boise, Idaho, three years ago they seized the chance to have more adventures outdoors. However, with their weekend travels limited and a 5- and 8-year-old in the house, Meghan and her husband knew they’d need to create their own outdoor space right at home.

“My husband is a full-time freelancer and work slowed down dramatically in the spring,” Meghan said. “So, he decided to tackle our backyard, so that the kids could get out and play.” It all started with a trampoline, purchased as an Easter gift to the kids. A new, larger shed; a rebuilt and enlarged patio; and a stock tank pool all followed. “It has absolutely been worth the cost (and labor from my husband!),” says Meghan. “Not only do we have a yard that is fun for the kids to play in, but we also have a cozy area we can safely invite our ‘bubble-friend’ into for visiting.”

They turned a deck into an all-day room.

For Christine in San Francisco, now at home with her 7-year-old daughter, taking lunches outside on their deck offered a welcome change of setting midday. But they quickly realized their tiny half umbrella didn’t cover the whole deck. “We were all scrunched together in this little corner while we were eating,” she says. A bigger umbrella that fits perfectly over the space was a game-changer. “The deck has turned into an extension of our home; it’s a great spot to read, have a cocktail, or even take a Zoom call,” says Christine, who feels like she got a whole new room for just the price of a new umbrella.

They’re building an epic treehouse.

For Candice in Chicago, letting her 7- and 10-year-old sons help build a treehouse has given the boys a concrete sense of purpose—and plenty to do.

“Our boys have been out of school since March, so like many parents, our biggest challenge has been keeping them busy,” Candice said. The boys have helped with everything: They helped pour concrete (and put in their names, of course) and learned about the equipment (the large saw is their fave), and Candace says she and her husband have even tried to incorporate math/measurements so they see practical uses for what they are learning at school.

Having an intense, hands-on physical project has also provided an excellent balance to the daily remote learning, which Candice says can be pretty grueling, with both boys on screens roughly five hours each day. 

With no clear end date to this pandemic in sight, parents everywhere are rising to the challenge of integrating home, school, and work in a way that keeps everyone safe, happy, and more or less stable. Whether it’s a state-of-the-art home gym installation, colorful artwork, or an artfully placed new desk, we hope you’ve found some inspiration for how to make your home more livable and comfortable during these bizarre and trying times—and beyond.

This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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Carla Bruce-Eddings

Contributor

Carla is a publicist and freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Writing at the intersections of motherhood, race, and pop culture, her work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Guernica, Real Simple, and more.

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