Before and After: A Heavy, Wood-Paneled Family Room Becomes an Airy Playroom for Kids

updated Jan 11, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image

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. Join us over on Instagram for more!

Cubby. Real solutions for unreal times.

Join us for a weekly dose of fresh, modern ideas for life at home with your kids.

Twelve years ago Karri Bowen-Poole, the founder of Smart Playrooms, a playroom design business based in Westchester County, New York, had an epiphany while observing her own children play with friends: A badly designed play space leads to unsatisfying play experiences. Bowen-Poole was working as a school teacher at the time and realized she could take what she’d learned about classroom design and bring it into peoples homes. She’s been designing bespoke play spaces ever since.

Bowen-Poole has created playrooms for many well-known New Yorkers, including Dylan Lauren, founder of Dylan’s Candy Bar, and Nicky Hilton. While many of Bowen-Poole’s clients have big budgets and space to spare, the philosophy behind Smart Playrooms’ designs can be applied to any place where kids play. 

“Over the years, I’ve really become more of a minimalist,” says Bowen-Poole. “I’ve become much more streamlined and modern because I’ve realized that it’s less about the stuff and more about creating an airy open space that invites play.” This project for a Manhattan family with two kids (ages 2 and 4 at the time of the pre-COVID renovation) shows Bowen-Poole’s kid-friendly minimalism alongside the fantastical play elements that her firm has always been known for. It’s the definition of an understated showstopper. 

Here are 7 lessons from Bowen-Poole’s inspiring design, along with 7 ways to get the look for your own home:

Credit: Jane Beiles

Think like a preschool teacher

Bowen-Poole says she is inspired by educator Maria Montessori in much of her work, but in particular for this family whose children attend a Montesorri preschool and specified they wanted a Montessori-esque space (otherwise known as one that is minimally furnished, with everything easily accessible for kids). To that end, Bowen-Poole relegated the main toy storage to a nearby closet, where the playthings could be kept out of sight but still kid-accessible. Then she leaned into the light colors, natural wood, and sparse furnishings that are a hallmark of Montessori design.

Maintain your usual design standards when sourcing furniture for kids

“The aesthetic of the home was very important to this family, they didn’t want to feel different from the rest of the home,” says Bowen-Poole, who has developed a reputation for sourcing play equipment that looks as chic as designer furnishings (she sells some of her finds through her online shop Project Playroom). “It’s going to look beautiful and sort of be seamless with the rest of the home.” Bowen-Poole picked up on the natural wood and cool, neutral colors of the adult spaces. 

Credit: Jane Beiles

Don’t worry about playroom walls being plain

While many designer playrooms feature playful wallpaper or quirky wall murals, these days, Bowen-Poole says she gravitates towards white walls and natural tones that don’t overwhelm kids. “There are so many toys and materials that enter the play space. They bring chaos and color,” she says. “I scale back the wall color and the decor, knowing that the color will come with play.”

A calm space is actually energizing.

Another reason Bowen-Poole prefers minimalist interiors is that she believes it supports focused active play. “This family wanted the kids to be active and engaged,” says Bowen-Poole. “If you want them to be energetic, you need to provide the right type of equipment, but a serene calm environment makes them want to do it for longer. It’s the same feeling as a yoga studio, where you are allowed to focus on what you are doing.”

Credit: Jane Beiles

Envision the long-term use

“I always try to think five to ten years out,” says Bowen-Poole, who wants her design services to last for years to come. “That’s why there’s a lot of open space: It provides flexibility when kids’ interests change.” Bowen-Poole also literally builds in flexibility: For example, the trapeze here can easily be unhooked and replaced with another piece of play equipment; the play tent can be folded up to make room for bean bag chairs or a balance beam.

Credit: Jane Beiles

Consider flooring tiles or even a wall-to-wall mat

At first glance it looks like Bowen-Poole opted for wall-to-wall carpeting, but it’s actually a wall-to-wall gymnastic mat! In her research, Bowen-Poole discovered an indoor-outdoor vinyl fitness mat that is sold in rolls; a carpet installer can trim it to fit precisely just like carpet. “It naturally repels everything — it’s almost impossible to stain it,” she adds. “Plus, we don’t have to adhere them to the floor, it’s temporary, so you can just roll them up, if you want to change it.”

Choose features that encourage open-ended play

Bowen-Poole tends to avoid super-specific play furniture, like, say a train table, because kids’ interests change often. Instead, she says to opt for things like a basic play tent or the “rock” pillows here that can be used for a variety of imaginative games. “Our focus is really on encouraging creative thinking,” says Bowen-Poole. “In order to do that, what we design is open-ended. It encourages independence.” 

Get the look: