Two Pro Playroom Designers Spill Their Secrets for Creating Awesome Kids’ Spaces

updated Nov 15, 2021
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Anne Gillyard and Jodi Arellano have a seriously fun job. Five years ago, the former school teachers co-founded grOH! Playrooms, a DC area design company that creates play spaces for kids — and these days, their business is booming. Gillyard and Arellano met while teaching at the same elementary school. The women ended up on parental leave at the same time, and while on leave Gillyard found herself dreaming of collaborating with Arellano on a side hustle that helped parents create more opportunities for play with their children.

Gillyard says that as a teacher she could always tell which kids had a deep experience of play at home. “In my classroom, I saw the fundamental difference between kids who have rich play experiences at home and those who don’t,” she says. “It affects language skills, mathematical skills, reasoning skills — all these critical thinking 21st century skills — even social skills like navigating relationships and negotiating outcomes. All of these things are tied to access to open-ended play.” Gillyard wanted to make playtime possible for more families, but as a parent herself, she knew how hard it was to add one more thing to the to-do list. Gillyard realized that creating an environment that supports play might just be the answer.

Looking through the photos of grOH!’s play spaces, you can see why a dedicated and intentionally designed play space is valuable: These rooms invite imagination! While some of grOH’s creations are totally custom spaces that look like an indoor playground, others are a corner of a family room or a humble playroom that has been edited, organized, and decorated to optimize play. Here are Gillyard and Arellano’s guiding rules for designing successful play spaces:

Turn unused (and underused) spaces into play areas

The first step to creating a great play space is to find the space, says Gillyard, who notes it might not be where you think it is. You might envision your kids playing in their room, but they’re naturally going to want to play near where you are making dinner. Gillyard and Arellano will often help a family hunt for under-utilized spaces that might be made over as a play area, like the space beneath a staircase or even a coat closet.

Reclaim your basement for fun

One of the places Gillyard and Arellano often find available space: The basement.  Basements often become dumping grounds for clutter — not places the family wanted to hang out, but with some strategic editing and delightful design, almost any finished basement can become a place the family doesn’t want to leave.

Gillyard’s advice to make a basement feel less basement-y: Hide the things that make it feel like a basement. “You want it to feel like any other room in your house, so definitely use screens, build closets, or build walls to hide things like utilities,” she says. Also, pay attention to the lighting. Plan the room around the window, if available, add warm lighting, and choose decor features that feel inviting.

Leave the center of the room open for play

Whatever space you end up choosing, Gillyard says, “I always try to encourage an open floor.” Oftentimes, this will mean removing excess pieces of furniture or even choosing to go without a coffee table or ottoman in a shared space to make more room for open-ended play. “Open-ended play is, in my opinion, the most important driver for 21st century skill development. It allows kiddos endless opportunities to practice and expand important skills like communication, problem solving, critical thinking, and negotiation (especially with siblings),” says Gillyard, who notes that these are the skills that are the most complex to teach in a classroom.

A wall mural transforms a room

Wall murals have become a signature design feature for grOH! — and with good reason: A mural has the power to transform a blah space, especially basement rooms that do not get a lot of natural light or have much of a view. While many of grOH!’s are hand-painted by local artists, you can get a similar look with wall decals or wall murals from site like Etsy and Anewall.

Give them ways to burn energy 

Another recurring theme in grOH’s play spaces are indoor play structures that help kids get their wiggles out. Whether it’s a custom climbing wall, a pile of tumbling mats in the basement, or store-bought climber in the playroom, Gillyard says some kids just naturally need outlets for their energy. “We have so many clients who are like, ‘Help! The kids are literally climbing the walls, the door casing, the banisters.’” But Gillyard says not to think of this as negative behavior, but rather as energy that needs to be geared towards something that’s appropriate. “We can really meet our kids where they are and channel their natural tendencies or gifts into something really positive.”

One thing to note, Gillyard says to always keep an eye out for weight limitations and the internal height on off-the-shelf play structures. “Many have low weight limits which mean kids outgrow them quickly or that they cannot have a friend play on it with them,” she says.

THIS is your dream storage solution

A good playroom is an organized playroom. Instead of having toys stored all over the room, centralize your toy storage into a “toy hub” (aka one storage piece), if you can. “It’s the heart of the play room,” says Gillyard. For some this might be wall-mounted shelves with bins, for others it might be a freestanding cube shelf or a dedicated toy closet. GrOH!’s favorite way to organize toys is with a cubby and bin storage system. “What I love about cubbies with bins is that we do one toy type per bin, and we limit the number of bins,” says Gillyard. “You don’t want a ton of toys out at one time. Kids will remember which toys go in which bin.” Gillyard also says this type of system gives kids “the sensory activation of picking the bin up and pulling it out into the middle of the room,” signaling the start (and end) of playtime. Gillyard and Arellano especially love Pehr’s canvas bins.

Embrace color!

“We want to create spaces that families just don’t want to leave,” says Gillyard. “When a space reflects a family’s character it makes them feel really invited, warm, and welcomed. I love bringing in colors that speak to a family … I love playing with color.” Make a palette of your family’s favorite hues to bring your play space to life. A play space is a great place to experiment with brighter color, even if that’s just a few pops of bright sunny yellow or a few zips of vibrant tangerine. 

Remember, a play space is part of a larger system.

GrOH! doesn’t just design fun places to play, they help families reorganize their entire homes to support play and learning. “We’re also looking at the whole home, things like, ‘Where do your backpacks go? How does paper get organized when it comes home from school? Where do the kids do homework?’” says Gillyard. Figuring out all of these answers will actually help make everything less stressful and make deep play more likely to happen.