Creating a Playroom in a Shared Space

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We live in a fairly small house.  Our living area is an open plan living room/dining room/ kitchen area, and the bedrooms are down a hall off of that.  There are no extra spaces to be turned into a playroom.  From the day we brought him home, the Little Monkey has shared this space with us.  In the beginning, that meant setting his bouncer up next to the coffee table and making sure there were extra swaddling blankets and burp cloths stacked next to the couch.  As he grew, that meant pushing the coffee table to the side and making room for his activity mat.  And once he started crawling, that meant setting up a play-fence around the perimeter of the rug (affectionately known in our house as the “baby jail”).

Baby Jail
Our Little Monkey’s “Alcatraz”

The baby jail worked great for a while – propped up on each end by our couches, it contained the Little Monkey in a small area and kept him from pulling books off the shelves, pushing buttons on the cable box, and getting into the dog’s water dish (note: he did all of those things at least twice during moments of “parole” from the jail).  But as he grew and moved more, the area we’d fenced off was too small.  Remember that this was set up around our living space as well – meaning that after the Little Monkey went to sleep at night, my husband and I would sit within the fence watching T.V. – not the most comfortable of setups.  As we looked forward to the Little Monkey’s walking days and tired of banging our knees into the fence, we knew it was time to come up with a more permanent solution.

Some of this meant coming to terms with surrendering our ideas of how the room should look.  I’ve always loved creating a living space just the way I like, warming it up with photos and accessories that are special to me, and keeping it clean and clutter free.  In the days before I had a baby, I used to visit friends with kids and swear I would NEVER be one of those people with baby stuff all over the house. Fisher Price animals piled on my living room floor?  Toy trucks underfoot?  Not me, I swore.  Turns out this is easier said than done.  Given that we don’t have the space for the Little Monkey to have a playroom, I had two choices:  I could ask my baby to live toy-free in a living room, or we could find a way to make the space baby-friendly and my husband and I could watch T.V., read, and go about our living in the Little Monkey’s playroom.  We’ve decided to go – more or less – with the latter.  Through some creativity and loosening of decorating ideals, we managed to come up with a space that serves us all well.

We started by expanding the “baby jail” and placing it more permanently across the space between the living and dining areas.  Another gate blocks the hall to the bedrooms.  This gives the Little Monkey plenty of space to move around, but keeps him safely confined to one area.

Fence After 2
The jail becomes a fence

Next, we rearranged the bookshelves and entertainment center.  We anchored the bookshelf to the wall and removed the books from the bottom shelves, replacing them with the Little Monkey’s toys and a selection of his favorite books.  The cable box was relocated to the top of the T.V., out of reach of baby fingers, a glass shelf removed, and baskets of more toys stowed there.  A few final childproofing touches (outlet covers, moving picture frames to higher shelves, and stowing cords out of reach) and we were good to go.  Even the dog played along by letting us move his bowls.

Untitled 2
Before and After

The result is something that works for all of us.  The Little Monkey has lots more space to explore (and delights in taking toys off of “his” shelves), and the couches and remaining personal touches still make it feel like a space that’s comfortable for adults. I confess to having a secret dream of an enormous, carpeted room that’s just for the baby – complete with a toy chest and free of any sharp corners – and an parallel one that’s just for me – complete with a wine fridge and free of any plastic dinosaurs.  But for now, this space meets all our needs.

A few tips if you’re creating a playroom in a shared area:

  • Choose things that are in line with your decorating sensibility.  For me, it was finding a wooden gate rather than a plastic one, and taking the time to find toy baskets I felt complimented my décor.  The baby is too little to have a favorite color or to express preference over woven baskets vs. rattan.  Go with what you like!
  • Take your time when shopping for child proofing products.  I had no idea how many options were available!  There are covers for outlets in use that also have hooks to hold extra power cord length, decorative hooks to hold curtain cords, attractive baby gates… I could go on and on.
  • Keep it clean!  To stay true to my pre-baby vow of not living in clutter (or as close to true to it as I can), the key has been keeping this shared space clean.   This is a biggie for me.  It meant investing in baskets to stow toys in and finding increased space by using an ottoman with storage built in as a coffee table.  Most importantly, this means taking the time to clean up.  I find that just taking five minutes to put blocks back in their box, smaller toys away in baskets, and larger toys in their “assigned” place in various corners makes a huge difference.  We can enjoy our evening in the space without stepping on a stray Fisher Price cow, and when I come out in the morning, I don’t already feel overwhelmed by what a mess my house is.

Do your kids play in their own room or a shared space?  What are your tips for making it work?

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Betsy lives in Ridgefield with her husband, their adorable and active son the Little Monkey (born in February 2013), and a large, very furry dog. She is a professional fundraiser and amateur baby food puree chef. When she’s not crawling after the Little Monkey and stopping him from poking the dog in the eye, she loves to read, cook, and fold onesies while watching DVR’d episodes of Bravo reality shows.

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