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August 2006
Creativity & Compromise
Decorating Kids Rooms

by Michele Bush Kimball, Ph.D.

Their heads leaned in together as they pored over paint chips. Various shades of pink, lavender and dark purple littered the table. Palace Purple. Wild Mulberry. Pink Bliss.

Polly Bartz, of Arlington, and her 8-year-old daughter Audrey worked together to develop a paint scheme in the room Audrey shares with her little sister Claire.

For Bartz, as for other parents and interior designers in the area, involving her daughter in making choices about the room was extremely important. "It was a way to give her a little bit of ownership about her room. A home sweet home. To make it feel special," Bartz said.

The design process started for them when they bought a string of decorative lights that had tones of fuchsia and dark purple in them. They bought the lights just before they moved from Michigan last summer. Decorating Audrey's room became a way to help her become more enthusiastic about the move. "It got her over the new house blues," Bartz said.

Bartz and her daughter matched the paint chips to the string of lights and decided to paint the walls in horizontal stripes in shades of dark purple, raspberry and light pink. Audrey said she is happy with the results, especially because it makes her space feel larger. "When it was all white, it seemed all small and stuff. Now it seems bigger. I like a bigger room better than a smaller room," Audrey said.

The entire family pitched in on the project. Audrey, her parents and both of her younger sisters participated in the painting. "Everybody was getting tired that day," Audrey said.

Incorporate the Children's Ideas

Bartz said the process had the exact effect she was hoping to see — Audrey felt at home in her new house. Area designers agree that incorporating children's ideas in the design process gives them a sense of security in their rooms. "It's important for them to take ownership and take responsibility in their own spaces," said Rebecca Hubler, an interior designer with Designed Interiors in Annandale.

A great way to include kids' personalities and decorating ideas is in storage and display areas, Hubler said. She recommends that parents include such spaces in children's rooms to allow them to fill them as they wish. "Give them some chance to express themselves," she said, especially by placing their own artwork or favorite objects in those places.

Hubler also recommends allowing children to choose a theme as a starting point in the room decorating process. She cautions, however, not to take a theme too far because a child's interest in it may not last. "If you make it too kiddish, next year it could be rock stars."

Parents should be flexible in the design process but still offer guidelines, Hubler said. She recommends that parents be very specific about what must remain in the room and the functions the room must serve.

Offer Guidelines

Interior designer Anne Markstein, of Anne Markstein Interiors in Millers, Md., said that working with children is not much different from working with adults. The most successful children's room designs come from listening to their opinions. "I think it is being sensitive to them and listening to their thoughts and ideas," Markstein said. "I've had some kids who will actually call me and check on things and follow up on things. Some of them are very involved. It's kind of amazing."

She recommends beginning the process by asking kids what kinds of colors they would like and whether those colors are intense, subdued, light or bright. From there, she said, it is best to offer a few options from which to choose. Too many choices can be confusing. When working with kids, as with adults, Markstein said she finds out what her clients would like in their spaces, and then she preselects what will fit those needs.

She also recommends that parents offer solid guidelines for what the room must include, such as the size of the bed, the kind of storage necessary and the desk or study area. Above all, the room must function well.

Ute Aminzadeh, a parent in Silver Spring, found that her son's idea of a room that functions well was not necessarily what she would have chosen, but she said she is determined to let him have a room that makes him happy. Her 13-year-old son, Dallas, moved his bed up against his desk so that when he finishes his homework, he can fall back into bed. However, Aminzadeh said, it is not comfortable for her to help him with his homework because there is not enough room to sit at his desk. "But, he likes it that way. Even though I don't like that too much, it's not that inconvenient."

Aminzadeh and her son collaborated on most of the other decisions about decorating his room. They chose the paint colors together. Dallas's room has two pale yellow walls and two turquoise walls. The trim is white. He and Aminzadeh went to the paint store together, and Dallas chose what he wanted with his mother's consent. The walls are decorated with Dallas's artwork in frames. Aminzadeh is a framer, so she helped by cutting the mats and framing the art.

She said it was easy to decorate with Dallas. She found ways to compromise when she could because it is important that he make the space as personal as he could. "It's his space to live in and be happy in," Aminzadeh said.


Because most of the decorating decisions in the home are between herself and her husband, she said she wanted to include her son in making decisions about his own space."That goes a long way toward feeling ownership and freedom," Aminzadeh said.

A designer in Alexandria said she works hard to maintain that same sense of ownership for both her clients' children and her own. Interior designer Sharon Bubenhofer, a partner with Susan Donelson of Cleveland Hall Design, recently decorated her children's rooms with their input. She was surprised that she had a hard time giving her children control over the design process. "Because I do this for a living, and I had a clear vision of what I wanted, I had a bit of a challenge," Bubenhofer said.

The key for Bubenhofer was to compromise. She listened to her children's ideas and worked to incorporate them with her own. For example, her daughter wanted a purple and black room. In the end, that translated to periwinkle walls with a black open-work bookcase. "Ultimately, she was thrilled with her room," Bubenhofer said. "She was able to get her voice in there."

Bubenhofer's son wanted bright orange walls. As he showed her his choices from a color chart, she steered him toward muted tones that would give him what he wanted but wouldn't overpower his space. That kind of compromise will ensure that he likes his room, but he won't get tired of it too quickly. "Oftentimes, a way to compromise is taking the colors they want and toning them down ever so slightly," Bubenhofer said. "Very bright colors become hard to live with."

The lesson she learned with her own children is one she passes on to her clients. "Remember that it's their room," Bubenhofer said. "It was really tough for me to let go, and not impose my vision."

Some other ways to compromise are taking a bold element the child wants, such as a color or pattern, and using it in something smaller, like throw pillows or on a bookcase, Bubenhofer said. Using the bolder, trendier elements in accessories also helps the room design last longer. Those trendy pieces, the things kids might get sick of within a matter of months, are easier to remove or change when they are small elements. "Let them have abandon with the things that are less precious that you can dispose of or change out," Bubenhofer said.

Allowing her children and her clients' children to be a part of the design process is important, Bubenhofer said. Removing them from the design process can be a big mistake, she cautions, because they may not like their rooms. "Doing a room that they don't like does no one any good."

Her clients, just like her children, are very specific about what they want and don't want in their rooms. As they age, the ownership of their space increases. For that reason, it is extremely important to understand children's visions of design. "You need to be able to get their sense of personal identity," Bubenhofer said.

One of the easiest ways to do that is by looking at pictures of rooms, paint colors and furniture. The pictures can come from magazines, catalogs or an interior designer's previous work. Bubenhofer said kids are almost better than adults at communicating their likes and dislikes by looking at pictures. "They are able to digest images very well."

Polly and Audrey Bartz used that technique when deciding on the horizontal stripes in Audrey's room. They found a similar painting technique in a magazine, and it helped them communicate and agree upon the design.

According to Audrey, she and her mom might be going back to the drawing board. She is preparing to switch rooms with her younger sisters and let them have her pink and lavender walls. She has some new white walls on her mind now. She's thinking a fresh coat of yellow paint is in order. "At least that's what I want to do," Audrey said.

Michele Bush Kimball is a freelance writer based in Springfield. She is a stay-at-home mom to a 3-year-old boy and a 21-month-old girl.

  • Begin by discussing colors. Ask your children what they want. Do they want strong, intense colors? Soft, light colors?
  • Offer guidelines: Don't confuse kids with too many choices. Show them a few paint colors, and have them choose from among them. Show them pictures of design ideas from magazines.
  • Try not to force your own vision on kids. Let them tell you what they want.
  • Invest in furniture with classic lines.
  • Use storage and display areas as places for kids to personalize their spaces.
  • If you are totally opposed to something, avoid it all together by not offering it as a choice.
  • Don't take a theme too far because it may not hold your children's interest for more than a year.
  • Be as flexible as you can about your children's choices.
  • Be very specific about what must be included in the room.
  • Look at the long view. Will the choices last? Can they be changed easily if they don't?
  • Make the trendy elements small, such as accessories.
  • Let kids be most expressive in their choices of paint or accessories because those are the easiest to change if they tire of them.
  • Remember, in the end, that it's their room. They have to like it to live in it.


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