We live in a fairly small house. Our living area is an open-plan living room, dining room, and kitchen area. The bedrooms are down a hall off of that. There are no extra spaces to turn into a playroom.
Since we brought him home from the hospital, our son has shared this space with us. In the beginning, that meant setting his bouncer up next to the coffee table and ensuring extra swaddling blankets and burp cloths were 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”).
The baby jail worked great for a while, propped up on each end by our couches, it contained him 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 also set up around our living space, meaning that after our son went to sleep at night, my husband and I would sit within the fence watching T.V. Not the most comfortable setup.
As we looked forward to our son’s walking days and tired of banging our knees into the fence, we knew it was time to devise 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 how 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.
It turns out this is easier said than done. Given that we don’t have the space for 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 playroom.
We’ve decided to go, more or less, with the latter. Through some creativity and the loosening of decorating ideals, we came up with a space that serves us all well.
We started by expanding the “baby jail” and permanently placing it across the space between the living and dining areas. Another gate blocks the hall to the bedrooms. This gives my son plenty of space to move around but keeps him safely confined to one area.
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. We were good to go with a few final child-proofing touches (outlet covers, moving picture frames to higher shelves, and stowing cords out of reach). Even the dog played along by letting us move his bowls.
The result is something that works for all of us. My son 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 comfortable space 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 a 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.
Here are a few tips if you’re creating a playroom in a shared area.
1. 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 a preference over woven baskets vs. rattan. Go with what you like!
2. Take your time when shopping for child-proofing products.
I had no idea how many options were available! There are covers for outlets that also have hooks to hold extra power cord length, decorative hooks to hold curtain cords, and attractive baby gates. I could go on and on.
3. Keep it clean!
The key has been keeping this shared space clean to stay true to my pre-baby vow of not living in clutter (or as close to true to it as possible). 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. 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.