"I had envisioned decorating my son's room in an elaborate sports theme," says Sharon Sims, mother of 3-year-old Zachary from San Francisco, Calif. "But all the ideas I had turned out to be way too expensive or something only Martha Stewart could pull off! I didn't know where to start."
Like Sims, moms often dream of providing their children with the perfectly-decorated room that either they always wanted but never had or did have and remember as a whimsical child haven. But for parents on a tight budget and with limited time, such undertakings are not feasible.
Many parents are at a loss when beginning the process of decorating a toddler or preschooler's room – they want to create a stylish yet functional room, while keeping their child involved in the decisions and staying within budget. Though this sounds like an insurmountable challenge, such expectations can actually be realized with a few pointers and simple ideas.
Begin by looking at "as many design magazines as possible to get ideas and formulas (you) can translate," says Patty Flauto, a color and design consultant with the Color Marketing Group. "Also, look at the pictures in kids' wallpaper books. The room set-ups are great idea starters." Ideas can be gathered by just window-shopping, she explains. Visit showrooms and furniture stores that cater to the children's market.
Another good starting point is bedding. "Use the bedding as a springboard for paint and pattern choices throughout the room," says Flauto. Bedding is also an area where your child can have some control over the room design. The bedding is easy to change as your child gets older and tastes change. When involving your child, Flauto says to pre-select no more than four patterns for him or her to choose from.
Sims started decorating her son's sports theme around a comforter she found on sale at a local discount store. "I found a cute red and blue comforter that had baseballs, soccer balls and footballs as a border. I found some solid-colored pillowcases and a contrasting bed skirt in royal blue to complete the bed."
"Sheets are the least permanent part of the room, and yet they give the room instant personality," says Karen Levine of Karen Levine Designs. "The bedding also comes in a wide range of prices. Various home decor stores and catalogs put out beautiful bedding and curtain combinations at very low cost."
Once you have established your theme or design idea, move on to the walls. If you have chosen bedding and window treatment as the primary decoration, you may want to keep the walls neutral and simple. However, if the walls are going to be a focal point, ideas are endless.
"Instead of wallpapering the room, paint the walls and ceiling and trim the room in a wallpaper border," says Zinberg, also an interior designer of 25 years. "Borders can be hung along the top of the wall, mid wall or around door and window openings." You can also make your own stencil and use it as a border around the room.
Instead of stenciling or wallpapering, Sims found inexpensive wood plaques for her son's room. "I bought some unfinished wood plaques of baseballs and footballs at the hobby store and painted them – the best I could! – to match the comforter," she says. The finished plaques were hung around the room.
"The fastest, most exciting transformation can be done with paint, luckily also a wonderful option for budget-conscious parents," says Flauto. She says traditional rules need not govern your paint choices. Using more than one color and dividing the walls into different segments or using different shades of colors are exciting ways to go.
One should always use non-toxic paints and talk to the professionals in paint and hardware stores about what types you should be using for particular projects, says Zinberg. "If you involve kids with the process, make sure they are a little older," she says. "This is not a good project for toddlers or preschoolers, because they may think they can draw or paint on the walls whenever!" Older kids should use sturdy, high-quality brushes with rounded tips.
After finishing the walls, Sims tackled the window treatments. "The comforter didn't have any curtains to match, so I found a solid red pair and stamped baseballs and footballs along the bottom using shaped sponges and fabric paint," she says. "They turned out very cute! My husband was very impressed!" With the addition of soccer ball doorknobs, baseball drawer pulls and an inexpensive baseball bean bag chair, the room was complete.
Function is a key element in designing a small child's room. Flauto suggests making lists and charts of what the room is used for and placing each activity in a "room zone." Next plan it out on paper. This will help you avoid buying things you don't need, "especially if (parents) are overtired and up against a great sales person," she says.
Donna Smith, a mother of three from Houston, Texas, made what she considers a sound investment in the furniture she chose for all her kids. "I bought white furniture that came with interchangeable drawer handles in different colors," she says. "I used the primary colors on my son's chest-of-drawers and the pastel colors on my daughters'." This came in handy when Smith decided to move her two younger children into the bigger bedroom. "Instead of having to move all the furniture, we just had to switch the drawer handles out!" she says.
Jill Friedman, a mother of three young children, also took a practical approach. "I knew that they would each have different needs at different times, so I bought classic, unisex, wooden furniture all from the same company," says Friedman. "The furniture I chose won't go out of style, and I can mix and match depending on who needs what, when."
Bruce Johnson, spokesman for the Minwax Company design firm, explains that when he decorated his own sons' rooms he started with desks and bookcases. "I believe a room is a sanctuary for a child, but it should also be their center for education, including self-education," he says. He advises choosing these pieces carefully in order to find furniture that is inexpensive, sturdy and can be refinished later as tastes change.
Toddlers and preschoolers generally have a lot of "stuff," requiring major storage space. Zinberg likes to use clear, plastic containers with lids. These are money saving and can be labeled so the child can read what is inside – a good tool for teaching a child to read and identify. She suggests storing the preschooler's possessions according to toy or group. But stay away from toy chests, as these usually have heavy lids which can hurt innocent little fingers. "Open adjustable shelves are also a good idea," she says. "They must be securely attached to the wall, and keep them at the child's hand level." The do-it-yourself variety can be purchased, inexpensively, at home centers.
With these helpful tips and tricks of the trade, decorating your child's room should not be the exhausting and impoverishing ordeal you may have expected. Relax, and enjoy exploring your and your preschooler's individual tastes and styles.