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One Mom's Ingenious Playroom

How families can convert their formal dining room into a cozy playroom for the kids

A case can be made that, when it comes to modern life with small children, a dining room makes as much sense as filling a sippy cup with Jolt.

Anne Murdock and her husband, John, decided to convert their unneeded dining room into a much-needed playroom. Out went the dining room table and in came a low train table. Out went the bulky china cabinets and in went streamlined, kids-in-mind shelves and toy bins and a craft area and a dress-up corner, all the stuff that suited the space and suited the family much, much better. The change was practical, yes.

But here also was a chance to field-test their newfound parenting philosophy. "At day care, I used to see Ruby and Max [their children] hanging up their coats, washing their hands, putting the toys away, that sort of thing. It occurred to me that John and I were dopes to continue doing these things for them! So I started changing things in our house to help Max and Ruby be more self-sufficient — the design of the playroom came out of that. These changes really started to improve our lives. There was less nagging from us and a real sense of pride from the kids."

The strategies they came up with are highly doable for the rest of us.

Here are six ways they made the room really, truly work.

1. When It Comes to a Craft Table, Think Big and Bold.
Anne found that standard craft tables didn't allow for enough spreading out, especially when Ruby had a playdate and both kids wanted to Picasso-ize together. So Anne bought a full-sized hollow door (The Home Depot, $30) and gave the door's measurements to a local glass store, which cut a same-sized piece of Plexiglas for the top (about $60). (She also asked them to file the edges and corners smooth.) The tabletop would rest on two child-height sets of drawers.

Here's where Anne gets an A for Aesthetic. She unfurled a roll of her favorite funky wrapping paper and laid the Plexiglas over it. She cut the paper to size with a utility knife, then lifted paper and Plexiglas together (two people are better for this than one) and aligned it on top of the door. The door and Plexiglas sandwich the wrapping paper so no glue is needed. And presto: a gorgeous table worthy of a young craft goddess. (Plus, you can change the paper to vary the look as time goes by.)

2. Make It Safe — Creatively.
"When we did all this, Max was still so young, and safety meant everything," says Anne. One design choice was inspired when Anne caught her kids trying to "talk" into an electric fan: "I spotted a small, wall-mounted fan (heatersnfans.com, $50 — $200), and it was the answer to my prayers!" She installed it high up, out of conversational range.

Anne got origami-esque hanging lamps (similar lamps at Target, $37) because they were "plastic, light, and virtually unbreakable, so if they should somehow fall, they wouldn't hurt the kids." She ran the cords up the walls and down from the ceilings, concealing them with cord channels. She positioned the switch so it rested on the craft table and was reachable by both kids.

3. The Rug Must Be Wipeable.
These InterfaceFLOR carpet squares (interfaceflor.com, $6 to $30 per square) "are great," Anne says. "Stains can be wiped up immediately. Yay, synthetics! And if one square gets truly dirty, you just replace it for a small cost." The squares also do double duty for imaginative play: Green squares become "grass" and blue squares become "ocean."

4. Trade Up from Coffee Cans.
Use pristine paint cans (The Home Depot, $1.30) to store markers, crayons, and other art supplies.

5. The Bins Should Be See-Through.
Kids can't find or put away their stuff unless they can tell what's inside the container. Translucent won't cut it. Even original tins or boxes picturing the toys inside won't cut it. "After a while, my kids don't even register the giant canister our Lincoln Logs came in," says Anne. She likes the transparency of these wire-mesh baskets (Linens-N-Things, $9 — $15).

6. Actually, Some Bins Shouldn't Be See-Through.
There's an exception to every rule. Anne wants to supervise the use of certain kid items (paint, glitter, glue, and other potential disasters). So this stuff is stored in opaque containers, like the stackable wooden drawers IKEA sells (about $10), reachable only by grown-ups. The same strategy applies to toys the kids have been bickering over: These go into the witness protection program of colorful metal buckets (bucket-outlet.com, $3.75 each).

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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