Meet Designer Karri Bowen-Poole of Smart Playrooms

Karri Bowen-Poole's firm, Smart Playrooms, designs playrooms using teaching principles.Longtime schoolteacher and mother of three Karri Bowen-Poole has started Smart Playrooms, a firm that helps children develop and learn by applying school-design principles to family playrooms. Here, she explains how layout and organization influence children’s behavior, independence and creativity.

What’s the benefit of a well-designed playroom? Free play has educational value. Cool, organized, inviting, accessible places where kids want to spend time provide educational benefits and help them gain cognitive skills. Many of today’s playrooms are in out-of-the-way areas like the basement with floor-to-ceiling built-ins with way too many toys stored in huge bins. Both the children and the parents are overwhelmed. Kids under age five rarely go down to a basement playroom by themselves. If it’s dark and uninviting; they’re not going to go there. It’s not a fun place to be.

How do you and your co-owner Chris Simpson plan a space? After discussions with the parents based on the children’s ages and interests, we work out designs for storage and division of the space that encourage hands-on manipulation, exploration and learning. Toys are not just plopped into bins. We sort them—trucks, animals, big cars, small cars, etc.—and put them in clear or white bins labeled with words and pictures. The bins have tops and are light enough for children to lift—so they can take ownership of their toys and don’t have to ask for them. When cleanup comes, the kids can match the toys with the bin, and it’s a fun thing to do.

A playroom designed by Karri Bowen-Poole of Smart Playrooms.Why do you create different “play” and “pretend” spaces? Certain activities should be naturally separated from one another. The “play” space is an open area near the toy bins where kids get down on their knees designing places and structures for their blocks, animals, trains, vehicles. The more social and emotional “pretend” area is where kids are acting out, working out fears, making decisions. It’s often a kitchen set, and they start playing “family.” Both areas spark the imagination.

A kitchen set serves as the focal point of the "pretend" section of the playroom.How is the art space organized? The table and chairs are the appropriate size, and the materials are thoughtfully laid out in an art caddy, so the child can find everything easily. We educate the parents to vary the environment by rotating stickers, crayons, markers, pencils and pens, so they become teachers in their own homes. There’s always an area for display, maybe a wire and clothespins, so the child can put up finished works. And there are bins for ongoing projects—saving the work shows the child it’s worthwhile and not something to clean up and throw away.

How do you approach interior decoration? We’ve become expert in what’s available for children and selecting furniture that is the same aesthetic as the home—modern, farmhouse, white and gray, even Ikea. No matter how luxurious the home, we’ve found people don’t want to spend money on playroom decor.

How has technology impacted your designs? Kids are more scheduled, and they aren’t going to the park or playing in the yard independently with their friends the way they used to. So parents are requesting space for physical play, like indoor gyms.

An indoor gym in a playroom designed by Karri Bowen-Poole of Smart Playrooms.Growing up, you were called the Pied Piper of babysitters. How does that carry over today? My interest in kids developed at an early age. I loved to play games, ask them questions, engage them, and they were always following me. Today our goal is similar—getting kids engaged in activities where they can have fun and learn at the same time.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 issue of CTC&G (Connecticut Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Meet the Designer: Karri Bowen-Poole.