Child’s Play

For the littlest members of the household, the bathroom is a place for learning good habits that will serve them for a lifetime.

The impulse in these baths is to accommodate the age of the child today, perhaps designing by the child’s artistic whims as one might do in a bedroom. But as much as these rooms are an opportunity for designers to flex their imaginations, so, too, do these spaces need to have a ‘growing’ quality, a sense that the space will fit the child as he or she continues on the way to maturity. These rooms are cumbersome to change out, something that is not the case for a bedroom.

So, what are the keys to creating the perfect spot for kids to learn their bath rituals? “Safety, comfort, economy, ease of use, ease of cleaning, plus visual appeal,” says Clare Donohue, president of One Two One Studio in Brooklyn, NY.

“Children are much less able to clean up after themselves, or to be conscious of making a mess in the first place. Materials need to be much more practical in a child’s bath; wipe-clean, able to tolerate disinfecting cleansers, fewer fussy/sculpted surfaces that will collect dirt. And, if you have young boys, well – how to put this delicately – you will want stain resistant materials surrounding the toilet.”

“I think parents want their children to have a nice bathroom, but never as nice as theirs. That’s how I think we get involved with them because we are doing mom and dad’s bathroom and since we’re there, we can do the kids’ bathroom,” says Lori Jo Krengel, CMKBD, president of Kitchens by Krengel in St. Paul, MN.

No bath could be further in purpose from a master bath than a child’s bath. “The master suite is often one of the most extravagantly designed rooms in a home. It isn’t uncommon for some elements in a master suite to go unused, such as a whirlpool bath. Rarely can a children’s bathroom afford to be so liberal with such features,” says Nikki Trivisonno, AKBD, a designer at Somrak Kitchens in Bedford Heights, OH.

And, in considering the utility of the bath comes the biggest challenge: expanding that utility to grow as the child does, says Susan Serra, CKD, of Susan Serra Associates in Huntington, NY. “Think of long-term use and also multiple use: Will it serve various ages? Will it serve as a powder room/guest bath also? Think in terms of the longevity of materials, which increases value with every passing year.”

Safety First

In creating baths for children’s use, “safety first” is the order of the day, according to designers surveyed by KBDN. Anti-scald and thermostatic controls are widely agreed to be a good place to start in addressing parents’ safety concerns in their children’s baths. Kid-friendly surfaces, says Krengel, are another easy consideration in the early stages of planning such a bath.

“Slip-resistant flooring is key, as is making sure you have maintenance-friendly surfaces – ones that can stand the mess that can happen when children try to brush teeth, wash hair or decide to have a water party on a Saturday night,” adds Krengel. She notes that another sometimes overlooked topic is that of adequate places to put teenage-necessary electrical grooming items such as curling irons and electric shavers.

“There should be spaces to put these things while they are plugged in so that they don’t have the potential to fall into water,” she says. “I’m not a huge fan of vessel sinks because they are not easy to clean from a maintenance standpoint, but things have less of a tendency to fall into a vessel sink as opposed to an undermount sink, where things can sort of slip off the counter and right into the sink.”

Materials loved by designers from that important maintenance standpoint include solid surfaces, says Donohue.

“Corian is a great material for kids’ bathrooms – soft and hygienic,” says Donohue. “I once designed a display for a trade show that is still my ideal kids’ bathroom: Corian ‘tiled’ walls – no grout, no seams – and a drain in the middle of the floor. Everything could be hosed down!”

Donohue advises: “Avoid sharp edges and non-tempered glass. Use matte or non-slip finishes, not just on floors but also on walls, where children often reach to balance themselves. Place controls in a position where they can only be reached by an adult and not a child sitting in the tub. Temporary plastic safety guards are also available from parenting catalogs and Web sites.”

For households with young children, other simple measures can be taken so that common-sense accidents can be avoided.

Gail Drury, CMKBD, president of Drury Designs in Glen Ellyn, IL notes, “Child-proof mechanisms may need to be installed on some base cabinet doors” so that smaller children can be kept away from items that might be vital to the household, but dangerous to them if left unguarded.

Safety, though, is not just about keeping rubbing alcohol locked up; it’s also about ergonomics and accessibility, which take on the meaning of designing to a child’s own scale to keep things that they will need comfortably within their reach.

“Height is an issue; few parents can afford to – or aren’t willing to – scale down fixtures, so step stools and other aids are a temporary measure until the child grows tall enough. If a custom vanity is in the budget, a pull-out step in the toe kick is a useful addition,” notes Donohue.

Krengel, too, thinks a pull-out step is an easy fix, and suggests that well-designed bathrooms have the ability to empower children to do things for themselves.

“I think creating the ability for them to act independently in the bathroom is huge,” she says. “This means that counters should be at a more realistic level for them; they don’t need to be 20" off the floor, but they shouldn’t be 36" off the floor. You should have more features that make it more independent and user-friendly. Maybe the faucet will have a motion control to it.”

Carefully considered details will add to this independence-building atmosphere, the designers concur.

“Parents want their children to be safe in a bathroom, but they also want them to be able to do all of the functions on their own,” says Krengel.

“Cross handles on faucets are easier for small hands to grab,” notes Donohue. “Large rainhead hand showers provide a gentler spray.”

Material Differences

Donohue sees obvious fundamental differences between designing a bath destined for a child and designing a master bath intended for adults.

“A master bath is a refuge from the world and, one hopes, the rest of the family! A good master bath design is all about privacy, luxury and a hint of sexiness,” she says. But a child’s bath needs to be the exact opposite of that.

“They tend to be less private, more active and boisterous spaces, and are often used by more than one person at a time: kids getting ready for school together, parents bathing a young child, etc. It’s not a space where it makes sense to spend on luxury fittings, since there is, more or less, a built-in expiration date.”

Drury agrees, and notes the material needs of children affect directly how the space is used. “Children typically do not need as much storage as an adult, so wall and linen cabinets are usually not necessary. Storage needs to be located depending on the age and size of a child.”

Krengel notes this as the reason these spaces require a lot of thought; children grow into teenagers eventually.

“A lot of the requests we’ve had concern privacy issues as a child grows up, and also issues relating to the different storage needs for boys versus girls. Girls tend to have more stuff earlier and earlier. When you have teenagers, it’s about creating their personal space and making sure they have convenient space to store their things,” she says.

Donohue also sees a problem with creating an age-specific motif for a child’s bath.

“A playful, friendly visual environment with great color accents is essential, but avoid obvious child-like elements, such as animal motifs, cartoon characters, too-sweet colors,” she notes. “Sometimes, though, you just have to give in, but my suggestion is to try and make it on the impermanent parts. One client had planned a very cool turquoise bathroom meant to have a groovy goldfish shower curtain, but her daughter insisted on the Little Mermaid.”
Donohue’s solution is to stick to safer ground.

“If you go modern, you’ll get more bang for the dollar and an easier to clean room to boot: smooth porcelain or ceramic tiles, a skirted or wall-hung toilet. Other features to consider: a counter-mounted soap dispenser; a hands-free faucet and a water filtration unit,” she adds.

Flexible Design

Children grow up, and how a room evolves to suit them is a key concern for designers.

“As children grow, they are constantly replacing things they have outgrown, like toys, clothes and even furniture. Bathrooms aren’t easily replaced, so children must be able to grow with them. That includes choosing the appropriate fixtures, cabinets and storage areas that they will be able to use from toddlers to teens,” notes Trivisonno.

Serra says, “Designing the space ergonomically, to accommodate growing children, is always the challenge. Does one purchase the ‘comfort-height’ toilet or the lower version, better, perhaps for now?”

In the bath versus tub decision, there are several options to consider, says Drury.

“If you want to use a shower door for the young children who need help bathing, a triple panel sliding door is recommended. Two of the panels slide back behind the third panel, giving ample room for an adult to assist a child. Old fashioned curtain rods also work well,” she reports.

“A tub that is no taller than 16" will accommodate a variety of ages and uses more easily,” adds Serra.

“A lower budget is often a challenge with kids’ baths. Few parents want to invest what they’d be willing to spend on their own baths. Related to the budget is deciding how long the bath is intended to function with this design. Is the bathroom meant to be used with this design until they are 10 years old? Until they are teenagers? Until college?

“The longer the design will be used, the more versatile and the less cutesy the permanently installed items will be. The more ‘disposable’ the bathroom is considered, the wilder things can get. Additionally, parents who plan to change things sooner may be happy with less expensive vanities from budget sources,” says Donohue.

Ultimately, the designers agree that a close working relationship with the client is the key to a shared understanding of the intent for the design, to get the end result of a beautiful, safe, adaptable space fit for a child.