A child's sanctuary

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For exhausted parents with young children, it sounds like the holy grail: a designer who specializes in creating kids' rooms that will help them sleep. That's how a pediatric sleep consultant described Petaluma designer Ginny Hautau. But talking to Hautau reveals that her approach involves much more than getting kids to sleep well.

"Sleep is just a happy benefit of a well-designed space," said Hautau, a former second-grade teacher. The essentials, she says, are making a child's room a unique reflection of who that child is, fostering a sense of independence and allowing room to play and to grow.

"Everything should be personal," she said. A child's room can be a "personal 3-D journal all over the walls."

Hautau suggests incorporating an art wall with mementos from a child's life. "It becomes the story of her existence," she says. And she encourages having a place for collections, like a curio cabinet, for the treasures that young kids find out in the world.

When a room feels uniquely personal, "it's like curling up inside a diary," Hautau says. "You can put a little person in a small room with a night light and heartbeat sound, but the reality is if they just feel very secure and safe, drifting off to sleep feels like the most natural thing to do."

Of course, Hautau doesn't believe kids should have complete control over their space — the parents' job, she says, is "to edit." Her philosophy is that less is more, that cluttered rooms inhibit imagination and learning.

Children are "going to play less if a room is overflowing with things. If you give them every piece to every set, their creativity is going to wane, where if they really have to create with these blocks and those Tinkertoys and some Legos, they might make this whole world of dinosaurs," she says. "It's in that creative expression that children first acquire learning."

Hautau starts by having the family fill out a questionnaire, interviewing them and then touring the home. "I love getting a tour of the house from the child."

She'll then add pieces to the room, like a big poufy cushion that a child can move around and that can be placed near the bed at night for a sense of security. "It gives a child a sense of being in control of her own space."

She also recommends empowering kids by using, for example, low drawers that a child can pull out when she wants to get dressed. When a child is learning to read, the drawers can be labeled: "Shirts, Pants, Pajamas." Getting dressed themselves helps children "develop confidence and responsibility and the ability to make decisions," she says. "That's important even when you're 3."

Angelique Millette, a San Francisco pediatric sleep consultant, said Hautau's rooms aren't typical pastels but are muted enough not to be distracting. She believes Hautau's designs work because "she understands that kids are smart, curious, alert and engaged."

One example: A tree with branches and lights for the corner of the room — something interesting for the baby to look at, "but not a buzzing, flashing mobile."

Millette says Hautau has "a deep and profound respect" for children and "an innate understanding of how kids develop — and it shows up in her design."

She appreciates Hautau's use of natural fibers rather than plastics and avoidance of synthetic carpets and toxic paints wherever possible. The main reason to avoid toxins is to protect a child's health, Millette and Hautau agree, and a room that's healthier is much less likely to cause respiratory distress and thus is more conducive to a good night's sleep.

Millette also recommends giving children a lamp they can control for 10 minutes after bedtime; then a parent can come in and turn it off. If kids are getting up too early, she recommends heavy drapes or blackout shades to keep the room dark after sunrise.

Hautau suggests hanging kids' artwork throughout the entire house — not just in the child's room or on the refrigerator, to foster a sense of belonging. And don't relegate a child's playtime to a playroom; it's important, Hautau says, for a child to do more in her room than just sleep.

"If kids play in a playroom and don't spend time in their bedroom, none of their things end up in there," she said. They need to make their bedroom their space, she said, to put their own stamp on it.

Hautau makes it clear that she doesn't just design rooms for kids, that she views each home holistically.

"What I do really well is create a home that has a little more soul than it did and that it directly reflects the people who live in it," she said. "And that just happens to include all the little people, too."

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