The Aspirational Fantasy of the Perfect Playroom

Illustration for article titled The Aspirational Fantasy of the Perfect Playroom
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A handful of life-size miniature horse toys to ride. A sleek, tiny ball-pit and accompanying slide. A stage with karaoke microphones and enough instruments to support a professional band. These are just some of the toys in the white-walled Kardashian-West playroom, which Kim Kardashian recently posted on Instagram.

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“Just because you guys always say my house is so, like, minimal... well, you guys haven’t seen my playroom,” she says as her phone scans neatly organized baby carriages, dollhouses, and hidden drawers filled with color-coordinated Legos and cars.

What might be a messy, innocuous space for many parents is, for Kardashian, a signifier of her thoughtful parenting. It didn’t just say, “Look at all of the toys we have,” but also, “Look at all of the right toys.” And “look how neatly they’ve all been put away!” But Kardashian is hardly alone. Hundreds of parents share images of their playrooms on social media each day, showing off their uniquely curated rooms built just for children that look frozen in a state of calm.

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Perfect playrooms—clean, highly organized, expertly designed like any other adult room in the house—proliferate on Instagram and Pinterest. Parents with accounts with tens of thousands of followers document the pretty, quiet moments of their playrooms, from intimate moments of playtime to how toys get tucked away and cataloged on shelves, and rarely do the most popular look like a simple, carpeted den with a few buckets of toys in the corner. Families can hire interior designers who specialize in playroom design, who install rock-climbing walls or makeover refurbished basements into mini classrooms.

And it’s not just how the playrooms look, but how kids play specifically, that’s photographed. Popular accounts like @inspiremyplay and @littleplayideas document all sorts of brain-building exercises for children that go beyond toys purchased on Amazon. Montessori, Reggio, and Waldorf-inspired accounts are abundant. The playroom—an upper to middle-class largely suburban luxury given that its existence requires extra space—persists as an aspiration in the 21st century: the dream of a beautiful, carefully thought-out space for one’s child.

The modern playroom is a space loaded with meaning, uniquely tied to expectations of child-rearing and intellectual development. But it’s also a space, particularly on social media, loaded with expectations for mothers and those who are tasked with cleaning up after the kids who rule it. After Kardashian posted her video, The Ellen Show Twitter account asked viewers to submit what their playrooms look like, and sure enough, they were messily filled with toys, a reflection of the reality for those who don’t have the time to tuck away every Barbie doll or the cash to pay someone else to do so. The work of the pristine playroom is almost always invisible. The aspirational perfection isn’t just in the right toys or the right room, but in the constant management and maintenance of the space. And online, where the reality of childhood can always be placed conveniently out of frame, the promise of the playroom as an extension of your child’s future has never seemed more unrealistic.

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While playrooms appeared in elite households in the 1920s and grew more popular in the 1930s, University of Southern California professor and author of the book Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America Amy Ogata says that it wasn’t until after World War II that the concept became normalized in the suburban building boom. “It was being suggested that if you wanted your children to get out of your hair, [this] would be a good place for them to be,” Ogata tells Jezebel, referring to parenting advice that began to appear in post-war magazines. “If they’re actually being given a space, and often it’s a little room off the kitchen, then why not put the effort into designing it, to give them something that’s their own.”

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The idea that children needed their own space not just for play but for development became the recommended ideal. The playroom in the post-war era was not, as it might typically be thought of today, a room in the house for simply storing toys and keeping children’s play in a cordoned-off area. As preschool became more common, Ogata says parents trying to replicate aspects of the classroom in their home became more popular. But they were also weighted with greater expectations for kids. “They were spaces loaded with promises about the right sort of creativity,” Ogata says.

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“In the 1950s there was a lot of parenting advice directed at young families about what should be an ideal playroom,” says Alexandra Lange, Curbed’s architecture critic and author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids. “It was about art supplies and toys that would spark an inquisitive spirit or a desire to construct.” Magazines stressed that keeping playrooms as simple as possible would help promote a child’s creativity. Architects like Marcel Breuer and Gregory Ain designed and built house models each featuring playrooms in the late 1940s and early 1950s at the Museum of Modern Art garden, tying the playroom to clean, modern design.

It certainly didn’t hurt that a cool, sleek playroom would also reflect parents’ tastes. “Right from the beginning parenting experts and childhood experts are involved and there’s a discussion about whether you should design the playroom for the kids or for the parents,” Lange says. “You have experts saying, you don’t need a fairy tale theme, you don’t need a cowboy theme.”

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The neat, pretty playroom on social media can be an organizational fantasy. Playroom images and toy organization tips can function as soothing decluttering content, similar to photographs of Bella Hadid’s fridge or Marie Kondo before and afters. On Instagram, toys are organized and rearranged like they are curated art objects in a gallery. “I’ve had a few questions asking how our playroom is always so clean. It’s definitely not always clean, I just don’t see the point of taking a photo of mess 😂,” reads a caption for one account. “Most nights I clean the playroom and reset the toys after the kiddos are in bed.” Simple wooden toys, a Montessori special, abound, as do rainbow-painted blocks perfect for Instagram. Some accounts are so rustic they look like they’ve been pulled straight from a Wes Anderson film, not an actual playroom from 2020.

But there’s more to images of perfect playrooms than a showcase of cute interior design captured in a minute when the toys were laid out just right. Playrooms of the past were saddled with expectations that they’d be tiny incubators of good taste, creativity, and intellectualism for children, and the same applies to the aspirational playrooms of today. The definition of the “best kind of play” isn’t just reinforced in the natural, wooden toys and decoration, but also outright in what kinds of play are expected to happen in the playroom. “If these kids are having one of those days where they are constantly at each others throats fighting and arguing I often try and set them up a task that involves them working together!,” reads one post featuring children building a small house together. “What a beautiful set up!” someone comments. “Just beautiful,” says another.

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The irony is that even though the playroom in its ideal form advertises itself as a space where children have free rein to play and explore, its existence implies that children and the way that they play should still be out of sight and removed from the rest of daily life. On social media, parents can have their cake and eat it too: They can keep child’s play in its own space in the house, but share how their kids are playing and with what handcrafted toys on Instagram. Good parenting becomes defined by how it looks visually on the screen: what toys the kids are playing with, how the room is designed, and what we don’t see because the nanny has already cleaned it up.

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Even the more extravagant playrooms, featuring rock climbing walls and elaborate indoor playground structures, reinforce ideas of what ideal play should be. “Kids, in general, are not going out to their playgrounds or into their backyards like we used to because they are over-scheduled, they have screens inside,” says Karri Bowen-Poole, a former teacher and founder of the design company Smart Playrooms which specializes in highly physical, colorful, private and commercial playrooms. “I’ve always been a firm believer that any kind of physical activity for a child is super important.”

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The modern playroom, on the surface, was always advertised as a “room of one’s own” for children, a place where a child’s creativity could blossom and they could have privacy to explore their own interests. But it has always been guided by the aesthetic tastes and projections of adults, subject to changing ideas of how children should play and how productive that play should be. But on social media, where the playroom is idealized in hygienic, static images, children are now playing for an unprecedented audience and parents work diligently to keep the reality of that play behind the camera.

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel

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That racist doll in the first image......