Drôle House Blog

Postcard 12

{Postcard 12}: "How can I get the most out of a large closet?" - Submitted by Divyang

{Postcard 12}: "How can I get the most out of a large closet?" - Submitted by Divyang

Divyang and Kushbu's toddler son has an underused closet in his room, and they want it to put it to better use. They wonder if there are any hidden opportunities in this tall, squarish enclosed space. 

Divyang's design challenge includes:

  • a 35"Wx40"Dx100"H enclosed closet with no organized shelving currently
  • the need to store LOTS of beloved toddler books, clothes and diaper boxes
  • an adaptive layout that their son could grow into without having to rebuild it completely 

The suggested closet layout has three parts that turns it into a mini-library and play space. The first part is a 18" deep shelving unit with two levels, one for books within reach for a toddler, the higher level for folded clothes and diapers. The second is a narrower 8" shelving unit with integrated ladder affixed to the wall and ceiling. The third is a netted crow's nest that makes use of the upper 30" of head space, which also includes a new opening (netted for safety) above the existing closet door. 

A strip of LED lighting can be installed beneath the lowest bookshelf to brighten the pillow-covered toddler sized reading nook on the floor. That bookshelf is within reach, but the upper clothes +diaper one above is just beyond toddler grasp. Similarly, the first rung on the ladder is off the floor by two feet, which means only kids aged 3 and up will be able to hoist themselves up there to reach the crow's nest. The upper crow's nest/hideout then is suitable for kids aged 3-8.

As their toddler grows into a tween, the modification to the layout would be to:

  • remove the ladder and 8" shelf unit
  • lower the 18" unit to dresser height and add drawers
  • cap the upper opening with a panel in the same style of the existing door
  • convert netted crow's nest into traditional upper shelf for long term storage

The hanging rod stays at the same 5'6" height in both versions. Just a few screws to remove, holes to patch and voilà!

Could your closet be this fun?


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I took my first trip to California this February for Pop Up Adventure Play's first annual Campference at Eureka Villa. It was conference about playwork theory and practice, attended by nearly a hundred people from all over the world. Seventy attendees, me included, camped on the site. It was a camp-ference...get it? Spoiler: it was freezing cold, there was a twenty year storm, the roads flooded, we abandoned the camp site, I had a run in with a mountain lion----and those were the least interesting nuggets of my three days in Val Verde! 

Me at the bottom right hand corner. Photo credit:  Chris Martin

Me at the bottom right hand corner. Photo credit: Chris Martin

What exactly is playwork, you ask? It has a fairly broad definition. The playwork principles according to campference speaker Professor Fraser Brown were:

1. All children and young people need to play. The impulse to play is innate. Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and wellbeing of individuals and communities.

2. Play is a process that's freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated.

The play he describes can't be found on a soccer team, or playing monopoly. Play comes from within, it's not owned, directed or controlled by adults. The role of the "play worker"; the role that pops up in several intersecting fields of study; is to create the conditions or environment that facilitate freely chosen play.

As a designer of built things, I felt like a fish out of water surrounded by outdoor educators, social workers and play activists. I certainly get to play when creating and designing built spaces, but how can I create spaces that facilitate play for others? This is what I had hoped to find out.

Here are some takeaways:

1. Affordance: describes what opportunity(ies) any given object, person or space can lend. For example, a chair has many affordances, you can sit on it, lay it down and it's a pilot's cockpit, use it as a goal posts for soccer etc. The more affordances an object or space has, the more opportunities for play it has. 

2. Risk and hazard: risk and hazard are not the same thing. Risk is individually judged and is dependent on the person doing the risking (i.e. can I jump across this puddle without getting wet), a hazard is an unforseen danger like a glass shard concealed in the park sand pit. Risk is cultural. Millions of people risk death each time they get behind the wheel of their car, but it's an accepted one. Parents confuse risk and hazard constantly. "That's dangerous!" is a warning applied equally to climbing a play structure or holding a chainsaw. The benefits of letting kids risk at their own pace are immense.

3. Playwork happens everywhere. In schools, in parks, in homes, at bus stops, you name it. Museums and zoos are getting on board, and providing real physical and emotional space for children. Playwork is not confined to outdoor adventure playgrounds in temperate climates. Take this bus stop prototype designed and built by Philadelphia's Public Workshop for example:

Photo credit: Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop

Photo credit: Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop

4.  The three F's: Ideally, play should be fun, flexible and free (child-led/autonomous) according to Fraser Brown. Playwork is about finding a way to say YES. Facilitating a collaborative design process with families is at the root of Drôle House's mission to bring more function and fun to homes. 

If you are interested in learning more about playwork in your own life or work, here are some  links of groups and businesses I was introduced to at the campference who doing some inspiring things.

Pop Up Adventure Play: they offer a playworker development course, and facilitate loose play pop ups everywhere.

Recess Revolution: to learn how to bring free play back to school recess.

EarthPlay Canada: giving the right to play back to Canadian kids.

The Land: a documentary film made by Erin Davis. It is a must see for adventure play enthusiasts.

Adventure: The Value of Risk in Children's Play written by Joan Almon.

Loose parts for free play. Check out my post on loose parts play  here .

Loose parts for free play. Check out my post on loose parts play here.

How do you support play in your life or work?


Scrappy Toys

Have you heard about loose parts play? If you've ever been to a playground like Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto, then you've seen how intensely kids play when they have the freedom to create their own spaces with wood, shovels and dirt. Messy? Oh yes. Risky? Debatable. Fun? Undeniably. Having loose parts in a school playground would basically be a (traditional) principal's nightmare!

Perspectives on outdoor play are changing. There is a re-emerging field of research called playwork, which links free outdoor play, child development and creativity. You may have seen glimpses of it in The Land movie, or read about it on Playgroundology, or even here and here.  One facet of playwork is based on the theory of loose parts, described by architect Simon Nicholson in the seventies. He believed that creativity was intrinsic to each child and wanted to developed ways to make play spaces more engaging for children. My kinda guy! Nicholson wrote:

"In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it" - Simon Nicholson (click here to read it yourself)

Scrappy toys like these fit well into playwork. They combine re-use of scrap building materials, outdoor play, risk (danger + play I will get to another time), gross and fine motor skill mastery, and result in engrossing creative play. It works for a range of ages because the complexity of the creations develop along with the child. At first, kids cobble things together without much planning. Maybe your kid ends up nailing a million nails into one end of a plank (ta da!) - just for the fun of banging - and maybe next time nailing is easier and another skill can be tested, and so the creation evolves. It takes time without parents hovering over kids to see a creation unfold, perhaps into WWII war ships like the passionate builder of some of the models here, or discard ideas completely and start anew. My in-laws were at the head of the pack in the seventies letting their kids do this (many of these boats were made by my spouse at age 9). No surprise there as they were educators and highly creative people themselves.

The next time you have a few scrap two-by-fours around from a home reno, try it out. A few hammers, lots and lots of nails of different sizes - and submitting to the fear of a bashed thumb- is all it takes. If it's not for you or your kids, donate your materials to Pop-Up Adventure Play or your nearest Habitat re-store.

Happy building!


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Simple Monkey Bar

I hate toys. No, that's not entirely true. I just wish they magically put themselves away, or repaired themselves when broken, or changed into something different once the kids got bored, or at the very least didn't scatter throughout the house like dandelion seeds. There are a few exceptions of course, but toys are generally two per cent useful and ninety eight percent clean-up. I wish there was a way to design them to invisibly blend into the background of the home. 

This is a simple monkey bar prototype inspired by website requests. Though chin up bars similar to this can be found pretty cheaply online, this prototype has three sets of cradles can be placed at any height along a wooden door frame to accommodate many users, from aged two to adult. Adjustable bars like this one, that can be put together in an afternoon, dismantled and stored in a jiffy, that even a young child can easily use and change, well, that is something worth trying out. 

This simple monkey bar is made of a cut galvanized steel fence post, anchored into it's plywood cradle with simple nut and bolt hardware. A stopper installed directly above the bar can be turned to 'lock' and 'unlock' it from it's cradle for added safety. The plywood cradle and latch are of 3/4" plywood, screwed through to the door studs. The bar can be stored away out of sight atop the door trim, where two drilled holes are concealed. 

If you'd like to know more, comment below! 



Postcard 4

{Postcard 4}- "How can I build flexible, multi-use play blocks in my backyard" Submitted by Karine

{Postcard 4}- "How can I build flexible, multi-use play blocks in my backyard" Submitted by Karine

Karine's challenge includes:

  • designing multi function, durable exterior stools for sitting and playing on
  • that can also be used to define an area of the backyard
  • be moveable and stackable by children

The idea here is to make a multi-functional garden box stool that could be a more useful and durable alternative to the traditional crate. Material choices such as light weight half inch recycled plastic panels, marine plywood or engineered wood are definitely more durable and stronger than pine. The panels can be cut to five equal sixteen inch squares and attached into a cube with L brackets screwed to the inside. Offsetting all the edges, though limiting the strength of the box, does allow for easy grasping and stacking for kids, better drying for durability, and has the bonus feature of more easily being turned into a lantern. The garden boxes can be any colour, used as stools or stepping stones, made into walls and forts, be stacked as high as bar tables for outdoor parties, and by adding a battery or solar powered light fixture inside each, can glow from within.


Fence Bouldering Wall

Everyone knows which house is the fun house on the block, the place where all the neighbourhood kids gravitate to. Maybe they give out unlimited freezies in hot weather, maybe they have wicked game consoles, or maybe they have great toys or engaging play spaces. I'm not going to lie, I want to be that house. I like to keep 'em close, you know? Backyards can be wonderful semi-private zones for kids to spread out in, be loud in, or plot together in the corner all the while kept close enough to be supervised. What are you supposed to do if you have the world's tiniest-postage-stamp-of-an-urban-backyard? There are more surfaces available to play on than the grass, of course! 

This fence bouldering wall was designed to be a circuit or path that starts at ground level, travels along the garage wall, turns on to the fence, pauses at raised platforms at increasing heights, and ends in a treehouse in the centre of the yard. There is a variety of difficulty in this mini adventure playground, so not only is it cleverly off limits to toddlers, but there are real physical milestones for kids to reach as they test their abilities and grow into the space.  

The backyard is 18'x18' and features a mature cherry tree in the centre...not much room at all. The renovation was completed without removing the existing fence, merely beefing it up with strapping and re-cladding horizontally. The cladding is a combination of new cedar boards and the re-used pressure treated boards from the old fence. To give the old boards new life, the rounded edges were cut off for a cleaner look, primed and painted on all sides before being reinstalled horizontally. The bright orange bouldering holds (from mec.ca) add a pop of colour to the natural tones of the wood.

A look to the corner platform and gate. The reinforced corner stabilities the fence.

A look to the corner platform and gate. The reinforced corner stabilities the fence.

A look inside the fence at the vertical strapping and the green board of the neighbour's side.

A look inside the fence at the vertical strapping and the green board of the neighbour's side.

Garage wall re-clad with old fence boards.

Garage wall re-clad with old fence boards.

If you would like to know more about a step-by-step process to make your own fence bouldering wall happen, share this blog and let me know by posting a comment below. For more info on projects, Drôle House design services, e-manuals, resources and ideas, please click here to subscribe.


Handrail Surprise

Flights of stairs make parents nervous. We worry about falls, kids tripping up or down the steps, we scramble to block the landings with chairs to bar explorative crawlers, or install cumbersome gates that need to be pried open with one-hand-whilst-balancing-a-baby-on-the-hip. Even though I installed gates above and below each flight of stairs in our home, each of my three kids still managed to have some sort of fall at one time or another. There are a few years of young childhood when flights of stairs are just plain iffy and need close supervision as kids practice using them safely.

What if we could redesign common house stairs to make them safer for children? Even the most narrow stairway has at least enough width to accommodate a child’s height handrail. Functional? Yes. Is there a hidden opportunity for play here? Oh yeah. 


Enter the handrail surprise. It's a useable child’s handrail that folds down to become a stair slide. Tadaaa! For the more...adventurous families. This idea has been buzzing in my mind for years. During cold, snow-sparse winters like we can get here in Toronto, we inevitably spend a lot of time indoors. It’s hard to play at the park before it gets dark. We are tired, someone needs to pee, the baby’s heavy, ‘my hands are freeeezing’. Like most families, we hunker down and wrack our brains for physical indoor activities to do.  Balled-up sock fights, mattress ramps and couch forts happen in rotation. Even still, I’m always on the lookout for active and exciting things to do indoors that will expend kids’ energy. 

It's awfully fun. This handrail surprise prototype was built using only materials available at a regular hardware store. It’s designed to be divided into three sections for scaling the length of the slide to the age and capability of a child. 

Please share this post and comment below to let me know you want to learn more about how to accomplish this on your own stairs! If you'd like to get a heads up about new projects, manuals and home renovation resources, remember to subscribe here!



{Hammock/Nest} - A Drôle House Prototype

When kids share a bedroom, it is inevitable that one will utter "this side is MINE!" and attempt to negotiate a masking tape divider to mark their territory. While that certainly is one way to awknowledge a child's need for personal/sacred space, there are other possibilities. The vertical space of a room is generally underused, and that's right where this prototype fits in. Part hammock, part nest perched in the upper corner, it lends itself to multiple uses including night light, toy storage, reading nook, hiding space, lookout and tantrum tamer. It's made to hold one little body, so it's off limits to adults and group play. 

The two examples shown here hang from three i-hooks screwed up into the ceiling joists (very important!). One is reached from a wooden ladder tucked into the small space between interior wall and fireplace (fixed to ceiling and floor), the other has wooden holds drilled into a plaster-atop-brick party wall. Each climbing setup can be customized to keep very small children out. Easily put together, easily cleaned, easily dismantled. Appropriate for ages 3-8.

Welcome to Drôle House!

Welcome to Drôle House: Collaborative Design For Families. The business and website are up and running!

My name is Deborah Mesher. I have my Masters of Architecture, three energetic kids, and a passion for making old homes more functional, fun, and adaptive to modern families. Drôle House can help you with additions, renovations, playscapes and furniture from schematic design to permit and construction drawings.

I will be at the Wychwood Barns in Toronto on Sunday May 15th, 2016, woman-ing my booth at The Bump To Baby Show. It's free, so bring the family, come find me, see some inspiring projects, and get free design advice about your home.

Subscribe to my blog to know more and be one of the first to receive my FREE idea book about freeing up space in your home called The Extra Room.

Playfully yours,