The Art of Functional Design

The Art of Functional Design: The Wonder Years

playroom decor(image via Instagram @nr13b)

Ever wonder why you’re more attracted to certain designs than others? Or if certain things placed in a specific way will make you do a double take? Our brains are hardwired to respond to things that stimulates brain activity or elicit positive emotions. Things that provoke positive feelings often are triggered by past experiences and/or memories. And for little ones (we’re talking itty bitty ones), past experiences can mean a sudden memory to recent facial responses or movements of inanimate objects.

This is the key to firing a whole wack of neurons to activate certain brain functions at an early age. Moana was seriously right when she sang that “everything is by design” (yes, that is our new Frozen now). There is so much research out there on how to effectively promote cognitive, social-emotional, and communicative development in an enriched learning environment that something needs to be said about how this can be done at home; especially when we (as parents) spend so much time socializing and interacting with our child(ren) in our homes.

If you could design a room to help increase your child’s core competencies, would you? This means helping them activate certain areas of the brain at a higher level to help with brain development at a young age. What if I told you, you could? What if I told you, you could integrate your style in creating a room that you love AND help promote development?

Chances are, you’re probably already doing that – but simply unaware of it. But now that you’re about to become aware of it, you’ll only continue to enhance that level of interaction with your child even more.

kids playroom(image via Instagram @hudson_and_harlow)

When designing a space, it’s really important to understand why form should come after function. Meaning, understand the function of the room and space first, and then design it to individualize it to your style and what would provoke positive feelings in that space. A great article by Fresh Home gives a little insight about that. But when it comes to a child’s space, function takes on a whole other level.

If I could take anything from the last 15 years of clinical work with children, it would be that the environment we create will determine the socialization of the child. Ok, bare with me for a bit and let’s nerd this out for a second… it’ll help put things in perspective.

Socialization is a process described in which an individual acquires his or her own personal identity; the process in which one learns the values, norms, social behavioural patterns and social skills needed to integrate in and become a functioning member of society (Collins et al., 2000). Arguably, families, and later peer groups, communicate expectations and reinforce norms. Families set the foundation of what is considered the core values of the household, or community. In most research, this has been supported by using attachment theories and parenting styles to explain the development of the internal working model of an individual (Lamb & Lewis, 2011).

Ok – nerd time over. But, in short, before our children enter a world where their decisions are based on peer guidance (i.e. school), we as parents have an incredible influence on their development and who they will become in the future. The more we are able to socialize them between the ages of 0-5, the more we are able to cultivate their perspective of the world. A POSITIVE perspective. How does designing a room play a role in this? Easy, the way you define the function of the room plays a role in how you utilize the room. Is the playroom really for playing or for storing toys? Are preferred items that cause a positive association to your child easily accessible? Is your child able to communicate effectively to you their needs in a room? Are you providing opportunities for those communications to occur? Is there a space for your child to engage in independent play, successfully?

Believe it or not, the way a room is designed can truly help enhance your child’s cognitive, social, and communicative development. Where items are placed and how they are placed can actually help activate many areas of the brain. And when you activate those areas of the brain, you’re encouraging higher levels of functioning to occur. Here are some things to think about when designing, decorating, or organizing a child’s bedroom or play space:

  1. Get organized: Bins are not for throwing just ANY toys in.

It is imperative to keep things organized in its specific categories of play. This means the specific toys are stored in its respective bins. If possible, label with a picture or simple key words to increase recognition of sight words. The reason why bins shouldn’t be used as just storage bins for a range of toys is that because sorting and categorization is the first step to higher-level cognitive development. It is the prerequisite to much more sophisticated thought processes such as planned behaviour. Teaching how to sort at an early age can lead to stronger mental states in planned behaviour such as decision-making, executive functioning (working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control), and even language development.

  • Note: large bins can be used to store larger categorical play activities (e.g., things a child can do by him/herself) while smaller bins can be used to store specific play activities (e.g., lego, puzzles, vehicles, food, animals). A combination of both will effectively help keep things organized in small spaces.

kids room deco(image via Instagram @carlberg_home)

  1. Keep books low to the ground and child accessible:

Books are essential to the growth of many components in child development. Books are like water for our brains. It is truly a necessity. It helps create mental imagery that is significantly important for:

  • Communicative development (language),
  • Social development (connecting on shared experiences)
  • Emotional development (self-regulation)
  • Cognitive development (sight words or word association)

The point is, books are vital to our child’s well-being. So having books easily accessible will ultimately increase their ability to 1) get a book on their own 2) choose to read a book whenever possible 3) initiate book reading. Once this is done, you’ll quickly see how often they go to that little book nook you’ve set up. If space is limited, change up the books once in a while to keep things novel (see what I did there?).

bookshelf decor

image via Instagram (@maggieandrose)

  1. Provide a table space

Allowing a space for your child to sit/stand with a table surface is tremendously advantageous for development. Most of the time, your child would be playing on the ground simply because it is the largest surface area for activities. However, providing an elevated surface will encourage your child to work on their gross motor development (larger muscles in the arms, legs, and core) and fine motor skills (movement involving small muscle groups). A significant body of research has positively correlated having good motor control with increase in cognitive development. Furthermore, anytime a child is engaged in an activity at a table, they are more likely to focus for a longer period of time. Plus, kid furniture are so incredibly cute – you’ll probably start your design/décor ideas from that.

kids play decor

(image via Instagram @maggieandrose) 

  1. Provide high contrasting colour/images

By now you’ve seen or heard how high contrasting colours or images help stimulate brain activities in newborns. This is true. And it continues into adulthood. Whenever something is high in contrasting colours, it always catches our eyes and demands us to focus on it for just a little bit longer. This is why monochrome effects are so powerful; but this doesn’t mean every room should be monochrome. In fact, too much may be overly stimulating for newborns. As long as there is something highly contrasting in the room (whether it be bright toys on the shelf against a white wall or white prints against a dark background) this will provide some stimulation to the brain that can help activate other components through decor


  1. Print out family photos

In this digital age, it is sometimes difficult to get actual photos printed out in your home, let alone have them framed and neatly organized. However, studies have shown that looking at pictures enhances our communication skills by increasing our attention, comprehension, recall, and adherence. For little ones who may not yet have the vocabulary to communicate or have low literacy skills, pictures allow a way to connect a 2D image with the 3D world, thus strengthening their language development. Furthermore, family photos of specific events (vs. portrait photos) will help a child with their recall and episodic memory. A strong episodic memory promotes the ability to readily share experiences with others and improve on communication/conversation skills.

  • We love using our Polaroid camera for this. It’s instant and it allows us to immediately help our children connect the image to what is currently going on in their surroundings. These then can be hung in their room or around the house.

These are some of the fundamental key designs we take into account with every room we create for a family. Even though we’ve designed the room for its intention to be used in a meaningful way, a child cannot grow on his or her own without the scaffolds of a loving adult. And for a loving adult to scaffold a child to become a better version of themselves, meaningful spaces must also be created to help with one’s emotional well-being. We often put our children’s needs first (even when it comes to designing their rooms), that many of our rooms in the house get neglected. It is important that we strive to create a space for ourselves that provides positivity and meaning to our daily lives. With every design project that we are lucky to be involved in, that is our goal for each family/business. It is to help find that positivity and meaning amongst the choas. To find more on this incredible topic, check out Karla Dreyer’s published work on the art of “Hygge design – the art the practice.” Everything is certainly by design.

I hope this piece helps guide the design of your family space. Leave a comment to let me know what you think and of course, if you have any questions, feel free to let me know and I would be happy to dive into a deeper discussion regarding your vision.



Collins, W.A., Maccoby, E.E., Steiinberg, L., Hetherington, E.M., Bornstein, M.H. (2000).

Contemporary research on parenting: The case for nature and nurture. American Pscyhologist, 55 (2), 218-232.


Lamb, M.E. & Lewis, C. (2011). The role of parent-child relationships in child development. In

M.E. Lamb & M.H. Bornstein (Eds.) Social and Personality Development: An Advanced Textbook (pp. 259-308).


9 Replies to “The Art of Functional Design”

  1. Fantastic tips Jo! Although I have a ways to go with organization, I’m not terribly off track with the function. Yay! It’s the design I need to work on for my home.

  2. Love this well written, informative, pun-included/intended post! Keep this up, I enjoy and appreciate reading about interior design, especially in relation to children development.

    Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much Nadia. There will be more to come. I just didn’t want to overwhelm the post as there’s so much from every part of it I could touch on. Thank again for the support.

  3. Lovely post. Just found your blog. Love your perspective on child development. I’m curious about your background! Or maybe it’s written here in your “about” 🙂

    1. Hi Karen, yes! It’s in my “about” page. Well, just a bit of it. My background is in neuropsychology and child development. I have my masters in Education psychology and special education with a concentration in autism. I’ve worked with individuals and families living with autism for 15 years and the last couple of years I stepped away from my practise to be with the kids. Will I ever go back, not sure yet. But for now, I think I’ve found a way to combine the two and share some of the things I used to do to help create a conducive learning environment for each child/family I worked with. Thanks for reading and the kind words! Looking forward to connecting with you more.

  4. Such an important blog for parents. It’s just amazing to see how little changes can have an amazing impact on child development and most importantly relationships with others. Nice work!!!

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