On scruffy spaces

Before I had children, I liked to think about how I would decorate their rooms. I collected Pinterest boards full of images like this, full of colorful, whimsical objects.

Now that I’ve actually tried it, I see more of the backstory behind these photos. Know who assembled, maintained, and photographed these rooms? Adults.

What kind of young child wants their toys to be 5 feet in the air where they can’t reach them? And what kind of child puts their things away quite so tidily?

Lily’s room looked a little bit like one of these for about 20 minutes before she moved in. Now it looks like this:

The pieces of green tape are how she decided to cover up some holes in the wall. The string is a zipline for stuffed animals. The box next to her pillow is a bedroom for her beloved My Little Pony keychain. The dragon and bat decorations are ones she punched out of a wizard-themed activity page and wanted hung from her ceiling. The lightbulb’s light does not match the light of the other lightbulb in the room, but she declared she liked having mismatched lightbulbs and does not want me to change it. The curtains are usually shut because we made some heavy duty velcro-sealed blackout curtains when we decided we cared more about our children sleeping past dawn than about having the lovely sunny lighting you see in the above pictures.

In short, this is a child’s room, not an adult’s photo op.

Now let’s look at the back yard. Recently I wanted to ask for advice about what to do with the decrepit shed in our backyard, and once I saw the photo on my screen was kind of horrified at how ugly it all is.

Some of the people I asked advised me to tear down the shed in the pavement, and put in a classier patio and a pergola, something like this:

As I considered whether we’d want such a space, one of my thoughts was, “Where would we put the dirt pile?”

The adults in our household are not the main users of our backyard, and I suspect we still wouldn’t be even if it were nicer by adult standards. The main users are these people:

They love the dirt pile. It’s left over from when Jeff dug a hole in our basement to put in a sump pump. I intended to get rid of the dirt somehow, but it became the site of burrowing plastic animals, irrigation canals, and acorn plantings. Anna has been working on “projects” there since she was old enough to pick up a stick.

Other much-used features of the backyard are the sandbox, the bucket on a pulley hanging from the fire escape, various buckets of mud, the rain barrel, the watering can, shovels, a bunch of rocks, and a lot of fluff Lily has scattered around in the hope that birds will use them for bird nests.


Now a word on decluttering and items that “spark joy”. To look at the visuals on decluttering websites, you would think that the items that spark joy only include ones in a harmonious color scheme that photograph well.

Here is an item that sparks joy for Anna:

It’s a torn foam earplug. I don’t know where it came from. Anna loses it among her other possessions, but she’s always excited to see it again when it emerges.

Adults and children living together is an act of compromise, even on top of the different preferences that individuals of any age have. For the most part, our house has different zones: the kitchen and basement are adults-only, the living and dining rooms get taken over by the kids and their stuff during the day but get tidied in the evening, the play room is the kids’ domain except for corners for Jeff’s music and my sewing, the backyard is mostly a kid construction area, the front garden is mine, and everyone’s bedroom is up to them. (Admittedly most of the “mama papa room” as we call it is done to my taste and occupied by my stuff, because Jeff is generous to me and owns a lot less stuff than I do.)

If anything, I think shared spaces should be slanted more toward kids’ needs than adults’. A lot of adult life takes place through words and screens. Kid life is much more physical, and more of their activity consists of interacting with physical objects.

This strategy does not result in anything Instagram-worthy. I think some people must have an intrinsic preference for spaces that are tidy in that very specific way, and would enjoy tidying their spaces even if no one could observe it. But for most people I’m guessing tidying is something we do largely because of we expect other people will judge us, and being at home should probably be optimized for our own enjoyment.

I still care what things look like on camera, but I don’t endorse that as a worthwhile thing for me to put much effort into. I hope our kids continue enjoying their physical world as long as possible before they start second-guessing how it looks.

Related pieces by other people:
In praise of scruffy hospitality
Give me gratitude or give me debt

4 thoughts on “On scruffy spaces

  1. Craig C

    These days, as a grandfather, I look upon most play-scenes and think foremost about safety — un-rounded corners, hidden sharp objects, tripping hazards and the like. I look back on my fatherhood and cringe at the many ways I was lax — a big plywood toybox I built with a heavy lid with sharp corners and hinges on it that would have sliced their fingers off if the lid fell and their fingers were in there — a wooden sandbox also with sharp outside corners — times when I bicycled with one of them strapped into a “child seat” on the back on my bike — augghh! Yet they survived. I still wish I had been more safety-minded back then. – Craig

  2. Ruthie

    I think the earplug came from me. I’ve occasionally given them to Anna when she plays in my room because she loves them so much.

  3. Pingback: Baby stuff I’d get again, the third time around | The whole sky

  4. Pingback: Experiences in raising children in shared housing | The whole sky


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