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Kidspace : Creating Places for Children Gives Them Room to Grow

March 07, 1993|KATHY A. PRICE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Price is a Santa Barbara free-lance writer.

When 7-year-old Jed D'Abravanel comes home from school, the two-bedroom home he shares with his mother, Kore, teaches him further powerful lessons about himself and his life.

For instance, Jed learns about his own importance by having his own living room, next to the regular living room. There--in a space complete with a small table and chairs, an easel, shelves for his toys and a library section for his books--Jed can be near his mother and her guests and still read, paint and play with his toys. A folding screen partially separates the two areas, creating a psychological line that both mother and son agree the toys must not cross.

According to D'Abravanel, this arrangement also teaches her son about respecting other people's spaces.

"When he knows what's his, what's mine and what's ours, he can relate better to the world," she said. "And we have less conflict."

Hundreds of years ago, the special needs of children in the home were not so clearly recognized. According to Karin Calvert, author of "Children in the Home: The Material Culture of Early Childhood 1600-1900," childhood in the 17th Century "simply had no positive attributes of its own considered worthy of expression." Then, for example, crawling was frowned on as a bestial activity and was prevented as much as possible, Calvert said.

But today, child psychologists believe that homes like Jed's, which are set up to nurture a child, while still respecting adult needs, can help a child develop into an adult with strong feelings of self-esteem, inner security and peace.

Outside Jed's home, there are more lessons for him about life. He learns about his connection with the earth in his yard, which has been transformed from an English garden to what he calls "a clearing in the woods."

"It's very natural without killing anything," D'Abravanel said.

This connection with nature is "grounding" for her son, explained D'Abravanel, a Santa Barbara-based architectural designer. "In the suburbs and in the city, children are being removed from what's really natural. When that happens, they lose touch with reality." She said Jed's closeness to nature helps him be calmer and "more at peace with the world."

At night, Jed gets a feeling of security when he climbs up into his special cubbyhole bed, his mother said. The cozy space was fashioned from the top half of D'Abravanel's closet, which is on an adjacent wall. She doesn't begrudge him the extra consideration. To her, the physical environment of a home should be based on a simple premise: "I think it's very important that the house reflect the people."

According to child psychologists, architects and interior designers, there is much that parents can do in the home environment to increase their children's well-being.

For example, they can help foster the child's self-esteem by placing his or her name and image around the house. Adding a lower rod in the family coat closet to give young children access to their own garments can give them feelings of autonomy. And some of the stress children have from living in a world designed by and for adults can be lessened by placing some of the home's artwork at child's-eye level.

"The house should be comfortable for whoever lives there," said Jill Waterman, a clinical child psychologist, adjunct professor of psychology at UCLA and the mother of 8-year-old twins.

"And if that means changing the house a little, I think that should be done," she said.

To give children a feeling of security, she suggests offering children pint-sized beanbag or rocking chairs in the living room.

Further, she said, "Kids need to have some space to call their own." This doesn't necessarily mean a room of one's own. Even a desk will do. "Kids need stuff that's their own," she said. "It allows the child to develop a separate sense of self. This is me. This is myself.

"A child should have an appropriate space that's just theirs for eating," Waterman said. "On a very basic level, it makes them feel secure. 'When I'm here, I get taken care of.' "

Another way to help children develop a sense of self is to ask them how they want their rooms decorated.

"You may think they would like baseball paper, but what they really want is butcher paper to draw on," Waterman said. "The way they want it may not be high fashion, but it's the way they want it."

Psychotherapist Lillian Carson put that same idea to the test decades ago, when her three children were small and she allowed them to decorate their own rooms.

"They each had very definite ideas, very different from my ideas," Carson recalled. "This delighted me. And it horrified me that I was going to impose my ideas on them."

During the decorating process, it was a struggle for Carson to support her 10-year-old daughter's choice of multicolored carpeting and her 5-year-old daughter's choice of wallpaper. But the end results were profound.

"The upshot is they loved their rooms," Carson said. "They loved cleaning up and taking care of their rooms. It was a real statement of themselves."

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