You know those stories about savvy entrepreneurs who wake up in the middle of the night with a perfect idea for a new business? This is one of those stories. It centers on Karri Bowen-Poole, a former teacher and mother of three who was searching to find a way to continue to share her educational experience and expertise with families—but to do it outside of the classroom. Her brilliant middle-of-the-night brainstorm? A business that would design playrooms to function more like classrooms, where the physical layout of the room naturally encourages children to play and learn.
The result is Smart Playrooms, a seven-year-old business based in Rye, which Bowen-Poole runs with co-owner Christine Simpson, also a local mom and former educator. The company served a record 75 clients last year throughout Westchester and Fairfield counties and New York City, and is continuing to grow rapidly.
Just what is a so-called smart playroom? Bowen-Poole and Simpson define their approach to designing children’s playspaces with a thorough understanding of child development as “educational design.” They feel their tagline (Smart Design. Smart Play.) says it all: “We believe that the design of a room greatly affects the behavior, learning, and playing of a child (Smart Design). Our goal is to create leaning spaces that naturally help children learn and grow just by the way they are set up (Smart Play),” they say.
Ultimately, Bowen-Poole notes, “Our spaces foster a love of learning, because we think carefully about making sure the toys and materials are developmentally appropriate, challenging, and fun.”
Here’s how it works: A typical client is a parent who is interested in making their children’s spaces more efficient and effective. “This may mean decluttering the playroom because it has too many toys, creating a more dynamic play area because their children have outgrown the current layout and toys in the playroom, or setting up a productive and more functional homework area,” Bowen-Poole explains. After an initial consultation with a client to determine their needs and desires, the Smart Playrooms team emails an in-depth proposal with all of their general ideas and fees. Once accepted, the Smart Playrooms team goes to the space and starts brainstorming. After about a week, the team will present mood boards, layout plan, and a Power Point presentation to the client.
Left to right: Karri Bowen-Poole and Christine Simpson, owners of Smart Playrooms
“In addition to showing our storage, furniture and toy suggestions, we thoughtfully explain the educational benefit of every activity we recommend,” they explain. Once items are agreed up and purchased, the Smart Playrooms team (along with contractor and/or handyman) come to do the installation and evaluation/organization of toys in the same day. “All toys are thoughtfully labeled in bins and baskets with words and photos so the children can independently find and put away the materials with ease,” Simpson explains.
The costs of their projects vary greatly, the entrepreneurs explain, because of the varying scale and scope of the playspaces they design. “Some playrooms are empty spaces and need everything from flooring to walls, whereas some playrooms just need a few minor smart touches. Our commercial playrooms can be up to $75,000 with contractor services, and our smaller residential projects can be as little as $750,” Simpson says.
One trend they are happy to report on is that families are asking them for higher-quality work like designing playhouses, creating pretend markets, and installing indoor jungle gyms or ropes, etc. “This demand for more sophisticated building has increased our overall sales per client, which is now about three times the amount per client that it was just two years ago,” Simpson explains.
To further the company’s growth, the women have also added a Smart Playrooms consultant in San Francisco, and introduced a new concept this year: Playroom in a Box.
“We wanted to give families and businesses who are outside of New York and Connecticut—and those handy men and woman who love to DIY—an easy and affordable option to still have a smart playroom or homework area,” they explain. The Playroom in a Box starts with clients answering a questionnaire, then sending photos and measurements of their space; Smart Playrooms then sends the client a list of design ideas with links for purchasing specific items. The box also includes the company’s signature labeling system, with photos and labels for the bins and/or baskets.
The women aren’t content to stop here, however—their ultimate goal, they say, is “to grow the business so every family around the US can have a smart playroom.”