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DIY: children's bedrooms

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I was cruising right along, hitting all the mile markers of adulthood --- finished school, landed a real job, bought a used car, got hitched, knocked up, the works. But no one makes it out of childhood without facing something that makes them say, "Whoa! Am I really an adult?" For most people, that moment occurs when they're getting a mortgage or having their first child. My "Whoa!" moment came when it was time to decorate my childrens' bedrooms.

            After I got over the fact that I was no longer a child, I hit another stumbling block: Children's décor is a saccharine wasteland where parents check their brains at the door. My husband and I weren't ready to join the ranks of parents hypnotized by the dizzying swirl of cutesy wall coverings and cheesy furnishings that fill interior design websites, magazines, and catalogs.

            Here's the basic formula: a glued-on border featuring a theme that is beaten to death in the rest of the room's details:

            Blue sailboat border,

            blue sailboat curtains,

            blue sailboat sheets,

            blue sailboat comforter,

            and blue sailboat throw rug.

            Who wants to spend any time in a room like this? And what happens when sailboats are out and dinosaurs are in?

            "Once you put that border up, you are stuck with that theme," says realtor and artist Jamie Columbus, mother of three-year-old Max and 18-month-old Lily. She and her husband, venture capitalist Richard Glaser, have taken a creative approach, designing their kids' rooms to evolve over time, reflecting what the children are interested in, Columbus says.

            She painted the furniture offbeat colors --- red, fuchsia, yellow --- that won't seem outdated any time soon. Instead of installing permanent, theme-based furnishings, she relies on flexible elements. Each child has a painted pegboard hung low enough so they can reach their dress-up clothes (Friday's Child, 34 1/2 State Street, Pittsford, 264-0444, $85 to $115). Rows of books leaning against the wall on the floor ensure that Max and Lily can grab one and "read" without having to confront a crowded bookshelf. Columbus rotates the books and dress-up items as the childrens' interests change.

            "Our rooms are not the easiest to clean," Columbus concedes. What she gives up in tidiness, though, she makes up for in playful and accessible rooms she and her husband also enjoy hanging out in.

Being on the move was a great liberator for my husband and me when it came to decorating. We were grad-school nomads, moving every couple of years. We were on the fly when our first son was an infant, so we were spared those stifling baby-room "musts": the poofy dust ruffles, the Pooh Bear paraphernalia, and the dumbed-down Mozart cassette tapes.

            Then, when our son was two, I was inspired by his budding interest in outer space. In deference to our peripatetic lifestyle, I made portable decorations. From a giant sheet of blue extruded foam insulation (available at any major hardware store, $10 to $30) I cut a four-foot-long spaceship à la Wallace and Gromit with a foam cutter (you can also use a knife). After slapping on a layer of white primer, I painted the whole thing red and drew the details on with one of those chunky graffiti markers.

            This was a lot easier than it sounds; I'm not too picky about things looking perfect. The kid was only two, after all. An artist friend made some papier mâché gold stars and a silver moon. My husband suspended them and the spaceship from the ceiling with dental floss, and we called it a day.

Other parents bring their own unique sensibilities to their childrens' bedrooms. Brockport communications professor Carvin Eison says his son, five-year-old Theron, sometimes talks about the colorful Sankofa bird his parents painted on his bedroom wall. Although Eison's quick to point out that the room is full of trains and cars and books, he is glad his son is also interested in Sankofa and the other images and symbols from creation stories around the world that are painted on his wall.

            He and his wife, Ghislaine Radegonde-Eison, an administrator at the University of Rochester's Frederick Douglass Institute, chose to decorate in this lively and unusual way because Sankofa stories remind them to remain connected to their origins. They want Theron to grow up aware of his place in history.

            "In order to determine the future," Eison says, "you should look at where you come from. You come from somewhere and significant culture came before you."

Unfortunately, our kids will have to learn about life's great truths somewhere else. It was all we could do, when we moved here with our two sons --- the big boy was four and his brother was a toddler --- to continue to feed their passion for all things outer-space in their new bedroom.

            The beat-up red rocket ship was relegated to the basement playroom and we set our sights on the international space station. What better metaphor could there be for a child's room? Like the space station, their room has been under construction for years. Like the space station, their room plays host to visiting astronauts (and aliens, and Darth Vaders, and even the occasional princess) from all over their earthly neighborhood.

            A space station needs interactive elements, so we looked into chalkboard paint (available at any paint store) and chalkboard fabric (Fabrics and Findings, 50 Anderson Avenue, $12 a yard). But we decided to go with magnets instead, and riveted a sheet of shiny metal onto the closet door. (Actually, I asked a heating and cooling company to do it for me, $50.) Not only does the metal door look like a serious space portal, it's a 7-foot-high magnet board.

            On one bare wall we attached lengths of clear dryer vent tubing that the kids enjoy throwing orange ping-pong balls into. Although I'm not sure what kinds of lights the space station has, I'm betting on rope lighting (Chase-Pitkin, $24 to $45). We strung up strands along the tops of the walls, and it looks really cool.

            What's a space station without a view of the heavens? We ordered a 9-by-13-foot photo mural of Saturn from the Edmund Scientifics catalog (www.scientificsonline.com, $80). More like wallpaper than a poster, it was a pain in the astral to hang. It covers one entire wall and the effect is dramatic --- Saturn, at five feet high, hovers over our bedtime ritual, making me feel like James and the giant peach.

Children can sleep anywhere, as long as it's not their own bed. The toddler rejected his crib and wanted to sleep on the floor. His big brother was attached to an old college-vintage futon that doubled as a couch. So our next challenge was finding beds that the boys would sleep in.

            One creative approach is to make something cool. When artist Martha O'Connor wanted her 10-year-old daughter Lyla to stop sleeping on the top bunk of her bunk bed, she didn't panic.

            "I wanted her on the bottom bunk because I couldn't reach up to kiss her goodnight," O'Connor says. She came across several yards of white fabric and envisioned a solution. O'Connor tie-dyed the fabric and draped it over the bottom bunk, creating a secret hideaway that Lyla couldn't resist. Lyla now sleeps within kissing distance on the bottom bunk in a psychedelic fort.

            But where do the astronauts sleep in the space station? We considered strapping the kids to the wall with Velcro. Then my husband came up with his homemade space-bed idea. Rather than buy tacky beds from a furniture store, he said, why not build them? Seeing my hesitation, he reassured me that by using plywood and painting the beds high-tech colors like black and silver, we could be original and save money.

            Most wives probably know that when a husband says he will save money by building something, it's code for, "I need to buy more power tools." But I was new to this game and I just wanted the room done. My husband went to the hardware store with my blessing and our charge card.

            Our children now have plywood twin beds that ended up costing us more than if we'd paid our way to the real international space station and brought the beds back from there. But what really matters is the kids love their beds, and --- I confess! --- their matching stars-and-planets sheets and comforters.

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