When I was pregnant, I did all of the supposed “right” things to incubate a healthy baby. Worked out regularly. Avoided raw fish. Shunned hot tubs. Listened to jazz and classical music while she kicked my midsection. But what I didn't expect when I was expecting was that the decor in my baby's nursery would directly impact her intellect.
My friend Dr. Paula Madrid is a child psychologist turned interior designer at Paula Madrid Interiors. She's also the mother to a beautiful daughter—as I would be in a few months—and my former roommate, so there was pretty much no one more qualified to help me design my nursery. As soon as Paula stepped into my Brooklyn apartment, I realized her scope of work would go beyond choosing a spacious crib and pretty curtains. “Think about how to use the space to enhance their cognitive development,” she told me. (Isn't that what preschool is for? I thought.)
Paula taught me there's a science to crafting a beautiful and functional nursery to help your child grow—and it doesn’t include expensive toys or fancy furniture. Instead, it’s about being mindful about your room’s accessories. Items that encourage learning and play help develop what’s called executive functioning, which is controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain. “It enables people to have good impulse control and plan for the future, and it helps with their motivation,” Paula says. "It can be key to academic and social success.” Both things I would do anything to help my baby girl achieve.
As Paula and I chose wall hangings and other accessories for my pink-and-gray, animal-themed nursery, she organically incorporated brain-friendly items into the decor. Judging by the way my toddler now loves to read and rattles off her ABCs with enthusiasm, the design was a good thing. Looking to build a smarter nursery? Here are the four key takeaways you should consider:
Add baskets or buckets for sorting. Most parents will include storage units, baskets, or boxes in a kid’s room, but what’s key is making them accessible to kids so they, too, can use them. “It’s not just a basket to put things away, but how are we going to use it to teach about counting and colors and sorting and those skills that build the frontal cortex?” Paula says. Place easy-to-access storage units at baby’s fingertips and talk her through picking up and replacing her things. “That’s going to result in a successful kid when they start school.”
Place bookshelves at a child’s eye level. Instead of placing books on wall-mounted shelves, put them at a height your child can reach. They’ll choose stories they want to read on their own, instead of waiting for a parent to choose for them. “If books or toys are too high up, a child will think they’re forbidden,” says Paula. “You don’t want a child to think that a book is forbidden.”
Incorporate a parent’s childhood toys or furniture. Have an old stuffed animal you’ve held on to since you were a kid? Pass it on to your child. “It incorporates storytelling,” Paula explains. “You can talk about how Grandma gave Daddy this stuffed animal, and when Daddy played with it this is what he used to do. This teaches grammar and syntax to your child.” And items that aren’t, say, merchandise from Disney’s latest movie franchise will help expand a child’s vocabulary. For example, I hung a large wood carving of a scene from the old children’s song “The Teddy Bears' Picnic” in my daughter’s room that once hung in my husband’s childhood room. Talking about the carving with my daughter introduces a whole new set of words into her vocabulary: ”wood,” “curves,” “carving.” Says Paula: “Incorporating textures and shapes expands their knowledge.”
Be sure there's a table of their own. A small table at which a child can sit, read, do crafts, or have tea parties with imaginary friends teaches many lessons. “It encourages proper eating behavior,” Paula says. It teaches them there’s a moment to sit quietly and engage in an activity, that there’s a place and a time for everything. When you sit at a table, your attention is more focused than when you're running around.” Child-size furniture also encourages physical development. “They’ll improve hand and eye coordination and fine motor skills, and are more likely to use utensils properly.”