Penny Jackson on giving children space in the city
IN her perfect pink room, three-year-old Paige has no doubts about her favourite plaything. She gets up off her white sofa (washable) and opens the front of a town house with a flourish to reveal a fridge and cooker. Real ones that is. This Potemkin village is much more than a painted facade.

It is a child's world in a London house rather than just a child's room. The street scene which fronts the row of cupboards along one wall is as meticulous in its detail as every other item of framed and mounted memorabilia in the room.

Mary Hall, an interior designer and mother of Paige and Emily, seven, clearly does not belong to the hand-me-down school of decoration. "I wanted to create something special for the children that was nothing like the rest of the house," she says. "Everything is pink and white - the curtains, the picture frames, the kettle. When they come in here to play with their friends it is their own world. They have their drinks in the fridge and sink to do the washing up and they love it. They even love doing the washing up."

Parents in town seem prepared to spend more on their children's rooms than those in the country. There are no useful outhouses to colonise and urban space is at a premium, which is not helped by the fact that as more reception rooms are knocked through so there are fewer places to hide the clutter of toys and games.

If children are to be persuaded to play upstairs then it should be a pleasure rather than a penance, is Mary Hall's thinking. "I find I spend a lot more time up there with the girls than I might have done. It's an escape for me as well. You have to use your imagination, but be practical as well. The houses are made from panels of wood which can easily be removed from the cupboard doors. If you spend a fortune painting murals, it's awful when the children outgrow the pictures. But you can make these cupboards look different by changing the materials in the windows or the knobs or whatever."

The real test will come with the Halls' new loft-style home - just down the road from their present house - in the Piper Building, the 1950s Fulham office block that is not naturally associated with family life or pink- and-white gingham. "At the moment I am thinking of designing something for the girls in the shape of a vast jigsaw," she adds.

Often the simplest solutions to creating playspace go down the best. Simon Knox, an architect, was asked by one of his family how they could use a whole floor as a nursery, without the loss of one of the rooms. "We made a circular opening 6ft in diameter between the two rooms, which let the light through but kept the areas separate. It was painted brightly with one step and the children thought it was wonderful. They felt it was special and at the same time the adults could keep an eye on what was happening in the other half."

The next project for his own children is a garden den - something with a deck and sliding doors where they can sleep as well as play. Anna Markham, who inherited a rickety treehouse in her Sussex home, has seen it grow into a child's paradise of walkways and rope ladders. "They play pirates, have picnics, secret meetings, and have even slept there," she says.

"Most of the materials have been recycled so it has cost us virtually nothing. The trouble is that now the older children are planning how they can get a cable here for a television, which wasn't the point at all."

But for those who would prefer something less Heath Robinson, ready-made houses provide the answer. Not the plastic kind with the roofs that lift off, but something that looks more like the country cottage in a child's drawing and costs at least pounds 16,000.

When Toni Friend first saw a Wendyhouse made by the Children's Cottage Company, it was instant love. "It was wooden and thatched. My husband thought I was mad, but I knew that the children would adore it. We have three sons and they spend an enormous amount of time in it which is perfect for me because I like the house spotless."

For those who have seen neglected playhouses decline into outdoor toy dumps, her decision has been vindicated. "It has carpet and specially made furniture and the boys have planted bulbs in the window boxes. In the summer they have picnics there and in the winter they go out with flasks of hot chocolate. The beautiful thing is they can play imaginary games there with nothing to distract them."

Toni Friend even woke her children up one night in order to show the cottage to a Greek couple passing through London. "You have to see it to appreciate it. And children will always look after something that is special."

So how much does is all this effort appreciated by buyers. Unfortunately it can be all a terrible waste. Beaney Pearce has just sold a house with a gorgeous children's room, more usually seen in magazines than real homes. The buyer has no family and will be redecorating forthwith.

Children's Cottage Company: 0171 223 0876; Stonehall Design: 0171 621 9593; Mary Hall's house is for sale through Douglas & Gordon: 0171 731 4391.

Comments