Travelling with kids is usually tricky – there are nappies that need changing, food that needs heating and you are constantly navigating through the curious pairs of hands and feet itching to be out of the cushy pram seats.
Needless to say, this trickiness is magnified in shopping centres. Let me put forth a simple exercise: the next time you are at the shops, notice the families with kids in tow – how many of the kids look happy? And the parents seem relaxed?
Not many, I can tell you that.
A shopping centre, unless treats are promised, is not a place that children particularly like to be. The iPads make it a bearable experience – while of course, the guilt of temporarily turning your child into a hunchback nudges away at you the whole time. The promise of toys, even two on the particularly difficult days, will help everyone survive, but do we really want to make a habit of that?
The fact that modern day perceptions make parenting now a near impossible feat, parents of this generation are relying heavily on the amenities of the places they visit much more so than previous generations. As designers, and clients, it is important for us to keep our eyes and ears open as to what the actual needs are, for the spaces we design and the services we provide. Being a parent, especially to younger children, makes you sneaky and creative. At home, you learn to open the chocolate wrapper without making any noise and outside, on errands, you learn how to calm the minds of the small humans.
Good parents’ rooms are a necessity for kids to be free from the shackles of prams and carriers and, for parents to recharge. Parents now tend to be quite the experts at working around the location and services of these rooms. The Melbourne CBD is well-known for its parental pit-stops. The parents’ rooms at Myer and David Jones on Bourke, the much loved Melbourne Central Parents’ Retreat on Swanston and, further down on St Kilda Rd, the NGV parents’ room along with, more recently, the space offered at Emporium. The numerous parental blogs and online support sites will rate parents’ rooms and amenities and it will, in most cases, decide whether its numerous readers and ‘followers’ will visit that place…or not.
The past few years have seen the parents’ rooms go through a wide evolution. From the initial recognition of the need for baby change/nursing amenity areas, which were often housed together in the ambulant toilets. This shift has moved towards elaborate rooms which not only provide the basic necessities of changing and feeding, but also the added elements of play and relaxation.
Three Zones: Baby Changing, Feeding and Lounge / Play zones.
Baby Change Zones should include:
- Nappy change bays
- Nappy disposal bins
- Trash bins
- Soap dispenser
- Hand towel dispenser
- Basins to wash hands
- Step stools
All of these areas are classified as “wet” zones for the room (toilets are included here as well). Toilets with automated sliding doors are a big win. They eliminate the awkward struggle of holding open the door while attempting to jam a pram or stroller into the already cramped space. The stalls need to be large enough for prams to fit and be manoeuvred in and out of. There is an increasing trend of including the second, smaller toilet along with basins that are accessible to children – a life saver for families in the toilet training phases of life! A post from ‘A Man with a Pram in a Tram’ reviews wall-mounted fold out seats placed inside toilet cubicles in Japan. These allow you to safely secure an infant in the body carrier while you attend to your toilet matters.
Change stations can range from the very basic Koala Kare wall-mounted trays, to sleek bench tops with the bins neatly tucked away in drawers. Ideally, the spacing between each bay will allow for parents to have enough room on either side to comfortably change bub while having access to wipes and nappies. Changing stations can also be separated with wash basins at intervals.
From basics to luxury, some parent’s rooms are equipped to also help you survive through a nappy explosion while on the go, with larger and deeper wash basins installed in the counter that will allow you to give bub a thorough wash, or even a bath. Another honourable mention that I stumbled upon would be baby wipe warmers; they are amazing, especially for newborns, and especially in the winter. Talk about well researched!
Feeding Zones fall between wet and dry areas for a room. A meal preparation area (wet), and the actual feeding area (dry).
These meal prep areas will require the following:
- Bench space
- Hot and cold water provision/Filter tap
- Paper towel dispenser
This list is kept quite basic, usually because this area is used to make milk bottles or warm up food parents carry with them.
Feeding spaces require a bit more thought in the design aspect. The Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) has a rating system for nursing rooms nationwide, based on a set of criteria the rooms must meet (www.breastfeeding.asn.au). Feeding areas include private individual spaces for breastfeeding, and another area to feed older children, preferably with highchairs and/or kids table and chairs. The nursing rooms are often used to put babies to sleep, so a quiet corner, with dim soothing lights, is a dream for both child and parent, especially after a few hours out on the town. Soft music is also welcome and one of the criteria that could bump the room to 5-stars!
I recently came across an alternate, though related use for these nursing rooms. Many working mothers will travel to centres with the facility of a quiet, private nursing cubicle to express milk during their breaks. This can be a few times over the course of a day, and something for designers to keep in mind. Power point locations in these rooms, along with comfortable seating, as such are all the more crucial here.
Other aspects to determine the success of these rooms are of course cleanliness and security. Cleanliness must be ensured by the centre and checked regularly throughout the day. Security means that the main door to the room needs to be lockable, with the switch or button to the door out of reach from smaller heights. Security also involves the use of child-proof partitions at strategic locations throughout the room.
The flow and use of the room can be divided into these areas depending upon need:
- Only to use the baby change / toilet amenities (wet zones)
- Only to feed – so will head straight to the nursing cubicles or feeding area (dry, quieter zones)
- To decompress – children will play, while parents may sit with a cuppa (lounge/play zones)
Keeping these zones somewhat separate by using child proof partitions as such, can make the difference between a good parents’ room and a great one. Examine a scenario where a family is in a rush but needs to do a quick nappy change. They do not want to be distracted by the lounge/entertainment areas; so direct access to the wet zones will be much appreciated. On the other hand, parents out and about for a while will appreciate a relaxed lounge area with elements that kids can use to keep themselves entertained for half an hour – maybe they don’t even need to use any of the wet zone/dry zone amenities.
We know that shopping centre and market designs rely on clever and innovative tactics to keep both shoppers and potential shoppers in the centre for longer. The idea of course being based on studies showing that the more time spent within the shopping centre, even without a purchase, the more likely they are to deviate from their shopping lists and in turn, buy more than planned.
The key to encouraging parents to linger, quite simply, lies in the amenities for the kids there. Happy kids will mean happy parents and, as designers or owners of shopping centres, that should be a key goal.
To clarify here; successful services for babies and children in shopping centres do not include $2 cars strategically placed so that you, or rather, said child, cannot not see them! Having to negotiate with the little tyrants every few minutes about whether or not you have those $2 coins, while also being promised that its “only for 5 more minutes ok?” only contributes to multiplying stress levels.
The idea is to have proactive design. Proactive so that a trip to the shopping centre does not constitute as a waste of a beautiful day, especially in the summer.
Which brings me to the third zone for parents’ rooms: Lounge / Play zones.
The separation of what is meant to be a modest space, into zones and different areas can fool you into thinking about elaborate schemes, resourcing, and costs. However, the trick is to remember that the smallest things can fascinate these tiny humans…so it really does not require anything over the top. Designing parents’ rooms can actually be quite simple, while still being very effective. While books, a few simple toys, and a trusty TV will do the trick, the aim of a good design would be to get the users to engage with the space.
Being creative means that a wall can become a climbing frame and, if you are going to put in the padded mats beneath the frame, why not add on a small trampoline, or two? You only need a corner to install a cubby house – and perhaps a slide, too? It may just evolve into a place that excites the parents. Turning a tired coffee break into an enjoyable experience!
The possibilities are endless, and you will only need one of these elements to go from providing basic parenting amenities in a public setting, to a trip where time will be set aside just to spend in the Parents Rooms.
Team Coordinator, i2C Melbourne