Creating the Perfect Playhaus in Suburbia

Sep 15, 2020

Playhaus Designs founders Dara Frank and Liz Santana aren’t just creating playrooms—they’re creating epic experiences for the entire family

When Dara Frank and Liz Santana first connected it was over their shared work on large-scale experiential events and installations for brands like Netflix, Crayola, Mattel and NBC.

“Our job was to bring brands to life and give consumers an incredible experience to remember,” Dara says. ”That could be a huge installation at Comic-Con or pop up Barbie tours or a Crayola experience.”

With three kids under four, the pair frequently chatted about ways to bring their experiences to younger kids and families — they just weren’t sure the exact right format. When COVID-19 hit, though, the need found them.

“We were actually looking at doing a pop up in the city when COVID shut everything down,” Dara says. “One of our entertainment clients approached us and asked if we’d build something for her kids. The rest is history!”

Creating custom experiences for families

From that ask, Playhaus Designs was born—and just months later Dara, Liz and their team of parents are hard at work developing and installing one-of-a-kind spaces. While each room is custom-designed to the family’s wants and needs, all center on fun, family togetherness and development.

“Everyone on our team is a parent, which helps,” Dara says. “But we also pull in so many different voices. We have Montessori teachers and occupational therapists and other experts who help guide many of these experiences to make sure they’re developmentally appropriate.”

The Playhaus process, Dara and Liz explain, starts with a comprehensive review of the family’s space and calls with the parents—and sometimes the kids—to determine the exact right next steps. Calls center on getting to know the family, their interests, the kids’ ages and developmental stage and what the space or spaces will be used for, now and in the future.

“We’re all about building timeless spaces families can use for the next 10 years or more,” Liz says. “This isn’t the time for some trendy character your toddler loves right now, but instead for a space that can grow with your entire family over time. Since every space is 100% custom built, we have so much flexibility to do that.”

From climbing walls to live-in dollhouses…and more

Over the last few months, the Playhaus team has created many unique spaces for families throughout the area. Activity rooms, Dara said, are among the top asks they’re getting right now, especially as colder months approach. In activity rooms, she explains, they typically lay two-inch rubber flooring, then install wall-to-wall activity stations—climbing bars, swings, rock climbing walls, and even trapeze equipment. Craft rooms are also popular, giving families a place to create anything and everything.

“We just completed a two-room installation in Connecticut,” Dara says. “The family did one active room with acrylic mirrors, a Tarzan swing and all kinds of climbing equipment. Then, we built out a life-size dollhouse that had everything—a mailbox and address on the outside, and floor-to-ceiling cabinetry, a secret garden swing, imaginative play corner, space for arts and crafts, a kitchen and vanity and themed wall decals and beautiful wallpaper on the inside.” All of this, Liz says, was built out in just 10 days while the family was on vacation. They wanted the installation completed before virtual school started so the kids would have a space to play during breaks.

Finding their future Playhaus

The next big build: both Dara and Liz’s current—and future—homes. Dara, her husband and their 18-month-old currently live in Williamsburg. Working with Suburban Jungle, the family is exploring the NYC suburbs in search of a town and a home where they can build a special playspace.

“When you have kids, your priorities shift,” Dara says. “We don’t need a city address anymore—but I’m from Miami and my husband is from South Africa. We don’t know the suburbs and we have no ties to any specific areas outside of the city. Suburban Jungle has been amazing helping us find towns that make sense for us—towns I’ve never heard of or never would have considered, but that are just perfect.”

Likewise, Liz is planning for her family’s playspace, but she isn’t planning a move. The family—including her husband, four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son—have been in New Jersey for 10 years, and moved to South Jersey three years ago.

“I can’t wait for Dara to move!” says Liz. “I’ve been planning for her future house for awhile. There will definitely be a lifesize dollhouse and some sort of climbing or workout space. I’m also planning my own playspace. There will definitely be really creative use of hidden spaces and tunnels and things—I see it as a bit of a prototype for what we’ll be doing more of in 2021.”

Also on Dara and Liz’s radar for the coming months: commercial spaces. They’ve been fielding requests from local businesses and apartment buildings looking to create safe, socially-distanced playspaces. Now, though, the bulk of their work remains in-home, with families in and around the tri-state area. It’s work they never imagined and now can’t imagine living without.

“To see the kids’ appreciation and excitement during the reveal—that’s why we do it,” says Liz. “That’s what keeps us going. These are the spaces we couldn’t have even dreamed about as kids—they’re that amazing! And we get to bring that magic to families every day. What could be better?”

The first step in building out your amazing playspace? Finding your perfect home in the ideal suburb. We can help! Get in touch now to schedule your free Suburbs Strategy session.

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