Creating the Perfect Playhaus Designs in Suburbia

Sep 15, 2023

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.”

As parents of three children under four years old, the two of them often discussed how they could share their experiences with younger kids and families. However, they hadn’t quite figured out the perfect format for it. Then, when COVID-19 struck, the need for their idea became clear.

“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 Playhaus Designs 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 Designs process, as described by Dara and Liz, begins with a thorough assessment of the family’s space. They engage in conversations with the parents, and occasionally with the children, to identify the most suitable course of action. These discussions revolve around understanding the family’s dynamics, their interests, the ages and developmental stages of the kids, and the intended use of the space, both presently 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

The Playhaus Designs team has been busy crafting distinctive spaces for area families in recent months. Dara noted that one of the most frequent requests lately is for activity rooms, particularly with the approach of colder months. As she explained, these activity rooms typically involve the installation of two-inch rubber flooring and building wall-to-wall activity stations. These stations may include climbing bars, swings, rock climbing walls, and trapeze equipment. Another sought-after option is craft rooms, providing families with a dedicated space for their creative endeavors of all kinds.

“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.” Liz says all this 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 Designs

The next big project on the horizon for both Dara and Liz is the construction of their current and future homes. Dara, along with her husband and their 18-month-old, currently resides in Williamsburg. They are currently collaborating with Suburban Jungle to explore various NYC suburbs, aiming to find a town and a home where they can create a unique 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.”

Similarly, Liz is in the process of planning her family’s play space, but she doesn’t have any plans to relocate. Her family, which includes her husband, four-year-old daughter, and two-year-old son, has been residing in New Jersey for a decade, with a move 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 a while. There will be a life-size dollhouse and some climbing or workout space. I’m also planning my own play space. There will definitely be 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.”

Additionally, Dara and Liz have their sights set on commercial spaces in the upcoming months. They’ve received inquiries from local businesses and apartment buildings interested in creating safe, socially-distanced play spaces. However, most of their current work still revolves around in-home projects for families in and around the tri-state area. It’s a line of work they never anticipated but 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 play space? Finding your perfect home in the ideal suburb is easy. We can help! Get in touch now to schedule your free Suburbs Strategy session.

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