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Summer may be behind us, but one of the patterns that emerged from popular culture during it may speak to insight that will continue to be relevant into the next year and beyond. In the midst of an ongoing economic crisis (in fact, during the very time period when the U.S. was at risk of going into default), some Americans made the dream of home ownership a reality for their kids…They’re not the live-in-my-basement-because-that-whole-get-a-job-after-college-thing-didn’t-work-out kids. Nor are they the bearers-of-my-first-grandchild kids. The recipients of these unhumble abodes are from the preschool set, but live a jet set lifestyle in their own backyards.

The “trend”: Parents paying the price so their kids can play house in style.

Where we’ve seen it:In our recent conference presentations on play, we’ve highlighted some of the innovation we’ve seen in playground plans over the past few years. Major cities have commissioned name brand architects to add style and substance to their newest playgrounds (New York’s Union Square and Brooklyn Waterfront Park), and the loose parts movement has made slides and monkey bars seem quite juvenileThe New York Timesfeatured an article about the over-the-top backyard bungalows that are cropping up in the most prestigious neighborhoods across the country...Dwell Magazine dedicated not one, but two issues (July/August 2011 and September 2011) to well-designed play spaces that let the modern mom and dad capture the clean, cool aesthetic that, in some cases, they may not be able to infuse to the same degree into their own home. And audience savvy HGTV created a new show, My Yard Goes Disney, to give families who can’t seem to leave the Magic Kingdom behind a chance to experience Imagineering in their own backyard. Sure, these parents aren’t funding this fantasy, but they’re more than happy to give their green spaces over to designers and to their kids.

What it means: We don’t know if the mainstream American will shell out the kind of funds required for high-end houses like the ones from a company called Posh Tots, but we think this fringe habit might have a future in the lives of more than a few families. But what will it look like? Starter homes of the same styles featured by these mini villa vendors? A cottage industry (no pun intended!) of mini designer furniture – itty bitty Eames chairs or pint-sized spas? We think it could speak to needs and desires that constitute a formula for today’s families that can be applied to more than just costly kiddie casas…

  1. The elevation of environments. Today’s parents rarely see a space that they don’t think has a consequence on their child’s well-being – be it their ability to learn, stay healthy or cultivate good taste. Parents may be willing to splurge on the artwork in their child’s room before purchasing a piece de resistance for their own parlor. Schools – especially charter schools – tout the importance of an inspiring learning environment as a legitimate expenditure.
  2. The baby budget loophole.  For cost-conscious moms and dads, the desire to indulge might be easy to deny when it comes to their own wants. But perhaps parents who have repressed their own retail inclinations might be ready for a release – in the form of spoiling their kids. This may motivate parents who can’t afford an adult-sized luxury to make their kids feel like kings of their own castle. And it might mean that a gift that makes parents feel like a hero to their tween or teen makes for a justifiable expense when the budget doesn’t really allow it.
  3. The return to home as habitat. With the real estate market (and every other market) less than predictable, homeowners, and especially families, might return to the notion of home as a place to live, not a sure-fire investment. To appeal to this nesting family, look for ways to make home feel more like a retreat…Foods that feel less like fuel-on-the-go, and more like a restaurant experience in their own dining room. Look for ways to help mom and dad model and re-model their kids’ rooms, and perhaps give them ways to teach their children an appreciation for design at the same time. And provide them with affordable ways to make their play spaces fantastic.
  4. The trickle-down effect of adult aesthetics. Instead of aging up kid culture (think Kidult), we think the pendulum has swung back in the other direction. We’ve already seen fashion find muses in the littlest stars (check out any celebrity magazine and you’re sure to see significant real estate given to Suri Cruise’s shoes or Kingston Rossdale’s hairdos). We already have sushi play sets for the littlest sous chefs. Across any category, look for high-end options to find an audience among a sub-set of parents who want to translate their aesthetic aspirations to a smaller scale.