A haven for homework

Howard Dwoskin takes a call while daughter Julie (left) and wife Linda chat in the former homework center that Linda Dwoskin created for about $20,000. She and her husband use it now.
Howard Dwoskin takes a call while daughter Julie (left) and wife Linda chat in the former homework center that Linda Dwoskin created for about $20,000. She and her husband use it now. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)

Creating a personal work space eases a student's nightly grind. The design need not be fancy, experts say, but should be orderly - and fun.

Posted: September 01, 2012

During their early school years, Linda Dwoskin's two girls did their homework in a spare room off the main living area of their Dresher house, mainly so Dwoskin could lend a hand if needed.

The computers were there - allowing Dwoskin to monitor the girls' use - as well as a mishmash of collected tables and beloved books.

But when the girls were nearing high school four years ago, Dwoskin decided to update the 11-by-14-foot room into a stylish homework center. In came two handsome built-in desks, one for each daughter, with cabinetry for storing supplies. A cork board was added to hold messages and daily reminders. Customized floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves were installed, surrounding the room, while two chairs and a sofa completed a sophisticated sitting area. Total cost: nearly $20,000, but Dwoskin says it was worth it.

These days, with both daughters away at college, the room serves as a library where Dwoskin and her husband, Howard, both attorneys, handle the household budget, pay bills, or sit and read.

Although the Dwoskins chose a big-budget redo to transform a large space, there are shrewd options (try dual-purpose furniture) for small spaces (think vertical) and smaller budgets. The goal is to create a designated personal work space - a smart way to establish calm and organization amid the nightly homework grind.

First, consider the purpose of homework: It should reinforce material taught, help a child develop study skills, and teach independence, says psychologist Susan Anderer, who evaluates students for learning difficulties, reading disorders, and underachievement.

Younger children should do their homework near a parent, in case they need help, such as at a kitchen or dining room table, where they can spread out their supplies. Then, starting around middle school, kids can move to another available room - they usually choose their bedrooms - as long as they have a suitable work space free from distractions.

"And there's always the dilemma on whether to limit computers, especially if they need them for schoolwork," says Anderer. These days many school districts - like Lower Merion, where Anderer's own three children are students - have turned paperless, and students need the Internet to complete assignments.

Next, take into account the personality and physicality of your homework-doer, says Sandy Lubow of Moorestown, a 35-year design veteran who decorated the Dwoskins' library.

A self-starter doesn't need designated organizational systems. And a symmetrical desk catering to a lefthander could allow better positioning when doing multiplication tables. A mix of funky but functional desks, and a few for lefties, are sold at SmartFurniture.com starting at $599.

Susanna Salk, author of Room for Children: Stylish Spaces for Sleep and Play and a frequent contributor on the Today show, says that when her boys were little, they did their homework at the kitchen island while Salk prepared dinner.

But now that her boys are 12 and 17, Salk says she feels more comfortable allowing them to do their homework in their bedrooms.

"They need more quiet time to prepare and concentrate for tests," says Salk.

Wherever your child goes, it's best to use accessories and furniture that can have a second life. Salk, who is scheduled to appear on a Sept. 11 Today show to list the best kids' items to last from nursery to teen years, suggests using circular dining room tables from Crate & Barrel, or its hipper affiliate CB2, as desks.

"They fit nicely in a variety of rooms, and they don't look so corporate," says Salk, who lives in New Preston, Conn. "And I'll use melamine glasses and dishes with fun motifs for pens and paper clips."

Rather than relying on one overhead light, Salk suggests bringing in a floor lamp with good directional light, or if you have the space, two matched table lamps look nice. For a full range of styles for the pint-size set on up to the kid heading off to college, check out Target's lamps, some for as little as $12. Clip-on desk lamps with goosenecks (starting at $20 online) lend a modern feel and need only a sliver of space.

Center City-based interior designer Susan Hopkins likes to make kids' homework areas orderly but fun, whether she's working in a 6,000-square-foot mansion or in a one-bedroom urban apartment.

"If the kids are studying about the world, I'll hang a large map," says Hopkins, who has a 3-year-old son.

For a special-needs child, Hopkins painted the wall of a playroom-turned-study area with magnetic paint to hold letter and number magnets. It was a big hit with the child's therapist, who used it as a tool for fine motor skills.

Despite the urge, avoid any bold or primary colors in a homework area, especially red - "It's an anxious color," - says Hopkins. Instead, use spa colors like softer blues, greens, or earth tones.

Younger kids especially don't need anything too hip or fancy, says Becky Harris, a writer for Houzz.com, which boasts more than 500,000 photos of interior design and decorating ideas. A solid flat surface, like laminate or wood, with a comfortable chair adjusted to the correct height, works just fine. One of her furniture favorites is the Parsons desk from West Elm, starting at $249.

"It's sustainable because when the kids head off to college, you can move it into another room, like a foyer," says Harris.

Before launching the design blog Apartmenttherapy.com in 2001 to showcase big solutions for small spaces, Manhattan resident Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan taught elementary school for seven years. Gillingham-Ryan, whose own daughter is 6, says he would visit his students at home during the school year - those who had a designated work area did the best in his class.

"We're at a stage where people are opting for authentic solutions that will last awhile," says Gillingham-Ryan, who has also written three design books and appears on HGTV's Mission: Organization.

This approach sometimes includes retrofitting a closet or a niche behind a door for a homework area. Older apartments sometimes have higher ceilings, so think vertically and install shelving that can display items in a curated way. Or use affordable space-saving units like the customized Elfa system from the Container Store. Gillingham-Ryan also recommends using the whimsically designed (animal decals, polka dots) storage binders, boxes, and bins from Bigso of Sweden or Russell and Hazel of Minnesota.

One of Gillingham-Ryan's favorite tips is to install the 4-foot-long Lagan countertop ($39) from Ikea.

"It's not fancy, but it works well."

Craig Lord, of R. Craig Lord Construction Co. in Moorestown, has been asked to put countertops and shelving in a home's mudroom to double as a homework area.

"Maybe it's the economy," says Lord, in business for 32 years, "but a lot of homeowners are trying to maximize every square foot of their homes."

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