By Gabrielle.

My favorite part of this home tour is Megan‘s answer to my query “How did this house become your home?” I guarantee chills and a smile. The way life works out so often takes my breath away.

There’s some practical goodness in here, too, especially for those of you who may find yourselves on edge whenever the paints come down off the tip top shelf! Megan runs a design company that specializes in helping people set up kids’ art spaces, and she completely understands that not everyone enjoys a Jackson Pollock-esque living room at the end of a creative session. Enjoy the tour, Friends!

Q: Please introduce us to your family.

A: I live in a small cottage in Mill Valley, California with my loving husband, Aaron, our 16-year-old dog Shanti, and  our two little girls, Karuna and Ora. Karuna recently turned six, but could pass for 36 by the way she nurtures her little sister Ora, who is two. Whenever I leave them with a babysitter, Ora says, “Okay, Ra-Ra will be my mommy.” Ora is a spunky little girl, completely opposite of her sister, so they make a great duo!

Aaron and I met in college at a bar. It was the day after I returned from a solo trip through Europe and the Middle East.  According to him, I was emanating a traveller’s cheerful, free-spirited vibe. When I first saw him, he was sitting across the room, smiling at me like we had known each other forever. He had this look in his eye and huge dimples that drew me in. I have been smitten ever since.

Q: How did this house become your home?

A: We live in my grandmother’s old house that we rent from my father. I grew up in Oakland and would come out here often to visit, but I never thought I’d want to live here. I guess I was a city girl and couldn’t imagine settling down in the suburbs. It wasn’t until I got married and started thinking about having kids that Mill Valley suddenly became our dream destination. We begged my dad to rent this house to us – otherwise there was no way we could afford to live here – but he already had a tenant who had looked after my grandmother before she passed away, and he wasn’t about to displace her.

At this time, we were living about an hour north in Santa Rosa, and Aaron was commuting to San Francisco every day. We talked more and more about trying to find an affordable place in Marin County, not only to be closer to his work but also to his brother who lived here with his wife and two kids.

Here’s the crazy part of the story! As we were figuring all of this out, my brother-in-law’s wife tragically passed away after the birth of her third child. We packed up our things and immediately moved to Marin, sleeping on couches, to be with our family and help take care of our new baby nephew and his siblings. Three days later, my dad called and asked me, “Do you believe in serendipity?” I said, “Yes, why?” and he proceeded to tell me that after more than 15 years of living here, his tenant suddenly decided to move to Illinois. She would be moving out in a few weeks and we could finally live in my grandmother’s cottage, only ten minutes from our brother-in-law where we would be spending most of our time for the next year. I can’t help but think my late sister-in-law and maybe even my grandmother had something to do with this turn of events.

Q: What makes you love the place you live?

A: Mill Valley is incredibly unique. It’s ten minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, nestled at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais, with gorgeous hiking trails and redwood trees, wedged between the beautiful Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Although our little town is starting to become a suburb for the San Francisco tech workforce (with its expensive homes and boutique shops), I still feel it has held on to its old-fashioned quaintness, artsy vibe, and adventurous outdoor lifestyle.

We really lucked out with our neighborhood and the wonderful families that moved in with young kids when Karuna was little. Our kids have grown up together, and we always made it a priority to have a regular moms’ night out or Friday night pizza parties with the whole family. It really is a village when it comes to raising our kids. If Ora is napping when I need to pick up Karuna from school, I just pop my head out of the fence to look for a neighbor who is heading to school for pick up. I’ll yell across the street, “Can you get Karuna for me?” And ten minutes later, she is walking in the door.

From our house, we can walk to our elementary, middle, and high schools, to Whole Foods, to a variety of parks and creeks, to the quaint downtown for a good cup of coffee, or to see a show at the Sweetwater, which is an awesome, intimate venue backed by Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead. It really is a dreamy place!

Q: What was the one design element that you wanted to be sure your family home included as it relates to living well with your kids?

A: For me, there are a few key design elements for living with young children. The first is an open concept, which we have only been able to achieve in our kitchen and dining space. We remodeled the kitchen when I was pregnant with Karuna, but dream of redoing the rest of the house someday…a perk of being related to the landlord!

The second element is playfulness. The bright colors, hanging hammock chair, ostrich wallpaper, and chalkboard wall are all ways we bring playful design into our home. Making room for creative expression is part of this playfulness, which is why we have turned our sunroom into an art studio for the girls.

The design element that has surprisingly impacted our lives more than anything else is our attempt at minimalism. The kid stuff seems to multiply on a daily basis, and I think I would go crazy if we didn’t have a system for purging and organizing.

Every few months we go through our problem areas like drawers, closets, and toy bins, take everything out, and only put back our favorite or necessary items. I get my kids to do this before birthdays and the holidays so that they have room for all their new toys, which gets them excited about purging.

The first time I tried this, I dumped Karuna’s toy bins into a cardboard box and told her to pick out only what she wanted to keep. I was shocked when she only took out a few of her favorite little figurines and a couple random toys. I found myself saying, “Are you sure you don’t want to keep this My Little Pony? Or what about these Calico Critters?” She knew what she wanted and she was so good at letting go of everything else! Now she’s used to this system, so even though she is more attached to some of her things, she’s okay with this process. I think she would have been a lot more resistant if I had started off by saying, “Pick out what you want to give away.”

Q: What’s your favorite time of day in your home? When does it work for everyone best? How does the room decor contribute to this harmony?

A: My favorite time of day in my home is dinner. I love cooking for my family, and I’ve been trying to recruit my six-year-old to learn alongside me. But most of all, I love sitting down for dinner with everyone, expressing our gratitude and talking about our day. My kids like to hold hands before dinner and say something they are grateful for. They call this ritual family. “Let’s do family,” Ora says, as she reaches her arms out to hold our hands.

One decor item in our dining room that relates to this ritual is our gratitude/manifestation board. Inside the acrylic frame it says, “I’m so grateful for…” We use dry erase markers on the frame and write down things that we are thankful for, as well as things that we would like see to happen, and express gratitude for them as if they have already happened. I am a strong believer in manifestation! Our bedroom also has two small manifestation pin boards that my husband and I make every New Year. It’s so amazing to look at them at the end of the year to see how our hopes and dreams have manifested in our lives.

Q: You run a company called The Art Pantry. Tell us all about it!

A: The Art Pantry is a design studio and resource for kids creative spaces and art exploration. I help people set up kids’ art spaces in homes and schools, and provide tools to keep kids engaged in the creative process. My background is in early childhood art education – I taught at Reggio-inspired preschools and ran a children’s art studio – but I am also in love with design. The Art Pantry is the best of both worlds!

Q: Give us encouragement on setting up a totally free-spirited art space in our homes…even for the neat freaks among us!

A: As much as I wish we could all have a free-spirited art space in our homes, I know it’s not ideal for many families. But this doesn’t mean you can’t have a totally awesome, inspiring space. That’s why I love my work! I like the challenge of finding ways for families to have the idea of a free-spirited art space, while still making it work for their particular children and their lifestyle. This might mean limiting messier activities to the outdoors or creating a messy art bin that only comes out when everyone is willing to deal with the aftermath.

I will say that messy art gets a bad rap in terms of effort and cleanup, but it doesn’t have to be so scary. My go-to item for keeping messy art projects under control is a large, sturdy tray. My favorite one is the Ikea SMULA tray, which sells for around $1.99! It’s made of super sturdy plastic and is a translucent-whitish color that doesn’t compete with the colors of the art materials. When my girls are done with a messy project, I just throw everything on the tray, do a quick wipe-down of the table, and carry the tray over to my kitchen sink. If I have time, I will wash the tools and wipe down the tray. If I don’t have time, I just soak the tools in a cup on the tray and leave it for later.

The reason I started my art studio and my design services is because I strongly believe in teaching children at a young age how to use tools and materials to explore their world. I also believe in giving them autonomy in their creative process by making familiar supplies easily accessible. If you start kids young enough – ideally between 18 months to three years – all kids can learn how to experiment and respect the materials, learn to self-regulate, fall in love with the creative process, and gain important skills that will serve them throughout their lives. If you miss this age window, it becomes harder to get the non-artistic kids to feel comfortable and confident with these creative tools.

Q: What has been the biggest gain from working on this project? What is the most difficult part of balancing work and home? Any tips or tricks or shortcuts that save your life on a daily basis?

A: Wow, the biggest gain? I’m not sure I can boil it down to one thing. I love that I have been able to stay at home with my girls and follow my passions at the same time. I love that my daughters are watching me run a business and be creative and they get to be a huge part of that.

The most difficult part is finding a perfect balance. If I’m working a lot, I feel guilty that I’m not with the girls. If I’m with the girls a lot, I feel like I’m not getting anything done at work.

Meal planning has been important in this whole work/life balance. I used to scramble at dinnertime to figure out what to make. Then someone introduced us to The Fresh 20, a meal planning service, and it changed our lives. I don’t even use it very often anymore, but it gave me a foundation to do my own weekly meal planning. I try to plan out simple meals, shop ahead of time, and prep ingredients ahead of time. This makes our dinners easier, healthier, and so much more enjoyable.

Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? Is there a development stage that’s long gone that you miss?

A: My favorite part about living with kids is their unconditional optimism. They wake up every day with their little faces beaming with joy and excitement for life. What age does this go away? I hope not any time soon!

I love the toddler stage where the personality really comes out, but they still have the simple, snuggly qualities of a baby. I also love the newborn stage. The smell of a newborn’s head as it sleeps, curled up on your shoulder…irresistible!

Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…

A: …that once you introduce TV into kids’ lives, it becomes an addiction. Not for them! For me!

Of course I knew that kids could get addicted to TV, but I didn’t realize that I would get addicted to letting them watch TV.  Working from home while being my children’s primary caregiver means that I rely far too much on the television. There are so many hours in the day and even if just one of them is filled with TV, the guilt sets in. Maybe one day I’ll be brave and just ban it for all of us!

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Ahh, yes. I think we’ve all relied on the television a time or two…hundred! Megan, thank you so much for telling us your story.

Friends, I’m particularly taken with Megan’s manifestation and gratitude board. Do you engage in a similar practice in your own homes? I’m all in when it comes to making family goals, but Megan’s simple dry erase markers and acrylic frame makes the process so simple and attainable, doesn’t it?

P.S. – Are you interested in sharing your own home with us? Just send me a note! It’s a lot of fun…I promise! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.