Designing healthcare spaces for kids: Introducing a sense of exploration and curiosity

What’s it like to design a healthcare space for children? Is it possible to infuse that space with imagination and whimsy, while simultaneously following the practical rules of a healthcare setting, such as infection control, times of operation, and safety?

Interior Designer: Laurena Clark, ARIDO

Design Firm: Stantec Architecture Ltd.

Photographer: Richard Johnson

These are the questions that inspired Stantec’s designers to take a unique approach to the redesign of the Women’s Auxiliary Volunteers (WAV) PlayPark at SickKids Hospital in Toronto. The PlayPark is a volunteer-run space for the siblings of young patients who are at the hospital for treatment. Over the years, the much-loved PlayPark had become outdated. Stantec’s designers were tasked with not only updating the look but upgrading the space to be more functional and accessible.

Two of members of the PlayPark design team — interior designer Laurena Clark, ARIDO and architect Olivera Sipka — sat down to discuss their approach and provide advice for others designing similar spaces.

What was different about the SickKids PlayPark, compared to other projects that you’ve worked on?

Laurena: As designers, we always empathize with, and put ourselves in the position of, the people who will use the spaces we design. But with this project, we realized we needed to get to an even deeper level of emotion. SickKids provided us with touching information—like quotes from kids that have loved the space over the years—that made us more emotionally attached. One young man, who is now in his 20s, wrote about how he was so young when his brother began a stay at SickKids, and this young man felt so lost. Both of his parents were busy with his brother’s care, and the young man never got to see his friends. But he had the PlayPark. He wrote about what a joy it was to visit the PlayPark at such a gloomy time in his life. So, redesigning a space that makes such an impact on the lives of young people is a tremendous responsibility. And my kids are the same age as typical PlayPark visitors, between the ages of 4 and 9. So, on an emotional level, that also impacted my design approach.

Reception desk and entry at SickKids PlayPark with coloured circles in random organic patterns.

Can you talk more about your specific design approach for this project?

Laurena: We were doing so much more than designing a “space.” We were creating an experience for those kids and families. We added zones inspired by nature—like a lake, canyon, and hills—so we could bring a park setting to kids that are inside for long periods of time. Also, the PlayPark isn’t just a space that has a certain function. Most of the spaces we design—such as waiting rooms, for example—have specific functions in mind. And, while a waiting room might have some toys and games, those are isolated activities. As soon as you walk into PlayPark, you’re intrigued to explore. We also had to include so much more depth in the design and the activities available because many kids come to the PlayPark for extended periods of time—days, months, even years. We had to pack a lot more in than you might find in a typical waiting room where a child may only visit for a few hours at a time.

Can you tell us more about the zones inspired by nature? What does that look like?

Laurena: We created a forest landscape in the central open space, which features trees made of thick resin panels to create a “leafy” canopy. The tree trunks are a perfect place to wind through on a tricycle. We added a quiet “cave nook,” with fiber-optic twinkling lights in the ceiling, to create the sense of sitting beneath the stars. This is a space where kids can sit quietly when they might not want to engage. It was important to us that kids have choices as they go through a difficult time. The art studio area features a meadow theme with a giant LED panel of tall grasses with lights overhead that look like fluffy clouds. The performance space is designed with curves to suggest hills, with an organic-shaped seating nook and original illustrations.

What’s your advice for others designing a space for children?

Laurena: Open communication. Create an environment of trust and respect so team members feel comfortable throwing ideas out, even if they’re not perfect.

Olivera: It’s about listening. Make sure you listen to kids’ experiences. While working on this project, we listened to children, parents, and even teenagers who used to visit the space when they were younger.

How did you get into the child-like mindset necessary for PlayPark’s redesign?

Laurena: I just had to shut everything off. For healthcare projects, we’re so used to working within the confines of budget, time, and cleanability. So, I had to stop thinking about all the practical things that block ideas from coming freely.

Can you think of something from your own childhood that you brought to this project?

Laurena: I have lots of memories of exploring freely as a child, such as exploring outside, or looking through my mom’s closet and playing dress-up. So, I wanted to bring a feeling of exploration, as well as surprise. During a visit to PlayPark, my kids loved looking through the cupboards and finding the toys that were in there.

Every surface has storage behind it. That alone is an element of exploration. This contrasts with a lot of other pediatric spaces, where you see toys everywhere. It feels busy, and it’s almost overstimulation. Whereas at PlayPark, you have a clean, bright, airy space, and you can interact with surfaces in different ways. All the clutter is hidden. And there’s that element of surprise, as kids discover what’s behind each door.

Do you have any final pieces of advice to offer someone approaching a project like this?

Olivera: Don’t just focus on technology. When designing for kids, we often tend to look at new technologies, such as interactive screens. But with this project, the focus was on play. It turned out to be more of a whimsical place, where kids have opportunities to be themselves.

Laurena: It’s possible to create a fun space while simultaneously working within the confines of a hospital. We designed PlayPark to hospital standards, in terms of infection control. We used all the same materials that other healthcare spaces use—like rubber floors and solid surfaces—and we considered cleaning, like you would in any other area of the hospital. Everything was wipeable. You can utilize those materials in a way that creates an environment that doesn’t look institutional.

This post originally appeared on’s Ideas Blog. The PlayPark project also recieved an Award of Merit in the 2018 ARIDO Awards.

Creativity is a healing force at Marnie’s Studio, SickKids

The Marnie’s Studio project at Sick Kids Hospital transformed the existing Bear Theater into a multi-purpose art and performance space. The original theatre space resembled a forest with dark colours, murals of forest scenes, and heavy dark drapes that kept daylight out.

Interior Designer: Andrea Langham, ARIDO
Design Firm: Parkin Architects Limited
Project Photographer: Richard Johnson

With this redesign, the client and the kids wanted a clean and contemporary space, light-filled, and flexible to accommodate different activities and children, ages 4 to 18 with varying levels of mobility. Because the hospital couldn’t accommodate a serious renovation, existing walls, doors, and window frames were reused and repainted, while the HVAC system was maintained.

The space now includes a media centre for film/music, complete with a recording studio, a stage for live performances, and a creative arts area, and room for dance practices. The corridor leading to the studio needed to reflect its overall design, and the existing large and dimly lit alcove at the end of the corridor was to receive new seating, graphic art, and new lighting.

The tight budget and space constraints placed on the project required the designers to keep the existing general layout of the room and the existing ceiling grid and be creative with how the room could support all these activities.

A new colour palette uses neutral paints with fresh white walls and light wood-look flooring. Bright colours and patterns were injected into the space through custom vinyl graphics, floor patterns and magnetic, writable glass panels which provide kids with additional surfaces to express their creativity. To save space in the media centre, the designers opted to install a resin sliding door which was designed in collaboration with artisans in Senegal who used scraps of colourful fabrics embedded into the resin.

The overall result is a cheerful, multi-functional space which provides a place for creative expression for kids of all ages.

The medicine wheel is a motif in the design of this Health Centre

The Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre is a hospital built in Sioux Lookout in 2012, and serves a population spread over a large geographical area. Health Centre clients come from 29 First Nations communities spread across Northern Ontario, as well as Sioux Lookout, where there is a non‐Indigenous population with its own rich culture.

Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre
Interior Designer: Taeko Rhodes, ARIDO
Design Team: Ena Kenny, ARIDO
Design Firm: Stantec Architecture
Project Joint Venture: Douglas Cardinal, Douglas Cardinal Architect Inc
Project Photographer: Richard Johnson

Menoyawin is an Anishinaabe word that connotes health, wellness, well-being and individual spiritual, mental, emotional and physical wholeness.

With a First Nations associate architect guiding the design team, many important aspects of Indigenous culture were incorporated in the planning and design of the facility. The principal concept behind the master plan was a circular path, 350 meters in diameter, cut through the forest and providing access to each building on the campus.

This path is a representation of the Medicine Wheel, a concept shared by many Indigenous cultures, that signifies the importance of appreciation and respecting the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all things.

Within that framework, the objective of the interior design of the facility was to create an integrated healing environment, that would blend First Nations culture with the surrounding environment. Symbols of the primordial elements, earth, fire, air and water, are represented throughout the whole centre.

Tall timber columns and beams welcome everyone into the health centre with a large octagonal skylight at the centre.

The main gathering space is a heavy timber structure, oriented east, towards sunrise. Sunlight fills the space through a large octagonal skylight, and below, a central ‘fireplace’ built in tempered glass, lit with LEDs, and circled by red pipestone. A traditional sunburst pattern, created in epoxy terrazzo circles the pipestone on the ground, while a black granite waterfall next to the recalls an element that is vital to all living things, and provides a soft burbling sound.

A Ceremonial Room was built for First Nations ceremonies and healing and repeats the important wheel shape, with an actual earth firepit, bordered by natural stone and walls clad in cedar.

Cedar lines the walls and floors of the octagonal ceremonial room with an earth firepit at its centre.

The canoe‐shaped Ambulatory Lobby is built in structural timber with a clerestory window, flooding the space with natural light, while underfoot, a flooring pattern suggests the movement of water.

Throughout the inpatient wing, long walls of windows provide views to a series of landscaped courtyards, further reducing the institutional image. The circular pattern of the Medicine Wheel is also present in the cubicle curtains and floor pattern throughout the hospital as a metaphor of healing.

Landscaped interior courtyard with winding paved paths, and rock and evergreen gardens.

By incorporating symbols from Indigenous culture like the Medicine Wheel and the four elements into the design, the hospital resonates with patients and the greater community as a healing place. The architecture and the interior design successfully bridge the gaps between Indigenous and non‐native cultures.

1 SLMHC Website

‘Movement is life’ is the driving theme of this North Bay healthcare centre

A project that has been in the works since 2012, the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit can now provide public health services to a community that was once seriously underserved.

Interior Designer: Anne Carlyle, ARIDO
Design Team: Alanna Drawson, ARIDO
Design Firm: Carlyle Design Associates
Architect Lead: Paul Mitchell, B. ARCH OAA FRAIC
Architecture Firm: Mitchell Jensen Architects
Photographer: Lisa Logan

In a design collaboration between Mitchell Jensen Architects and Carlyle Design Associates, this highly functional building “brings public health into the public realm”, according to principal designer Anne Carlyle, ARIDO.

A site was purchased in North Bay that is easily accessible by public transit, bike paths, and pedestrian routes to embody the Health Unit’s objective to promote healthy lifestyles. The design team and client shared a goal of designing a facility which is practical, reflects the Unit’s values, welcomes the public, inspires staff and visitors, and symbolizes the value of health promotion to the community. ‘Movement is life’, and is fundamental to health, which became a driving theme in this project.

Photographer: Lisa Logan

From the entrance, movement is expressed by the expansive open atrium with prominent, gradual stairs, and discrete elevators. The repeated elements of circular shaped lighting and Douglas Fir curtainwall continue this rhythm throughout the building. Expansive glazing and views of the landscape help to calm anxious visitors and to aid wayfinding, while the connection to nature is further reinforced by materials including abundant wood and natural stone.

Photographer: Lisa Logan

Behind the scenes, staff are provided with a variety of workspace options including workstations, private rooms, lounge spaces, and group settings for table-based and more casual meetings, shared work or socialization. These workspaces run perpendicular to windows to maximize natural light, views and windows, and are adaptable to employee needs with sit/stand options, adjustable storage, and task lighting.

Art by local artists is placed throughout the space, fifteen were generously donated through an anonymous donor, while another fifteen are on loan via a partnership with a local gallery. The pieces inspire reflection and conversation, adding dynamic interest to the stunning facility.

Photographer: Lisa Logan

This project was also awarded a Canadian Interiors Best in Canada Award for the Institutional Category. Congratulations to Carlyle Design Associates and Mitchell Jensen Architects!

Beach side serenity is the palette for this chiropractic clinic

The design scheme for Movement Chiropractic and Rehab was inspired by the client’s love of the beach. It was a narrow, bare unit with plenty of potential. We paired a sea-star blue accent colour with a very calming white throughout the clinic. A sand coloured floor and custom-designed reception desk with speckled quartz countertops complete the beach side serenity atmosphere.

Interior Designer: Luca Campacci
Design Firm: Level Studio Inc.
Photographer: Level Studio Inc.

The client’s passion for art created another interesting feature. This clinic features the work of local artists along the main hallway. We felt it was important to provide aspiring artists more opportunities to showcase their work, especially in Vaughan, and was a great way to give back to the community in a subtle way.

A wide central hallway was crucial as some of her potential clients could be in crutches, a walker or wheelchair and also allows better viewing of the gallery wall. The hallway extends out to a very open area with plenty of space for exercise and rehabilitation treatments.

The biggest challenge was spacing of treatment rooms in such a small space in order to maximize profit while also providing other program requirements such as a kitchenette, accessible washroom, office and storage. A double-loaded corridor was the most efficient use of space that opens out to the rehab area. Natural light filters through the clinic on both ends maximizing daylight and we felt this was extremely important for a healthcare facility. We also chose to go with space saving sliding doors throughout the clinic. 

Another challenge was addressing the existing location of the electrical boxes that were in prime real estate by a window. We used large blue bi-passing doors that were opaque for the electrical room which allowed light to filter through them and maximize daylight within the space. 

The layout is flexible as the company grows. Rooms that don’t contain chiropractic tables can be used as meeting rooms or office space.  With their first clinic, the client has the space and layout to build a thriving chiropractic practise

This project is a home away from home for families

Originally completed in 2011, this 100,000 square foot, five-level ‘house in a garden in the city’ provides a home away from home for families and their seriously ill children coming to Toronto for specialized medical care.

Interior Designer: Anne Carlyle, ARIDO
Joint Venture Collaborator: Robert Davies, OAA, Montgomery Sisam Architects
Design Team: Alanna Drawson, ARIDO
Design Firm: Carlyle Design Associates Limited
Project Photographer(s): Tom Arban, Stacey Brandford, Angus Fergusson, Virginia Macdonald, Donna Griffith

Designed to reflect and support the house’s compassionate mission, ‘helping families to heal better’, the building provides all the facilities that families need to make the house their own: communal living, kitchen and dining rooms, games and playrooms, a library, a variety of activity rooms, a school, and 81 family suites.

True to guiding design principles, the house is open, warm and welcoming, full of light and connections to outdoors. Public spaces are grounded with wood and stone and punctuated with walls of lively colour. Finished with one of three quiet palettes, each family suite is a restful retreat within the building.

The use of warm, vibrant colours in corridors energizes the three upper levels, and transforms the building into a beacon of glowing coloured light, visible across courtyards and from the street.

Exterior night time view of Ronald McDonald House with floors painted in red, orange and yellow forming a gradient.

Furnishings throughout – a varied and eclectic mix of contemporary, custom, traditional and old/found – add colour, texture and character; like a family home that has been lovingly furnished. Two sheltered exterior courtyards are equipped to support both family dining and quiet outdoor lounging.

Common living room space at Ronald McDonald House with red rug and green seating.

Over 300 works of original art – commissioned, purchased and donated – were selected for their special meanings. Highlights include a lyrical wrought-iron entry gate, expressive courtyard and rooftop sculptures, paintings by children at the house, and others by adults living with disabilities, a collection of paired aerial and detail photographs hanging in all the suites, one of Toronto’s iconic moose and a family of sculptural “whimsies” – funny, fantastical creatures – that inhabit the corridors.
This project was a seamless four-year collaboration with the architectural team, after establishing the design principles with stakeholders. Donations poured in from suppliers to support fire safety, sustainability, indoor air quality, accessibility, durability, cleaning and skilful integration into the design scheme.

View from interior to exterior courtyard with additional view down a hallway.

The completed project is a critical success, called “a remarkable hybrid of grace and civility designed to function as an urban hotel and as a refuge of wellness.” by Lisa Rochon of the Globe and Mail. More importantly, one of the first family visitors said, “I cannot believe the amount of thought put into every detail, . . . it’s above and beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined.”