Harper Martin’s house is small, stylish, and aggressively on trend. The gray roof tiles perfectly complement the stone detailing that arches around her pink front door, and fairy lights are strung from the trees on her front deck. Inside, the attention to detail continues—a lush green wreath sits above her stone fireplace, and a matte black pendant lampshade hangs from her kitchen ceiling. It’s easily the kind of house that could grace the pages of a glossy magazine or feature on a home renovation show, except for a few crucial differences. Harper Martin’s home is made entirely of plastic, it is four and a half feet tall, and its owner is three years old.
Harper’s mom Jessica, a 33-year-old retail pharmacist from Illinois, is one of a growing number of “playhouse flippers”. Over the summer, social media exploded with a wave of parents renovating their children’s plastic playhouses—covering bright blue and pink exteriors with black, white, and gray spray-paint before adorning the playhouses with cast iron house numbers, gold accents, and foliage-filled window boxes. The result? Strikingly realistic—and shockingly stylish—toy houses for toddlers.
“I had a vision—I have a certain aesthetic,” says Martin, who has three black walls in her family home. “Neutral, basic, minimal, blacks and whites and greens are my preference, and of course being the little girl she is, she had to have a pink door.”
Martin spent $75 and one week renovating the playhouse. Her mother had purchased the playhouse from a Facebook swap page five years before, and the brown plastic original served her two sons well in their early years. When it was Harper’s turn to use the toy, Martin decided it needed a makeover.
“I’m a little bit extra when it comes to those types of things,” laughs Martin. “I hand-painted the stones with various shades of grey and went back in with sandpaper and roughed up the texture so it could really look more like actual stone… I took a plastic bowl just from your basic dollar store, spray-painted that, and then used a $1 puck light that is battery operated and I hung that from the centre of the ceiling.” Harper Martin’s exact reaction upon seeing her house was, “Oh my goodness! I have decorations!”
Martin shared her project on her blog, The Martin Nest, and says it is “by far” one of her most successful posts. YouTube videos documenting the trend are also incredibly popular. A video entitled “DIY Playhouse Makeover BEFORE and AFTER” by Jay Mundee DIY has accumulated 3.2 million views since it was uploaded in August, while a similar video by the channel Thrift Diving (where the DIYer adorns the playhouse with real stones) has earned 2.8 million views.
People have been sharing playhouse makeovers on the internet since 2011, and the first mainstream article about DIY playhouse renovations appeared on the Good Housekeeping website in 2015. Yet it wasn’t until last year that bloggers seemed to take to the trend. In March, real estate website Homes.com challenged three bloggers to renovate a Little Tikes playhouse as part of a competition. Their makeovers spread quickly on social media, from Instagram to Pinterest to YouTube, and inspired copycats. Carmen Smith, a 33-year-old home decor writer from North Carolina who blogs at Living Letter Home, says she was motivated to renovate her four-year-old daughter’s playhouse after seeing makeovers on other blogs.
“We painted it white with black shutters and a black roof which is what we eventually want to paint our house to look like, so we just thought it would be really cute to have a matching little mini-house,” says Smith, who used six cans of spray paint on the project. Her makeover process was identical to others you see on the internet—first the house is deep cleaned and primed, before coats of paint are applied and painstakingly left to dry. Smith says the makeover was ultimately very affordable—she spent roughly $30 on paint, and got accessories like a mailbox, hanging succulents, and a glass door knob for a few dollars each. Yet some families spend more to ensure their playhouse ends up perfect.
“The playhouse itself was $200,” explains Missy Geiger, a 37-year-old photographer from Toronto. “We spent $90 on three gallons of paint, I bought a paint sprayer for $100, and then I had two clay flowerpots that were a dollar at Walmart, I spent max $20 on accessories from Ikea, and there was a pine board that we used to expand the countertop area that was $20, and then the bell on the front was $40.” All in all, Geiger says she spent $475.
This expenditure isn’t as extreme as it might seem, as many of the more extravagant playhouses on the market can go for hundreds of dollars each. Geiger, who has a five-year-old son and three-year-old and five-month-old daughters, says the project was worth every penny because she still hasn’t “found a readymade playhouse that looks as cute” as her renovated project. Though Geiger has 485 subscribers on her YouTube channel Squish & Sprout, her playhouse makeover video has accumulated over 26,000 views.
“It definitely wasn’t cheap. Why did we do it? We just wanted it to look nice because you can see it from every window in our house, and I knew that the kids would use it for several years.” Like Smith, Geiger wanted the playhouse to match her own home and followed a black and white theme, even using some striped fabric to create an awning for the playhouse. “I’m not a big fan of the red, yellow, and green plastic look,” she says. “If you’re gonna have it in your backyard and you’re gonna have adults in your backyard, it’s nice to have something that works for everybody.”
Martin agrees that neutral colors help her daughter’s playhouse blend seamlessly with her home. “For so many years kids’ toys have been kind of obnoxious colors,” she says, “I know that’s great for kids but if you’re going to bring something into your home—soon we’ll bring the playhouse into our basement so she can use it year-round—it’s just nice that it can blend in with what you already have.”
Scientists argue that bright colors are important for early child development. Not only do multicolored toys help children memorize the names of colors, they also enhance memory and help young people make sense of the world around them. Presumably, there are child development reasons that Little Tikes makes its products in vibrant colors, yet Geiger argues her made-over house helps her three young children with their imaginative play.
“Obviously it’s hard to know whether they would choose one over the other because we don’t have the other option, but they’re quite proud of it and they like that they had a hand helping me with it,” she says. “Extending the countertop was one of the biggest things that helped them play with it more because it was just a tiny little ledge there and they couldn’t put stuff on it. So now they pretend it’s a restaurant sometimes, or it’s a lemonade stand, and we kind of expanded the number of ways they can use it by doing that.”
Smith concurs that her realistic playhouse helps her daughter play. She explains that as she and her husband are busy completing their own renovations, her daughter can feel “a part of it” with her own little house. “She’ll take a little hammer and work on her own house and things like that, which is really cute to see,” Smith says. Her husband dreams of flipping houses one day, and he plans to make a playhouse that matches the main house of every property that flips. “He’d basically have one to give to the new homeowners… I thought it was a really good idea.”
The trend is clearly part of our wider push to make all areas of our homes and lives social media-friendly, yet that doesn’t make it pointless or ill-judged. Jessica Martin argues that, in fact, playhouse makeovers have wider social ramifications, as they encourage reusing and recycling old toys. “Obviously with reusing the plastic—plastic [often] ends up in the waste and trash—those things will last forever, so it was a great way to take something that was still in great condition and just customize it for her,” she says. “More than likely when she grows out of that, I’ll be able to resell it to someone else who has a little girl who can enjoy it.”