When Covid kept everyone at home two summers ago, Uma Iyer enlisted grOH! to build a treehouse in her Chevy Chase DC backyard for her then one- and five-year-old boys. (She also lives with her husband, Satish, and their dog, Pepper.)
Anne Gillyard set to work creating an outdoor spot tailored to imaginative play: “What we don’t want for a playhouse is for it to be one-dimensional,” says the designer. “We try to add elements that keep the play as open-ended as possible.” The result: a mod-looking space that matches the color of Iyer’s home with a climbing rope, an extended swing-set arm, and a rock wall on the back leading to a window kids can climb through. Shelves inside store toys or art supplies, and the walls are painted a cheery golden yellow.
The treehouse was crafted with all ages in mind. It sits at parent height so adults can lift up and monitor little ones, and a drop-down ladder and hatch door mean the kids can hang on the roof when they get older. A bonus: Tucked into three oak trees in a corner of the backyard, the six-by-eight-foot structure doesn’t take up too much precious city-yard space. Depending on the day, Iyer’s sons pretend it’s a pirate ship or a space shuttle. “It’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever made,” she says. “When we look out in the backyard, we all always smile.”
Tiana Tenet and her husband, John, love entertaining. So when they worked with grOH! in the fall of 2021 to create a play area in their Chevy Chase yard for their now two-year-old son, they wanted something that would elegantly complement their house. Also on the checklist: It needed to function for multiple ages and couldn’t consume too much of their backyard.
The result: a white shiplap playhouse tailored for open-ended play. The front chalkboard can transform into a sign for a mechanic’s shop, a restaurant, or whatever else seems like fun on any given day. Inside, one wall is splashed with a colorful mural. Another is designed as a rock wall that leads to a balcony and slide. The rock wall isn’t just cool—it takes up less space than a ladder and prevents extra-little ones from accessing the slide without adult help. Nearby, a mulch pit lets kids dig without ruining the landscaping, and grOH! constructed a trellis with swing attachments. And because Tenet works in food (she’s cofounder of the Culinistas, a private-chef platform), cooking was incorporated into the area via a custom pretend kitchen.
Tenet’s family now spends so much time outside, she says they were inspired to invest in the grown-up space as well, adding a fire pit and real outdoor kitchen. “Because of Covid, he didn’t do any play groups,” says Tenet of her son. “But having the opportunity to be on your feet and play with dirt and leaves and be outdoors—he does it every day. It’s game-changing.”
Meet the Designers
Jodi Arellano and Anne Gillyard were teachers at the same DC school and became friends when they ended up on maternity leave at the same time. That’s when they got the idea to start a company that would design custom children’s play spaces. They launched grOH! in 2018.
Both Arellano and Gillyard have their master’s in education and are experts on child development, so they conceive of all their spaces with kids’ growth and learning in mind. “[Having] an environment [that] socially, emotionally, and physically supports play is just so critical to the types of thinkers and learners that children become,” says Gillyard.
The duo operates out of Gillyard’s DC house, where they offer both full-service and virtual design packages. They now have a whole team that works with them to design and install projects not just in the Washington area but as far away as Qatar and Bali.
Fun in the Sun
grOH!’s recs for amping up outdoor playtime
Mini Deluxe Scooter
“This is one of our favorite activities and a great scooter for development,” says Anne Gillyard. Bonus: It’s sustainably made from recycled plastic and fishing nets. Mini Deluxe ECO by Micro Kickboard, $95.
Not only does this game promote the development of fine motor skills, but the jumbo pieces are big enough to prevent choking, says Gillyard. Jumbo Four-in-a-Row from L.L. Bean, $149.
Gillyard is a fan of all things Maisonette—this croquet kit can be used by kids and grownups alike. Six-player croquet set with trolley by Maisonette, $200.
Modern Kids’ Furniture
“This picnic table is darling, and we love that it is visually interesting,” says Gillyard. “There’s no reason to have a backyard eyesore just because we have kiddos.” Grey Stain Modern Kids Picnic Table at Crate & Kids, $399.
Gillyard says these walkie-talkies “are fun no matter where you are, but we recommend them on hikes or backyard adventures. Plus, they’re an added safety measure.” Kids’ walkie-talkie by Little Learners, $55.
Photographs courtesy of retailers.
This article appears in the July 2022 issue of Washingtonian.