Nicole wears a lot of hats: professional educator working in school quality and evaluation, founder of @sunshadesbox monthly subscription boxes, advocate for meaningful play and organized play spaces at @polishedplayhouse, home renovator, wife, and mother. Talking to her is a lesson in “doing it all,” in her own way!

In this At Home feature, Nicole and her family graciously invited us into their home to learn more about their approach to renovations, playful learning, and how maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to keep a playroom organized.The Cole family – two adults and two children – play on two blue Nuggets in a playroom

Who lives in your home?

I live here with my husband Willie, our five-year-old son Jonah, and our one-year-old son Shiloh. My mom is also here temporarily; she came to visit back in March 2020 and she stayed through instead of going home. It’s been great having her!

Where do you live?

We’re in Maryland, about 30 mins outside of DC. We lived in DC for 6 years, but when Jonah came along, we quickly ran out of space. 

Nicole hugging her son in their living room, both smiling

Proximity to DC and the highway… Do you work in the city?

I work for the DC government in school quality and evaluation. What this looks like is conducting observations, looking at classroom environment and instruction, and writing up reports with our findings. I also spend a lot of time meeting with school leaders to make sure they are aware of the process, as well as managing a team of consultants for the observations. This year is especially busy because last year it was hard to do observations (with COVID). 

"On the side, I have a children’s subscription box for diverse books and activities that I started in February 2021, for children ages 3-5."Children's books on a bookshelf and a homemade piece of art with paint handprints and text "When the world stayed apart, this was my favorite place to be."On the side, I have a children’s subscription box for diverse books and activities that I started in February 2021, for children ages 3-5. 

The box includes a diverse children’s book, a featured product from a business owned by a person of color, and two activities based on the book. That’s what I do in my non-existing “free time”! Some of the books I’ve included are Mae Among the Stars, The Things about Bees, and Off to See the Sea. I try to use stories featuring diverse characters with unique voices. The response has been very overwhelming for me! It’s so much fun to put together.

Nicole and Willie Cole in their living room, Nicole seated in an arm chair and Willie changing a record.

Can you describe your home?

Our house was built in 1999. It’s a full-on 90’s large suburban home with a lot of separate rooms, little nooks and separate spaces that we really enjoy. We’ve been doing renovations for about two years; there are parts where we flash back to the 90’s, but we’ve been able to modernize parts of it. We have a basement which is where the playroom is. We don’t store many toys in the kids’ room – we utilize the playspace for that – and we have a large backyard that we really enjoy.

What are some of your favorite places in your home?

I really love the playroom, we hang out there a lot. I love that there’s a dedicated space for play. I’ve always really loved Jonah’s room, and the outdoor space as well.

Jonah seated at an outdoor picnic table, painting and grinning at camera.

It seems like you’ve done a lot to make your house your home. Any advice for people starting their own journeys to renovate or update a new-to-them house?

One of the things that I wished we had done was live here first, just to see which spaces we use the most and how we actually live in it. When we came in, we were really ready to just live in it the way we wanted, so we did painting and flooring right away. But if you can live in the house, you can see where your family actually lives and what things you can hold off to do later. 

Our biggest thing was the paint. Don’t underestimate how much difference paint can make! There was burgundy, mustard, purple everywhere... It was very 90’s opulence. 

Nicole, Willie, and Jonah playing on a Nugget in their living room, which is light, bright and airy, with white walls, tan furniture, and lots of natural light.The other thing is to pace yourself! Try to get some one-of-a-kind pieces with unique vibes… it takes longer but it makes it feel more like a home. 

How would you describe your style? 

I’m a mix of modern and traditional with a lot of white. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t paint the entire house white; it’s so bright, it’s so easy to clean if it gets scuffed or smudged. 

I like to look for pieces at places like Restoration Hardware, HomeGoods, World Market. My mom is a big thrifter so she buys a lot of stuff and saves it or brings it to me.

How do you like to spend your time? 

I love to listen to podcasts. I will take a walk, go to my office or room. I also take drives a lot when the kids are napping, listening to music or a podcast. I also love to read; I don’t get a chance to do that as much as I’d like anymore. Some of my favorite podcasts are entrepreneurship ones: The Side Hustle Pro, The Product Boss, HelloSeven.

You’re an advocate for meaningful play and organized spaces. What does that look like in your home? 

I’ve found that centering a playroom around 1-2 key items really really works. Jonah has really large wooden blocks and magnetic tiles; we center everything else around those items. With the blocks, he can use lots of other things, but everything we buy complements those two things. We don’t rotate through toys as much as other people do because there are always other ways to change out what they are doing with those key items. Children really do get overwhelmed with too many choices, so we try to limit the choices in that way. 

Jonah and Shiloh playing with two Nuggets in their playroom, which features a chalkboard wall, Montessori-inspired toy storage, and colorful wooden toys.

What advice do you have for keeping kids toys manageable while balancing different ages?

When you get a larger space, you can feel like you need to fill it fill it fill it with too many things. When children are overwhelmed, they can start doing things that you don’t want them to be doing. I always say that everything you have in your space should be safe and accessible for children of all ages. For example, Shiloh (1-year-old) can’t build with the blocks but they wouldn’t hurt him. 

"It's a big part of our family philosophy: we take care of our things."One of the ways that you can create different spaces within a space is creating zones or areas within the playspace. It doesn’t have to be a specific space like a room but something that indicates to the child that “here, this is where my things are.” So, we have a shelf for the magnetic blocks and such so that indicates that this is his zone. And there’s a zone for my younger son where I put his favorite toys, as a focal point, which leads him over to his toys naturally.

Wooden toys and puzzles on a Neptune Nugget

How do you rotate or declutter? 

We rotate toys maybe 4 times a year. I do not involve them in the decluttering but I observe Jonah to see what he’s into, and we have a large storage ottoman in our playroom that has a lot of what we’re not using. He knows what’s in there, he can access it if he wants, but he knows that we have to switch something if he wants to bring out his dinosaurs or something else. 

One time when we decluttered, we made a mistake. We put everything into the garage and didn’t donate right away… so he could see it and rediscover toys, take them back into the house! We learned our lesson from that. 

Jonah sitting on a Snorkel Nugget reading a book

Does everyone have a role to play in keeping your home neat, including your children?

Yes, absolutely! I think it’s very important. We have a saying that “We take care of our things,” and our house is our biggest thing. We wipe down spaces, we clean up our toys, we have a mini dustpan that Jonah uses to clean up messes. He’s big on order and always has been. He will vacuum, make up his bed, and put his dishes in the sink, and he loves to sweep. It’s a big part of our family philosophy: we take care of our things. 

Willie holds up one-year-old Jonah in the air, smiling up at his son.

What are your go-to products for your kids?

Obviously we love our Nugget! We move it from room to room, space to space. They love jumping on it, and Shiloh loves climbing over the triangles. 

Baskets are big for us. We have book baskets in different rooms, we store our toys in baskets, and we use them in our family space. The other two most-used toys are magnetic tiles and large hollow wooden blocks. 

I see a lot of books in your home. What role does reading and books play in your home life? Any favorite books you’d recommend?

Books are huge for us, especially diverse books where my sons can see characters who look like them. We’re fortunate that now, while there’s obviously a huge gap, that these books are really easier to find. When I was a kid, my mom would find these independent publishers, go to festivals to try and find books for me. It’s so huge that my children can see themselves in books now. 

A corner of the Cole's playroom, featuring toys on a shelf and their bookshelf.Some of our favorites are Brown: The Many Shades of Love, Please Puppy Please, and a board book called Hey Baby. Shiloh loves the book – there’s a baby in the book that he thinks is him! He picks that book every day. 

You’ve been quite intentional about making your home a space for everyone, adults and kids alike. Can you describe ways you’ve set up your home to help foster independence for your little ones?

The wardrobe was huge for us, really important, as well as having the learning tower to climb up in the kitchen. We also wanted to make sure that books are accessible in each room of our house. Sharing the playroom has been huge for us; it’s a transition when you have a sibling, so having that shared space has helped Jonah to learn to solidify skills in collaboration and play. I know some people will put baby toys in the baby’s room and older child’s toys in a different room, but one of the things that’s been so important for us has been that everything here is for everyone. 

Jonah brushing his hair in his Montessori-inspired bedroom area, with Willie watchingThank you to Nicole and her family for opening up their home to us! Learn more about her work at @polishedplayhouse and @sunshadesbox