The Kid-Friendly Home Office

Common sense for the family workspace

My home office is the focal point of my working life. Not too long ago, if someone had told me I'd be childproofing my home office, I probably wouldn't have been able to contain my laughter. That was before I fell in love with my future bride and her 2-year-old son. One day, when Wyatt started digging into the office supplies and contract paperwork strewn about my office, I realized that my workspace needed a drastic makeover.

I placed inserts in every electrical outlet and squeezable plastic covers on the doorknobs. I picked up loose papers and stashed them above his reach. The stapler and tape dispenser, which formerly resided atop my desk, found a new home in a drawer. My pencil caddy now sits on a shelf that requires the reach of someone at least 4' tall. I felt a renewed sense of safety, until the day Wyatt partially unplugged one of my PCs' surge protectors from the wall. My child proofing efforts had suddenly proven insufficient.

Shock Treatment
How do you keep small children from unplugging electrical cords? Imagine yourself in the middle of a 14-hour video rendering—a set of curious fingers can take you back to square one in the space of one second. You don't want those tiny hands anywhere near your outlets anyway. Outlet inserts keep small objects out of unused outlets. Placing large furniture in front of outlets works great in the living room, but many of my office outlets are located where large furniture simply can't go. My solution was to cover exposed outlets with a plastic box that I can't open without the proper combination of swear words.

Not every outlet cover fits easily over the standard three-prong plugs of most PC devices. Safety 1st makes a large square model with two interlocking pieces that accommodate one grounded plug or one AC adapter but generally waste the other outlet. For additional outlet protection, add a surge-protector cover—another Safety 1st solution. My big frustration about these surge-protector covers is that none of them supports the surge protectors that have two rows of outlets.

Trash Talk
Get a trashcan with a cover. Obviously, staples removed from documents and other sharp objects aren't something you want young kids to get their hands on. Also consider the mimicking tendencies of small children. When they see you throw something away, the trashcan is suddenly a cauldron for placing all sorts of items—which is fine until the paper they dispose of happens to be a check. Avoid the cans that have a hinged lid connected to a foot pedal. Very soon, these contraptions will become toys that lead to pinched fingers. A Rubbermaid tub with a latching lid is a safe alternative to traditional rubbish bins.

Caught on Tape
VCRs are becoming a thing of the past, but I regularly transfer old tapes to digital formats, which means I'm forced to keep legacy equipment in the office. I also have several kid-friendly tapes for entertainment. But be aware that VCRs are a favorite place for small children to place small objects. The flip-up door is a difficult temptation to resist. The solutions is a VCR lock, which keeps foreign objects out of the VCR when it's not in use, as well as when a tape is playing. One caveat: When the lock is in place, my VCR displays an error message after auto-rewind because the VCR attempts to spit out the tape but is blocked by the lock. So far, I haven't found a similar lock for CD and DVD players.

Access Denied
You can find several easy software solutions for defending you computer against child-instigated data loss. A simple password will keep the screen safely locked from toddlers, if you need to leave the room. Just remember to be diligent and always lock the screen—or at the very least, set the screensaver to lock the screen after a few idle minutes. Older kids who want to play games or use computer learning tools still need some safety precautions in place so that you don't lose important work files. Assign older kids a limited-access Windows XP user account, which lets your child know he or she is welcome to use the computer but also prevents accidents. Make sure your account has a password, so the child doesn't accidentally use your privileges to log on.

Computer cases are anything but kid friendly. You need to either move your computer safely out of reach or disguise it to look uninteresting. Random food or toys shoved in a floppy-disk drive or Compact Flash (CF) slot won't make your computer happy. CD-ROM trays are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment by curious hands, and are still vulnerable if you've locked the OS. The best way to limit access to an idle computer is to turn it off.

Unplug Temptation
Apple Computer's iMacs appear quite child proof. The only exposed drive is the CD-ROM tray. No button appears adjacent to the tray, which opens only through the keyboard. However, locking the screen doesn't lock the key that opens the tray. My 2-year-old nephew makes a game out of opening and closing the drive by pushing the appropriate key. The only way to avoid keyboard access is to physically move the keyboard out of reach. If you use a CRT screen, setting the keyboard on top of the monitor does the trick, but flat screens require a more cunning strategy. Your best bet is to go wireless. A wireless keyboard and mouse also remove the cord-length limitation you might experience when moving input devices.

Consider going wireless for all your peripherals. Excess cables are difficult to hide from small hands, and children have been known to pull heavy hardware items onto their heads or break expensive devices. Keyboards and mouse devices come in Bluetooth varieties from both Microsoft and Logitech. Several adapters, including this one from Epson, are available for converting printers to Bluetooth. Wi-Fi technology renders Ethernet cables virtually unnecessary. Even Webcams now come in wireless models, making select USB peripherals and PC speakers the only wired devices you should have in a child-friendly home office. As an added bonus, performing upgrades and moving hardware is considerably easier because you have fewer cables to untangle behind the PC.

The Beauty of Distraction
Most important, create an area in the office where you don't have to tell your kids "no." A small table with some blank paper and washable markers goes a long way toward creating a home working environment that everyone can live with. I remember trips to my dad's office when he worked overtime on weekends. His office was outside the home, but my brother and I would draw on paper scraps while he got real work done. It turned an otherwise boring trip to the office into something we looked forward to. Keeping your office child friendly makes it easier for you get work done, keeps the kids safe and entertained, and makes working at home more of a joy than a chore.

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