Often, when we approach design and architecture for children, we imagine round, bright, colorful spaces, with cartoon figures on the walls and miniature furniture for adults. The Wutopia Lab agency takes the exact opposite approach to this trend by opting for a more sober design but still as playful and dreamlike as ever.

Designer Erni Min and architect Yu Ting, co-founders of Wutopia Lab, observed that many children, including their own eight-year-old daughter, preferred more subtle, if not somewhat abstract, environments for play and creativity. “They are sometimes more attracted to the visual interests related to spatial changes than to bright colors,” says Erni. “A simple and neutral space, with just shades of color.”

For example, when Wutopia Lab was chosen to design a children’s leisure space for Aranya, a family resort complex on the Qinhuangdao coast, three hours east of Beijing, they adopted a radically different creative approach. A few well-placed touches of yellow and red, mirrors, vertical gardens defying gravity, giant “soap bubbles”, a ceiling covered with balloons—all help to stimulate children’s imagination. “We used exaggerated artistic techniques to turn everyday life into a magical reality,” says Yu.

A 1000 m2 area houses the playground occupying the ground floor, with the children’s restaurant on the first floor. Min and Yu added extra roof space, a bright red playhouse, a kind of cherry on top – a wink to ice cream sundaes. This area is accessible from a sunny staircase, a kind of yellow brick road that runs through the interior and exterior of the building, encouraging a sense of discovery.

While the restaurant is light and airy, the lower level is darker and more mysterious. The mirror walls reflect a black painted ceiling, dotted with sparkling fiber optic lights, like a starry sky on a moonless night. Circles are omnipresent. Floating in a ball pit, luminous globes and transparent PVC bubbles are large enough for children to play with. “Children love soap bubbles, so fleeting and unpredictable,” says Yu. There is also a theater, itself circular, with black poofs knitted in the shape of sea urchins, a stainless steel slide, a trampoline and, for quieter moments, a library. The bathroom is flooded with blue, like an aquarium.