The Rise of the Play Center

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Image: Sarah Pinault

In Maine we are housebound for much of January through March because of snow. Often this can include April, and it can also include the restrictive cold weather of December. Last year was my first year with a toddler, so gone were my housebound days of curling up in front of the woodstove with a good book for the weekend. I now had to be an entertainer.

Image: Casey Holt

My good friend introduced me to her local play center. It was a miracle in an abandoned mill. If you are not familiar with the concept, these are places, larger than most homes, full of toys. There might be theme rooms, craft areas and a kitchen for snack time. There might be a rock wall, a climbing frame and a slide. It depends on the location and tolerance level (read insurance policy) of the owner. For a small fee, either per person or family, you can spend the whole day there following your child around, while they play with toys they don’t own, and toys you don’t have to clean. It provides much needed stimulation for the child, a nice change of scenery for the parent.

If I could combine our two local play centers into one I would. There are things I like and loathe about each. I enjoy the center that has a coffee shop so I can have a cappuccino sitting on the counter while corralling Toby, but I also dislike that you cannot bring your own snacks in because of the health and safety requirements of an in-house coffee shop. I enjoy that at the other center, their employees follow you around picking up toys as your children discard them; that seems to me a big pulling point for harassed parents. One of our local centers is based in an old mill, tall ceilings, long rooms, it’s the perfect setup. There is a book room at each center for quieter children to read, or for loud children to sit and collect themselves for a few minutes. It’s a great place to meet up with fellow parents, though don’t expect your children to run in the same direction, expect disjointed conversations.

Image: Casey Holt

It’s also great if you have a tendency to over-shop for your child. I now know that Toby loves train tables, but doesn’t really need one. He can get his fix at the play center. I know that I love the Rody Horse but that Toby quickly tires of it. These are things I would have loved to buy for him but that we don’t have room for in our house. It’s great to know that he can play with them every so often, but that I don’t have to fit them into our daily lives. Through our local play center I discovered that Toby could be trusted on a slide, but not with paint. I discovered that he will run into walls whether they are ten feet apart or thirty.

It’s a great place to explore with your kids if you need to wear them out for a good nap, keep them occupied while dad hangs shelving in their room, or if you just need a break from the monotony. It’s also a great place to send grandparents who have run out of ideas. Pricey? Sometimes, but absolute value for money.

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4 thoughts on “The Rise of the Play Center

  1. My kids are now 9 and 10 but places like this were a huge gift to my life in New England when they were small. One note, I have seen several rise and fall because of various factors including the economy, insurance costs and small business owners who don’t necessarily prepare for the seasonal need of these centers. The ones that work tend to offer activities for a variety of ages, not just the little guys and can offer classes that will pull people back for the spring and summer when they could easily be outside instead.

  2. When my kids were little we were pretty much limited to the playroom at McDonalds. So after seeing a wonderful space for babies and toddlers at the Children’s Museum of Art in NYC, I sat down with the director of our small local children’s museum and talked about starting a toddler’s program. The “Tuesday for Tots” at the Children’s Museum at Saratoga became one of their most popular programs and is still going strong. I got a yearly membership that I used year round (since we didn’t have air conditioning!). And I met some great friends there, including GeekMom Andrea!

  3. What fun! Our city had an “Early Childhood Center” that military families could use free of charge when we lived near Omaha from 2008-2010. Great for my preschooler…and great for the checkbook!

  4. Is their a directory of play centers like this? I live in southeast PA and the only places called “play centers” near me are daycare centers. I also looked for indoor playgrounds with little luck. I’ve got twin toddlers and we are looking for places their Dad can take them by himself while I’m at work.

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