Creative Play Tips From The Pros

As parents (and entrepreneurs) we love play cafés and creative spaces! Where else can our little ones play, make a mess, and socialize safely while we connect with other adults (and maybe even get some work done)?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have all felt the loss of our favorite spots — and they miss us, too. As we’ve all learned to navigate the “new normal” of a life lived mostly at home, playtime professionals have been adapting, figuring out how to reimagine their businesses while balancing the needs of their families.

Adrienne Shea owns Little Sprouts Play Café in Shorewood and Mequon, Wisconsin. When the pandemic hit, her business had to shift gears quickly from on-premises play sessions to local home delivery.

“One of our biggest considerations during this pivot has been trying to figure out how to pull off a ‘Little Sprouts experience’ without the comfort of being at Little Sprouts Play Café,” Adrienne said. “Add to that, the ultimate goal of making sure that parents would feel comfortable being in charge of the activities and that kids would find the activities entertaining. Easy? Not quite.”

Little Sprouts began offering doorstep delivery of birthday parties and activity kits, as well as seasonal surprises like Easter baskets safely delivered by a life-size Easter Bunny. Lately they’ve been hosting virtual activities live over Zoom and pop-up backyard summer camps offered in partnership with a local nanny agency.

“The stress of being a parent to young kids during this time is so daunting,” Adrienne said. “So our goal to make home life a little easier and a little more fun is something we try to accomplish with each activity we release.”

At Makers, a process-based creative studio in Warren, Rhode Island, owner Erin DeThomas has made a similar effort to recreate her in-person experience in a way that works for families at home. Makers now brings the creativity directly to its’ customers’ homes with mobile classes and virtual birthday celebrations.

“At the studio and at home, I really try to emphasize process art, which is when there’s more value placed on the creative process than on the outcome,” Erin said. “It forces me to take a back seat to the project at hand and allows the kids to lead and create what they want instead of what I had envisioned.”

Whether planning activities for virtual, home or in-studio participation, Erin said it’s important to think about how to engage kids most effectively.

“I always consider the developmental age of the kiddos I’m going to work with, and try to make sure I incorporate aspects into the lessons that both challenge and complement it,” she said.

Erin and Adrienne each have children at home, ranging in age from 4 to 8, and both have found success entertaining them with simple, open-ended play and creation. Adrienne will leave out found materials and glue, or jars, magnifying glasses and flowers. With a little bit of guidance, she said, her daughters will lead themselves in exploratory play. 

Erin does something similar, which she calls “Invitations to Create.”

“Invitations to Create are usually a setup of fun, intriguing materials that (are) left out for a period of time (1-2 days) with no or little directions,” she said. “Something fun like play dough with fun toys, or a tray with watercolors, washi tape and stickers — really anything where I could take a step back and let the kids take the lead.”

And just as in many of our homes, summer has been a sanity saver. Adrienne said now that it’s warm out, she tries to give her kids “as much outside time as they can handle.”

We have a mud kitchen set up for our kids in our backyard,” she said. “With some early sprucing up, that mud kitchen has been our hero these past months. The kids can spend hours creating the grossest concoctions I’ve ever seen, but it makes them so happy.”

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