How is the pandemic changing play spaces?

When Carrie Shoup started taking her infant daughter to indoor playgrounds, she was dismayed by what she encountered.

“I was surprised by the lack of thought, intention, and respect put into the play areas,” Carrie said. “Especially in the spaces for infants and toddlers.”

From overwhelming bright colors and toys with flashing lights to play structures that were too big for small children to navigate alone but too small for parents to climb in and help, the play spaces she visited didn’t seem to be serving either kids or parents well.

“I went home and told my husband that we could do this better,” Carrie said.

They worked together on a vision that eventually came to life as PlayLab, a play space created with a sense of respect for families and young children. Carrie and her husband incorporated scientific research into play to design environments that are fun, engaging, and challenging.

When it came to designing the space, they wanted PlayLab to be modern, stylish — and calming.

“Parents tell us all the time that when they walk in, they just kind of let go of tension and breathe a sigh of relief,” Carrie said. 

But for the past six months, PlayLab’s two California locations -- one in Pasadena, one in Eagle Rock -- have been dark, closed by the global pandemic.

“It has been stressful and daunting to financially keep our family and business going, but we also feel that our decision to stay closed was the right thing to do to keep families in our community safe and healthy,” Carrie said. “Being closed has also given us tons of time to brainstorm and plan as best we can for reopening.”

Like other play businesses, PlayLab has had to make a pandemic pivot, reconsidering its space and the ways in which it fosters engagement.

“We’ve made modifications to the spaces to encourage physical distancing and handwashing, as well as replaced some toys and play areas with materials that will stand up to constant cleaning and disinfecting -- like Ruggish play rugs,” Carrie said. 

Currently, play spaces in Carrie’s area are allowed to reopen their outdoor spaces, and PlayLab will be offering private reservations on the large outdoor deck at its Eagle Rock location.

“We will also schedule time in between reservations to switch out used toys for fresh, clean ones, as well as disinfect surfaces and clean and disinfect restrooms and changing tables,” Carrie said. “We have also been upping our tech game by moving to no-contact check-ins and online reservations. We also plan on offering some virtual enrichment and support classes, plus special events for families to enjoy from home.”

The COVID pivot has looked a bit different for Valeria Dubovoy of Ethos, a research-based, education-focused child care center in Boston. 

“Our unique educational approach and stimulating yet safe environment aims to help develop a generation of happy and healthy young minds and hearts, capable of building a better future,” Valeria said. The goal is to create a space that is specifically designed for shared, positive learning and development. 

At Ethos, group play among its pupils (ages five weeks through five years) is all part of helping develop new skills.

“The concept of community is introduced through these shared learning experiences, which are especially meaningful within this mixed age group,” Valeria says.

That all changed this spring, when the pandemic forced Ethos to temporarily close.

When our center closed in March, we had no option but to adapt and leverage technology to provide families with resources (in the form of blog posts) and host virtual classes, neither of which we had ever done before,” Valeria said. “Although our community was physically apart, we grew closer and stronger in the face of adversity.”

As a child care center, Ethos was able to reopen, although doing so required instituting a plethora of challenging new regulations and requirements.

“Our staff and family members seamlessly complied with our new processes, knowing that they will keep our community safe,” Valeria said. “Health and safety is, and always will be, our top priority. Our efforts on that front have helped us create trust for both our existing and new families.”

Although COVID-19 has forced parents and play businesses alike to work in unconventional ways, Valeria said it hasn’t been all bad.

“While these challenges cannot be overstated, one positive outcome has been the growing awareness and conversations surrounding the importance of childcare and early education, and how we must make it more accessible,” she said.

Just as parents have had to learn to adapt to raising children in a pandemic, Carrie added, entrepreneurs have had to adjust the way they nurture their businesses. 

“Change is never easy, and this pandemic has brought sudden and unprecedented changes to all of our lives,” Carrie said. “But many of these changes have created some real growth and improvements to how we empathize with members of our community, how we support families and children's development, and how we do business. We are looking forward to continuing to grow and change as a business, and learn how to better support parents and families after reopening.”

Follow PlayLab on Instagram @goplaylab and check out Ethos at @ethoslearn

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