A Clean, Well-Lighted Play Space
posted by Amy

It's Day 1 of Winter Break 2005, and it's raining. My preschooler is at school for the morning, but the two boys are home for the next two weeks. The weather forecasts are calling for rain, rain, and more rain, and I'm just grateful they're not toddlers right now. At 6 and 10, they can entertain themselves with their new toys, books, and art supplies (and we had the foresight to sign them up for an indoor baseball camp for the next two mornings), but I still remember that sinking feeling I'd get when I faced another day of trying to entertain housebound youngsters during the rainy season.

Toddler music and gymnastics classes can be great options if you can afford them, but not everyone can. Plus, some of us have kids who resist the structured activities of Gymboree or Kindermusik, making us wonder why we waste the money to bring them to a class they're not interested in or actively hate. What I longed for on those rainy winter days (and here in Sacramento, on those blistering summer days when the air quality was so bad we were warned to stay inside) was a place I could bring the kids to play while I talked to other adults. No singing the "Welcome Song," no parachute play (my son was terrified of the parachute for years), no frenetically-paced, highly-structured activities. Just a clean, dry, warm (or cool, depending on the season) place to play.

Nancy and Catherine, two mamas from my neck of the woods, had the same idea, and they've made it a reality. Read on for more about their project.

mamazine.com: How did this project come to be? We want to know everything, from the initial inspiration for it to the nitty-gritty details of where it will be and how it will work.

Nancy: Remember last July when temperatures hit 105 degrees in Sacramento for what felt like an eternity? Well, that heatwave disrupted my daily routine of going to the park with my 16-month-old son. Between the extreme heat and the poor air quality, I didn't feel it would be wise to encourage the little guy to exert his toddler energy outdoors (and frankly I didn't feel like being out there myself). So I started to wonder what on earth parents do with their energetic tots when it's too hot -- or too cold and rainy -- to use the parks and playgrounds?

Well, it turns out that Catherine was wondering the same thing, as it would apply to her six-month-old son... who was not yet walking but would likely be mobile by the time rainy season arrived. As new moms, we knew all too well the exhaustion and isolation that accompany parenting a young child; thus, neither of us wanted to be cooped up at home just because the parks were off-limits.

Sadly, few public places provide the kind of indoor space that is suitable for a young child's play. Even rarer is a tot-friendly space that supports the caregiver's needs -- which might be as basic as food, coffee, a place to sit, or an opportunity to chat with other grown-ups. I'm working to create the ultimate parent-and-kid destination, the Sacramento Children's Museum, but because that will be years in the making, I wanted to work with Catherine to create something that would provide local parents with some immediate relief. That's how we decided to start The Play Room.

In order to fund our idea, we applied for -- and received -- a mini-grant from First 5 Sacramento, the county-level "arm" of the state commission (First 5 California), which funds initiatives that promote the well-being of children, prenatal to age five. (First 5 money comes from cigarette taxes, as established by Proposition 10, approved by California voters in 1998.)

Although Catherine and I joked about wanting to create a spa/playroom (because what moms really need are massages!), we figured we should start small (and be realistic) -- create a bare-bones, drop-in playroom for the rainy season. Since we couldn't guarantee that other parents would volunteer to help us, we kept our plans VERY basic: We will rent an empty room in a community building and provide small toys that are easy to clean and easy to schlep to and from The Play Room (by an adult, possibly in the rain, with a kid in tow).

Catherine: So the basic idea is a safe, comfortable place for young children and caregivers to play and interact. The kids get to have fun; the adults get to connect with other adults.

Something that was important to me as we embarked on this project was providing a FREE indoor facility for parents. A lot of families cannot afford some of the classes geared toward young children. Or maybe they're looking for something less structured. So a free space where kids can simply play was really attractive to me. And I hope it will be to others.

We are in the process of finalizing all the details, but The Play Room will likely operate Monday mornings at Kid Kinetics at 5357 H Street and Wednesday afternoons at the Clunie Center at McKinley Park, 601 Alhambra Blvd. Sessions will run from January 4 through March 20. We will be closed for MLK Day (Jan 16) and President's Day (Feb 20).

I also want to emphasize that although both sites are in the East Sacramento neighborhood, The Play Room is open to everyone in Sacramento County.

Nancy and I would also be happy to assist anyone who is interested in starting a similar project in their own neighborhood. As someone who grew up a mile from the nearest neighbor, I am particularly concerned about the isolation of parents in rural areas. We would love to help you connect with others.

Nancy: If we end up with a lot of volunteer support, then maybe we will expand our offerings and try to extend the life of The Play Room beyond the rainy season... because those 105-degree days will be back before you know it!

I should also note that The Play Room is not a place to drop kids off; caregivers must accompany the children. The upside to this is that parents will have an opportunity to bond with other parents of young children. We hope the parents get as much out of it as the children do; we all need support.

mamazine.com: What can local parents who are interested in helping out do?

We need volunteers to host each session, not only because Nancy and I can't do it all on our own, but because we believe that everyone will get more out of this project if it is a community effort. After all, the grant from First 5 Sacramento is largely about building social capital. It's important to us to foster relationships that will last beyond the life o! f this project so that we can help one another become better parents.

Volunteer duties are very straightforward: Come a few minutes early to set out toys and prepare the room; sign in visitors; make sure everyone has a name tag; encourage dialogue and collect any feedback from visitors; put the toys away and secure the room when the session ends.

Parents who are interested in sharing their time or talent should contact Catherine Warmerdam at cowarmerdam@yahoo.com or 916.456.0945.

Nancy: For the more ambitious, we would love to find volunteers who are willing to lead singalongs, storytelling, and other fun programs. (We're willing to put a lot of ourselves into this project, but neither of us is willing to sing in front of a group!)

We haven't even implemented this project yet, but it's gotten me really excited about the possibilities of what we as individuals can do to affect our communities, to help parents with the challenging work of raising children. Those of us who spend every day with our children may be the best qualified to come up with ideas that support parents; unfortunately, we might be too tired, or too busy chasing our little ones, to take any action. To combat my mama-fatigue, I try to remember something important that Catherine said to me: "Now that I'm a mom, I may have less control over my daily schedule, but I feel like I have more control over my destiny."

Catherine: I want to be sure to add two thank yous: First, to the First 5 Commission for funding our project. And second, to Carol Hockridge at Kid Kinetics for donating her studio space to our project. We couldn't have brought The Play Room to life without their support.