1. When did you come up with the idea for The Yard? What was your original idea?
The idea for The Yard was years in the making, but the decision to make the move to just do it was rather abrupt now that I think about it! The concept lived in my mind for so long without a timeframe, like many dreams do, that it didn't have a timeline necessarily. So I guess by virtue of becoming a reality, it felt abrupt!
My original idea, compared to what opened 3 weeks ago, are pretty similar actually.
I envisioned a place that felt simple, and like home. A place you wanted to go again and again because something about it felt familiar and easy. I wanted to keep everything, from the name to the décor, quite simple. I wanted it to feel relatable to not only children with a variety of differences, but across generations as well, so that grandparents taking children to play felt as natural as when they brought their own children.
2. What is your goal, mission, or hope for The Yard now and for those who visit?
My goal for The Yard was to create opportunity for those in the community. Opportunity from my perspective as a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, meant access to play.
Play is the work of children, and just like we go to work every day, children need access to play everyday. I wanted that play to feel natural and instinctual, so creating an outdoor feel was important, as well as equipping it with familiar equipment. My hope was that families would make us part of their routines, stopping on the way home from school, having play dates, inviting grandparents, coming with in-home support, etc and that the whole family would play. Play is so fundamental in all aspects of a child's development, and yet is can be thought of as "silly". I wanted to bring back play!
3. How did you come up with each activity, equipment, sensory play ideas, etc.? What was important to you when choosing the right activities to include?
The equipment was chosen with a clinical eye. I tried to keep it as sensory friendly and non-over stimulating as possible, though it is really hard to find preschool equipment that is not boldly colored!
That being said, I focused on toys/equipment that targeted and supported early motor milestones such as crawling, pushing/pulling, and climbing for the little ones, and for the older kids, just offering the environment for them to practice their skills and meet their sensory needs.
4. Tell us more about the concept of taking an outdoor setting and putting it indoors - with outdoor playground equipment, benches and chairs that you'd find outside, the fake grass, etc.? Why did you choose this type of environment for kids to play?
Creating an outdoor space was important to me for several reasons. One is that it is inherently sensory-rich, meaning that there are natural sensory opportunities to be had just by duplicating the outdoors...visual, tactile...but also, I wanted to steer clear of an amusement/entertainment center. So keeping the name simple meant that we weren't "luring" kids to play with creative names, but inviting them to play in a familiar setting, with a familiar word that they know.
"Go play in the yard"...we've all heard it from our own parents!
5. Which of your activities or equipment are you finding to be favorites of the children who play?
The favorite pieces so far are the ones that are packing the most sensory bang for those little bodies that have been cooped up all winter...rollercoasters, merry-go-rounds, and swings! Totally vestibular!
6. What other types of services or events will you hold in this space (play groups, sensory therapy, birthday parties, etc.), and can you explain a little more about those?
We are soon to be offering Occupational Therapy and maybe even Speech Therapy at The Yard. Though I am an OT, I cannot carry a caseload while running the business, so I will be passing the torch for a while while we get operations underway.
We are already offering parties, and have had several since opening. They are themed parties, hosted by Heather, who is a full time employee and Special Ed teacher. The notion of offering birthday parties was born from the fact that the children on my caseload were not often successful, or even open, to having parties due to their varied developmental issues. We wanted to provide a safe, understanding, knowledgeable space for all children to experience a successful social gathering. They run very similar to a therapy session, in that they are structured with 2-3 activities led by Heather.
7. You wrote on your site that you hoped with The Yard that you could help families "preserve childhood." What does that mean to you, and why is it important?
It is very important to me to preserve childhood. Our kids are growing up faster than ever, and with more distractions than ever, but one thing about that formula hasn't changed, and that is the need for play.
It has a tremendous role in the development of a child's motor skills, cognitive skills, problem solving skills, sensory development, etc. While I can accept that technology is a fact of life, play is still is a way of life, and I'm hoping that the message of The Yard somehow gives permission to families to feel purposeful in their play, and have an appreciation for the value of it.
8. There is a sign in your Yard that read something like sensory play is "not just getting the energy out," what do you mean by that? Why is play so important for children's growth and development?
The signs in The Yard are intended to educate and empower families at their own pace. They may resonate strongly with one family dealing with sensory processing disorders in their family, and for another, begin the journey of understanding why their best friend's child behaves the way he does sometimes. What I love about signs is that you can read them for as long as you need to, maybe months, before you understand them but nobody knows (or at least that's what I do!)! You get to process that information as long as it takes, and make it meaningful and relevant to you in your own way.
For that particular sign about sensory diets, I wanted families dealing with Sensory Processing Disorder to understand that there can be a formula for a successful playtime, based on their OT's input in understanding the way their child processes input. That some activities can be calming, some can be alerting, and every child is different. Often times, the term "sensory diet" can be thrown around a lot and become a watered down version of it's goal. I want to preserve the integrity around those terms through education.
There is a reason that even Einstein said "Play is the highest form of research". Through children's senses and natural curiosities, they are continuously collecting data that their brain and central nervous system use as resources for future actions, all through the power of play. Those instincts to explore with their bodies is what allows a 6 year old to try hanging upside down from one leg just because they can, while their parents cringe at the possible outcomes!
9. How long were you an OT? How did that work prepare you for creating The Yard and offering a "sensory friendly" atmosphere for kids to learn and grow?
I have been an OT for just about 20 years. I started working with children with Autism right out of school, and have been in love with my decision to be an OT ever since. I have always felt that OT has a unique niche in pediatrics unlike any other discipline, and I love working with the whole family. As OTs, we have unique perspective on how the processing of sensory information has impacts on all aspects of development, including behavior. I particularly enjoy working through behaviors with families from an OT perspective.
In terms of being "sensory friendly", I just wanted to create an environment that was rich in opportunity, while being gentle on the nervous system. By keeping colors down and the walls and ceilings free of hanging pictures, etc, we are keeping the visual stimulation low for example. By keeping the environment free of screens and batteries, we can offer a more controlled auditory environment (none of our toys "talk"). By keeping play choices to a relative minimum in terms of loose manipulatives, puzzles, books, etc, we maintain a general organization that can be reflected in the way children then organize themselves in relation to the environment.
10. When you take a step back and look out into the play yard and see the families and children enjoying time together, what do you feel, think about?
So far, I am most proud of the "moments" families are having together. Take all of the clinical stuff out, and just seeing families engage with each other has been the most satisfying. Because we offer such relatable and interactive equipment, combined with the fact that we ask families to leave the electronics behind, we are getting just raw fun!
Even if only for a little while, the distractions are virtually stripped away, and suddenly dads are hula hooping and moms are throwing 3 pointers, and the whole family is lighting up! That's been really fun!
We also have many grandparents bringing their grandchildren, which is so special. I had a grandfather tell me today how grateful he was to be able to bring his grandson every Monday, because there are few things that they can do together where they have this much in common. And I guess when I'm looking around the room on a day like that, I'm thinking about the memories in the making.
11. You started with an idea, and now it's a successful play place for kids - what do you think has made it so successful so far?
Well the snow has been in my favor for sure! But more than that maybe, I think our passion for this project must be shining through for people to have understood the concept so quickly. Or maybe they don't know they've understood it yet, and I'm just wishful thinking, but I'll take it!
12. Tell us a little about you as a mom (since this is for a mom blog ). How many children, ages? Which 3 words would you use to describe yourself as a mother? What is one thing you tried to do often with your kids to PLAY and have fun together?
I have been a mom as long as I've been a therapist, and vice versa. My own kids are now almost 18 and 20, with the youngest heading to college in September. So now felt like a good time for changes for all! The Yard is my new baby!
Given my kids ages, they may have 3 very different words to describe me! In fact, I just asked my 18 year old...he says "loving, comforting, inspiring". My 20 year old says "happy, positive, motivated". ( so maybe they're not so bad after all!) .
It seems like I was just trying to figure out how I was going to get to work and get them to daycare in the same day, and now they are adults! So at the risk of sounding cliché, it really does fly by! But we had a lot of play time! We spent a lot of time outdoors, and I can remember being out with my kids in a light rain one summer, and a neighbor yelling out her window "Are you ever going to let those kids in!?" Nah! It was too much fun to resist!
Those are the things we talk about now...how my son could never pass by a puddle, and how in my daughter's first grade picture, I asked the photographer NOT to delete the dirt off her hands! That dirt has stories to tell!
This airplane is the COOLEST!
What I LOVE about The Yard: I love it so much I bought a month membership on the spot the day we visited! It's the perfect place to take the kids on my way home from work, after a long day when it's cold out and we just want to PLAY!
- When you walk in, there is space to take off all your gear - jackets, cubbies for the boots, etc. You should bring a clean pair of shoes that can be worn in on the playground equipment (we keep some sneakers in the car so we can make a trip to the Yard now!).
- Wherever I'm standing in the play yard area I can see my kids. This is HUGE for a parent of two children who are different ages and interested in different activities. I felt safe there, like I could watch them even if running in different directions.
- The patio tables and eating area. Awesome! The first time we visited, my kids were SO excited and tired from running around after only an hour, they were starving for lunch at 10:15 a.m.! Good thing I'd packed lunch! They ate right there, then got up and ran around all over again.
- They've thought of everything! The bathrooms have a changing table in them. There is hand sanitizer everywhere, and a pitcher of water with lemons right when you walk in. The activities are for a range of ages. There are also signs everywhere - adorable chalkboard signs - that explain what various equipment should be used for, ages and weight limits, etc. I found this super helpful as a parent of two kids - one older and one younger, where I wasn't sure which things my older one could and could not be on. It was great.
- It's clean! A lot of kid places can be dingy or not as well taken care of. This is a brand new, very well cared for play place. I can tell they take pride in what they offer to families and want to keep it looking as awesome as it is now.
- Helpful staff- WOW. They are amazing! You will see at least a couple of people walking around the entire time you are there, sweeping, putting toys back, redirecting kids kindly to be sure they are safe and with a parent, ETC. We visited this past week and my children were EXHAUSTED, about to completely melt down because we had to leave... I was trying to get their jackets on, my daughter was whining and running away from me... the staff person stepped in so gently and offered to blow some bubbles and let them take a deep breath to blow the bubbles themselves, as well as pop them after they put a jacket on, then shoes, etc. It was SO helpful to me, and honestly refreshing to see someone care that much to stop what she was doing and assist me in getting out of the door. They really have thought of everything that works for kids. I'm extremely impressed with their professionalism, support of parents, and understanding of how children learn best.
- Birthday party room- It looks SUPER cute! I wish I had a picture here for you. I haven't attended a birthday party there, but I can see why parents would LOVE it. They put so much thought and creativity into that room, so sweet.
- It's good for us. Not only is it a fun thing and my kids think I'm the COOLEST mom ever taking them to The Yard, but it's also good for all of us! Mentally, for me, as a busy working out of the home mom, to get a break after work before rushing home for dinner, cleaning the house, laundry, etc. It's a great place to reconnect together after being apart at daycare, school, etc. and just PLAY and laugh! It's also physically healthy for the kids - so much exercise, running around, and feel-good endorphins running through them. It makes for a smoother, happier, calmer evening or to break up a long weekend day.
- Great place to make friends. I originally had a mommy group meeting there, so much fun! It was an awesome place for a variety of ages of children to interact together, and for we moms to chat while being able to see our kids at the same time.
- Taking the outdoor IN. LOVE this more than anything. I literally feel like we're outside... minus the freezing temperatures or blinding sun. It's the best! An indoor playground?! Who'd have thought? Genius!
The only minor challenge is finding the place the first time, but then you're GOOD to go, I promise! I have found parking on Main Street every time, no issues there. The Yard is inside this big brick building - next to the Portland Pie Company (YUM!!!). If you look in the picture below, it's the first door on the building, in front of that blue/gray car. LOVE that it's in this cool building, so authentic and fun.
Just a little break from playing so hard! (below)
OK these roller coasters.... SERIOUS FUN! My kids LOVE them! I'm so glad my 5 year old can still use them, he's obsessed.
I loved watching my children, especially my youngest child, learn to do different things I wasn't sure they could do even last summer at the outdoor playgrounds we visited. Watching my daughter focus and learn how to climb up the ladder or this rope was so cool! Every time we have gone back (three times now!) she's learned more and been stronger and more confident at climbing. What a great thing to prep us for outdoor play this summer!
See... they thought of everything! Hand sanitizer!
Snack break :)
I LOVED this tight rope. My son was able to do it all by himself on the first try, which included such focus and determination. I loved seeing him achieve that!
Fun for all ages! I love that there are big playground equipment like slides and swings, but also little things like ride-on cars and tractors (John Deere, our favorite!) and blocks and books to read. There literally is something for everyone here.
ENJOY PLAYING, MOMS!
In the busy days that we all have - changing diapers, running here and there, shopping, cleaning, feeding, working, carpooling, etc. - it's in the moments where we're really PLAYING and connecting with our kids that the magic happens. Enjoy.
Thank you, Stacy and Heather, for all of your great information and for offering an amazing and fun place to learn with our children!