By Erik Olson Billings Gazette, Mont.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) After another play space in the community closed down, three women saw an opportunity for female business ownership by re-inventing the play-space idea with some real world experiences. At "The Art of Play" in Billings, Montana, kids can explore their own downtown village complete with a vet clinic, a mechanics garage full of toy tools and a mini beauty salon.
Billings Gazette, Mont.
For 20-year-old Karli Pointer, a stop at The Art of Play in Billings last week was a godsend.
Pointer is a caretaker for a 4-year-old autistic boy, and he had time away from his studies Wednesday afternoon.
So it was off to Art of Play, an indoor recess for little tykes not yet in school. The boy enjoys pushing around a toy mower and playing in the makeshift firehouse, and Pointer can relax for an hour.
He'd been there once before for a birthday party, and his parents recommended another visit, she said. "This is our break. I just let him play. I don't do any teaching at this time," Pointer said.
The Art of Play opened Jan. 25 at 605 24th St. W., and it's become a haven for parents looking to entertain toddlers.
Owners and Billings moms Jessica Tuck, Jayne Bryant and Jennifer Owen held a grand opening recently, and they say it's been a joy to see the response.
"It's been a lot of fun to watch all the kids in here," said Tuck, a former Billings Gazette advertising representative.
She and Bryant, who previously worked in sales at the Northern Hotel, are running the business day to day. Owen is keeping her job as executive director of Head Start in town and providing her expertise in child care.
The Art of Play fills a gap in the Billings area created when Play-K-tion, a similar business on Grand Avenue, closed in June. The three Art of Play owners said they were familiar with Play-K-tion, which was open for less than a year, and felt the concept could be successful.
"When they closed, it was really a deficiency for the community," Owen said of Play-K-tion.
It's a big market for Art of Play, which is limited to children under age 5.
U.S. Census figures from 2010 show that about 7,300 Billings kids fit that category, roughly the entire population of neighboring Laurel. In fact, the number of Billings toddlers in this age group outnumbers the population of 28 Montana counties.
Mornings tend to be the busiest, after nap time when kids are fresh. That's when mom Jessica Erickson, 27, and her nanny friend, Kaitlyn Stone, 21, both of Billings, took their charges in Thursday.
Erickson said she likes that Art of Play is limited to young kids, so her 2-year-old Oliver can have his space.
"It's really great to come here, because it's for kids under 5. They don't have to worry about kids older than them taking their toys," Erickson said.
The stay-at-home mom added that it's a great chance for her to get out of the house.
"You get to meet the moms, and we're pretty much in the same situation," Erickson said.
At the grand opening, a handful came to enjoy Art of Play for free. Most toddlers stayed in center racetrack circle, where they could jump into foot-powered cars that run around a turf field with other toys.
A toddler exercise gym is near one wall, complete with a plastic weight bench and a toy ski machine. Near the door, a row of stairs leads to a small kitchen, where the little ones can pretend to bake and wave down at Mom and Dad.
"Families... are elated to come here and spend time together," Owen said.
The most prominent features are nods to the families of Tuck, Owen and Bryant. The Bryant Vet Clinic is covered with paw prints. Next to it, Rigo's Garage is full of toy tools and named after Wood's 2-year-old son. Mimi's Salon is named after Buck's mother. The AOP Firehouse references the business -- Art of Play.
Finally, the S&O Market is a nod to Buck's two kids, Sawyer and Oliver, the latter of whom was born on opening day of the business.
"I went in a half-hour before we opened and had him a half-hour after we closed," Tuck said.
The Art of Play is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. The cost is $7 per day for most kids. Newborns can play for free, and it's $3 for infants 6 weeks to 6 months.
A back room is available for birthday parties starting at $150, which includes playtime for 10 children. Owen said the owners plan to push the parties to develop a regular customer base.
The women are also starting classes, including yoga for babies and their mothers.
The Art of Play also has an espresso shop up front for parents to enjoy while their toddlers run around.
The three women invested about $80,000 to start the business, which included buying toys and equipment, and renovating the interior of the vacant space.
The playground is a good place for kids to unwind, but it's also an outlet for harried parents, Wood said. Moms and dads can meet each other, swap stories and learn techniques for what's working with their kids, she said.
"We want to encourage moms with young infants to come out, socialize, with older moms and connect," Owen said.
Sometimes kids enjoy Art of Play too much, however. Shauna Fettig, 41 of Laurel, said she learned about the business on social media shortly after its opening, so she took in her 2-year-old, Sawyer.
He had a blast, but Fettig said she knew she had a regular haunt when it was time to leave that first time.
"He absolutely bawled when we left. It was the first time that happened. He begged to come back."