116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MARION — With floor padding, soft play equipment and whimsically decorated walls, The Family Room’s new Toddler Play Cafe may look like a place for young children. But what happens between parents while the kids are at play is one of its biggest goals.
While the kids get their energy out in a safe, controlled environment, parents can relax their defenses and redirect their energy.
“It looks like a place for toddlers, and they have a great time here, but it really is a space for parents to get away and feel safe and feel peace of mind,” said co-owner Jen English. “A lot of times, the value of taking your kids out to do something doesn’t outweigh the horribleness of taking your kids out to do something.”
As stay-at-home moms, English and co-owner Mackenzie Ward know firsthand the struggles of taking toddlers out anywhere. With two toddlers now, English was looking to get more out of life after leaving an at-home job in direct sales.
A mom of six, English wanted to build a purposeful community for stay-at-home moms who were told they couldn’t do anything else — like build a home-based business. In March 2019, she opened The Family Room in Central City.
Address: 143 Marion Blvd., Suite A in Marion (behind McDonald’s)
Hours: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday
Phone: (319) 310-8020
While searching for bouncy house rentals for that business over a pandemic winter, she stumbled upon a Facebook group for play cafes and discovered just how common they were around the country.
“I was like, ‘Why don’t we have that here?’” she said. “At the time, the mall playground was still closed (due to pandemic precautions), and the McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A playgrounds were still closed. There was literally nowhere to take your kids and it was still cold.”
So in late April this year, English and Ward started the Toddler Play Cafe — the first concept of its kind in the Corridor.
In a former dance studio, the 1,500-square-foot space has everything parents need that aren’t always found in fast-food playgrounds. With snacks galore, play equipment, seating areas and easy parking, the small space is designed with little touches that make a difference for this age group such as looking at what’s within reach of toddlers, potential escape routes and ways to contain them.
Even places like the mall playground aren’t always secure, with no gate for fast runners.
“It really takes the blink of an eye for them to run away and hide somewhere,” English said. “I have a 2- and 4-year-old, and they go in opposite directions.”
The small space serves a couple purposes: keeping toddlers in sight at all times and giving clingy children reassurance that makes them feel comfortable letting go of mom or dad for a few minutes. Then, parents can do what they need: talk to other parents, take a call, check their email or read a book.
The newfound freedom it provides may sound mundane, but it’s a simple reality of parenting for stay-at-home parents. English said The Toddler Play Cafe has been able to provide a reprieve for parents that’s important for their mental health.
But more than a distraction for kids, moms are able to build a community in a place that makes activities for those with children easier and less stressful. The space has hosted painting and craft projects, fitness classes and unconventional events like bra fittings for moms in a private room while the kids play.
“We take the hard stuff and try to make it easier to accomplish,” English said.
While filling her ambition as a business woman, the cafe has given her the chance to enjoy raising young children without making sacrifices. Often, she felt the pressure of not staying at home to raise her children in order to work.
“It sucks, because I feel like I’m wishing my kids’ youth away,” she said. “I don’t really want that, because it goes so fast.”
Having moments to herself in the space is a balance she hopes to provide to others, too.
As the space expands its efforts to meet special needs, the owners see a future for play cafes in other small towns around northeast Iowa — spaces that might not even have coffee shops or the amenities available in Marion.
“My life purpose is community,” English said.
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