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Outdoor Play, Indoor Place

Outdoor Play, Indoor Place

J.R. McMillan

When the leaves fall and the sun hangs lower in the sky, isn’t there a place parents can take their cooped-up kids for outdoor play in an indoor place?

Actually, there is – and they’re popping up all over Central Ohio.

Four short years ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone in Columbus who could explain the concept behind a “play café.” For many it’s still a challenge.

“Parents didn’t know what we were all about,” said Jennifer Kramer, owner of Firefly Play Café in Clintonville, the area’s first such business. “A lot of parents still think of play cafés as somewhere for stay-at-home moms. That’s one of our biggest misperceptions.”

Firefly’s combination of drop-in and monthly membership options attracts a variety of working parents, grandparents, neighbors, and nannies. “We have parents who work from home, or those who work non-standard hours, like firefighters. We actually see lots of dads.”

Kramer was involved in Firefly’s development in the summer of 2010, and has been the owner for the past three years. She admits her previous 11-year stint at COSI, predominantly in early childhood programs, has had a significant impact.

“I’m really an educator learning how to be a business owner. That’s why I’ve tried to partner with other local businesses,” Kramer said. Backroom Coffee is a parent favorite, even on warmer days. A new sandwich menu will include kid-friendly faves, like sunflower butter sandwiches and other edibles from Weiland’s Market – an extension of Firefly’s “peanut safe” environment.

Kramer also noted the eclectic collection of works from local artists adorning the walls and shelves. All of the pieces are available for sale. She only charges a modest fee to cover credit card transactions, but cash sales go entirely to the artists. “If you like something, you can take it off the wall and take it home. I believe in supporting Columbus artists. I wanted to offer parents something unique, something they won’t find at Target.”

But the kids are customers too, and they’ll find no shortage of child-led discovery at Firefly. More physical activities include seated scooters, a bounce house and a curvy wooden play structure with ample options to climb, slide, and hide. You’ll also find imaginative items – a winding, standing-height train table, a well-stocked kiddie kitchen, and even a cape rack for every child’s inner superhero.

Evenings, weekends, and additional hours outside of open play offer a mix of birthday parties, creative classes, and family photo sessions. Programming partners and private rentals are a growing part of Firefly’s business model.

“I wanted to create a social outlet for young children and parents, a place that fosters learning and community for both, outside of a formal education setting,” Kramer said.

Success breeds competition, and play cafés are no exception. Ohio’s often bitter and always unpredictable winters have ushered in several new venues where kids and parents can connect and explore together.

Allyson Morena, owner of Piccadilly in Bexley, describes her business as a “modern play and creative café.” Inspired by earlier concepts in Los Angeles, New York, and London, Morena had been admiring such efforts from afar. But much like the restaurant industry, a local proof of concept was the nudge she needed three years ago. Piccadilly is in many ways not an imitation of similar efforts, but a response to them.

“I almost named it Piccadilly ‘Social Café,’” Morena said. “Parenting can be lonely and I wanted there to be a place that was radically different from Gymboree and Chuck E. Cheese.”

“I wanted it to be a shared experience for parents and their children; we’re not just an indoor playground,” Morena said. Piccadilly is designed for parents, with dedicated diaper-changing stations and easy-to-use accounts – so parents can enter or order from the health-minded menu, without having to fumble through a purse or wallet. “It’s what I wanted for myself when my kids were younger.”

Morena’s emphasis on local and wholesome options is also apparent at Piccadilly. Stauf’s coffee, gluten-free goodies from Cherbourg Bakery, and a food selection featuring items from Angry Baker and Harvest Pizza round out the robust menu. “I wanted to have some of the same options I choose for my family.”

Initial frustrations shared amongst startup play cafés are often logistical – like insurance coverage. “No one knows what play cafés are, so they tend to treat us like gyms,” Morena said. Piccadilly does offer dance and martial arts classes open to individuals and monthly members, but it’s far from a gym. Even larger than the almost overwhelming custom climbing structure is the “Playdium” – an in-floor auditorium complete with digital projector and surround-sound experience. “I think we’ve created a place that’s clean and comfortable enough for everyday play, but also designed for sophisticated kids parties.”

Summer day camps and year-round acting, music, and art classes attract younger and older children alike. “Even our craft classes are always intentional – what they make must be playable, hang-able or give-able,” Morena explained. “Everything we do here has a purpose.”

A New Way to Play

Since the first one opened a few years ago, many play cafés have popped up in central Ohio:

Firefly Play Café in Clintonville
4822 N High St.

Piccadilly in Bexley
2501 E Main St.

Peapod Play Café
4874 Thompson Rd.

Little Green House in Grandview
808 Grandview Ave.

Little Skipper’s Play Café in Hilliard
3615 Fishinger Blvd., Hilliard

Eat, Play, Love in Lewis Center
8927 S Old State Rd., Lewis Center

Lattes & Lollipops in Powell
337 W Olentangy St., Powell,

43 E Home St., Westerville


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