NOTE: Spark Museum + Play Cafe closed in March 2018.
By Emily Harrington
The concept is creeping up all over the country, and it has made its way to our community. A play café combines an entertaining area for children with a relaxing space for caregivers.
The museum is open for business, and we visited recently. The Spark Museum + Play Café at 142 Lincoln Square in Urbana (entrance off High Street) was simply wonderful. I’ve been to this space a few times while in one of its many iterations. It has never been as warm and inviting as it is as a children’s museum. I certainly hope the black hole of restaurant spaces has found its niche.
On a weekday evening, I went with my two sons. It was quiet, still in the early stages of popularity. First, credit where credit is due, thank you Lincoln Square for family parking spaces! Snaps to you. You should park in one of these handy spaces before entering on the south side of the building (the old Art Mart entrance). The entrance to the museum is eye catching, colorful, grand and inviting. Just what you’d want a children’s museum to be.
It cost me and my 4-year-old son $5 each. My baby was free as children younger than 2 don’t cost. There are membership options available, too. If you plan on using the facility as much as I do, this may be the sensible option. The higher package includes reciprocal privileges at participating museums. Many kid-oriented schedules often facilitate a lot of morning play and evening play. So, it’s nice to know each admission is considered an all-day pass. Come in the morning—return in the evening!
According to its website, Spark’s mission is innovation. All exhibits and programming are linked by the common thread of creative thinking and problem solving. Spark exhibits support the active child and curious adult using explorations in color, sound, light, emotion, music, balance and dramatic play. This is accomplished with both traditional and modern learning techniques. Spark activities challenge and develop children’s creativity, imagination, thinking skills and social skills.
The large museum is broken up into eight zones: build, discover, perform, play, make/bake, wiggle & giggle, nest (infant area) and breast (nursing nook).
Your child can:
Build on a Lego board. Discover how air keep scarfs and balls afloat using a series of tubes and pipes. Make/bake in a restaurant-grade toy kitchen. Perform on the wood castle and puppeteering stage. Play dress up with the dozens of costumes. Get out their wiggles and giggles with the balance bar and tunnel. The pizza making and conveyor belt were my son’s fave. He also loved the ball contraptions!
The pizza making and conveyor belt were my son’s fave. He also loved the ball contraptions!
I think all the zoned areas are best suited for walkers to around six years of age. There are two areas for little kids, however. One is a sturdy gated area with soft balls and pillows. It is dedicated to babes-in-arms, crawlers and early walkers—your interaction is required here. This is positioned right by the café part of the museum. The other area looks like a soft nest for a prehistoric bird.
Sonya Darter, the executive director, explained the concept further.
“At Spark, we have a bird theme and created the nest to give our youngest visitors a soft, clean, dedicated and cute place to play. We placed the nest by our tree house to give parents several places for infants to be,” Darter said.
She added that they are working hard on bringing more infant activities to Spark.
“Spark activities challenge and develop children’s creativity, imagination, thinking skills and social skills.”
Aside from the large exhibits, you’ll find a variety of activities throughout the large space. A train table, oversized chess pieces or simple wooden blocks are available. Another thing I noticed: seating. There are oversized chairs everywhere. Adult magazines (not dirty magazines, more like Good Housekeeping) dot the (corner-protected) tables next to them. The chairs are begging for you to take a seat. Take a load off. Just for a minute. Just while your kiddos are engaged in making pizzas.
“While designing the exhibits, we worked hard to create spaces that parents enjoy as much as children by providing dual opportunities to engage and relax in all areas,” Darter said.
While we were there I noticed a very nice staff person kept following me and my sons around. He kindly suggested I put my stroller in the cute stroller parking area. (It’s easy to stroll around, however, thanks to ramps.) I kept thinking why is he following me around?
He eventually got called away, and he left my side. Soon enough, another staff member started playing with one of the activities near where my son was making a pizza. Then it clicked. I asked her if she was here to play with the kids.
She said, “YES!”
Wait, WHAT? I can really sit down and read Real Simple magazine while you interact with the kids? Mind blown.
All kidding aside, caregivers are responsible for their children at all times. However, as with most play cafés, staff are available to facilitate play, makes sure the toys are being used properly and introduce new activities to the kids.
“We have many high school students who are trained and want to play with children,” Darter said. “Depending on the comfort level of parents, our staff loves engaging and facilitating activities with children! Prior to opening, our staff has worked hard to learn how to create balloon animals, magic and card tricks, crafts, paper airplanes and more. We also have story times and puppet shows for visitors.”
The museum is also outfitted with considerate details for a caregiver. There’s a water station for the adults, a soft, squishy changing table, bathroom stools, puffs and baby food for purchase—there are even tampons, wipes and diapers (for a buck) in the bathroom for goodness sake! There are high chairs and booster seats. All you need to bring: your kids.
Did I mention the café? One of the great things about the location’s previous inhabitants was the need for a bar. This means the play café comes with a nice selection of food, drinks and a large seating area. The seating area allows you to watch your children play. (There’s also “outdoor” seating outside the museum entrance—in the mall.) The café has food for all ages. (You are not allowed to bring in outside food or drink—except baby’s milk needs.) Some of the food choices include soups, salads, wraps, toddler tapas, a DIY sundae tower and tea party setup. Their goal is to provide healthy fare made from local, organic and seasonal ingredients. AND booze. You can actually sit with one of the aforementioned magazines while having a cocktail, glass of wine or a beer. Just ask staff members for the Wi-Fi password, and you are all set!
As a stay-at-home mom, one of the longest parts of the day is the time after nap and before bed. The morning activities are over. Bedtime seems far away. Their energy is revved up from nap. This is also the time of day where I start to wear down. This is also the time of day when many places start to close for the night. All great reasons why the longer evening hours, coupled with the relaxing atmosphere, will be perfect for a later afternoon visit. They are open Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday and Tuesday they are closed so that field trips, baby showers and corporate family events. Speaking of events, consider having your next birthday party here! There are exciting party options available.
You can also support the Spark Museum’s efforts while contributing to their cause. Also, support their little gift shop area. They offer creations by local artists.
Darter said the nonprofit is an original concept developed by local museum professionals, educators and designers.
“Many of Spark’s founders grew up here, and they benefitted from life in Urbana-Champaign,” Darter said. “We are dedicated to enriching life in the community we adore. Overall, we wanted to create a space to relish parenting, friends and family interactions in a social and joyful way. Personally, this is the place that I wanted when my children were young.”
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie. She left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job in communications so that she could be a 24/7 mom to two busy boys. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Emily usually finds herself engulfed in balls, blue and belly laughs.