Family centres like N.D.G.’s Jabberwocky let kids play by their own rules

The activity centre is one of several in the Montreal area that are designed with children in mind while also offering grown-ups a chance to unwind.

The bright primary colours painted on the glass storefront are a clue, but you know for sure on entering that Jabberwocky is a kids’ space.

A playhouse beckons, for one. Owner Emily Feist’s two-year-old son, Ezra Polsky, chose the tiny tiles on the low wall separating the café bar in front from the rest of the space. Stations made of natural wood are sized for babies and children. Compact stations mounted on the walls accommodate the curious hands of little ones who want to touch and feel. One of the toilets is child-size.

Jabberwocky, named for a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll that appeared in his sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, incorporates “everything I wanted when I was on mat leave,” said Feist, whose background is in advertising.

“I liked the idea of different zones, the idea of sensory exploration and of child-led play.

“I thought of what kids can do in interactive museums,” she said. “I wanted the place to be super open so that children of different ages would be playing in the same space, even if they are not playing together.”

As 3 1/2-year-old Stella Aronson stayed busy with house-made playdough in the art studio at the back of the Jabberwocky space one recent Sunday morning, her father, Alex Aronson, observed that he likes to leave her “to choose what she wants to do.”

“I really like the fact that it is sensory exploration, thoughtful, reflective play — and that it uses a lot of creative imagination. I find it to be like a children’s museum kind of space,” he said.

“It’s great to have a place to play, get creative, get messy and not have to clean up.”

The N.D.G. centre Jabberwocky was designed “to be super open so that children of different ages would be playing in the same space, even if they are not playing together,” says owner Emily Feist, with two-year-old son Ezra Polsky. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

Most of the components were built by local carpenter Robert Glenn, including a low semi-circular bench enclosing a baby area and the playhouse. A wooden wall board features pegs that hold removable lengths of foam noodles, like those used in swimming pools.

“Most of the time these places are designed for adults: a café with a play area,” Feist said. “I really wanted to design a space where kids can come in and touch everything.”

There are adult-size chairs for the grown-ups, mind you, and there is coffee and loaf cake on offer, baked by L’Épicerie Moderne across the street. Box lunches for the kids, also from L’Épicerie Moderne, are for sale as well.

Jabberwocky also hosts birthday parties: Stella Aronson had a car-themed birthday party, and Feist recalled a recent Alice in Wonderland-themed party.

While 18-month-old Mollie Bowen pushed a pint-size shopping cart, her mother, Serena Lam, said: “I think the space is very children-centric; it’s a place for them to play and explore.”

“With our winters, you need an indoor space,” said Andrea Stec as 14-month-old Emery played. She also likes that the toys have been carefully curated. “It’s not just thrown together. This is for the kids, first and foremost. It’s family-oriented and cosy.”

Eighteen-month-old Mollie Bowen pushes a pint-size shopping cart around Jabberwocky. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

Donna Simoneau, mother of 15-month-old Antoine Gauthier, said: “It’s a space for babies — not a café with baby toys.

“My son is a very active little guy, and we live in a smaller space. This is a better space for him to roam and burn energy. … Here I can let my guard down. I know he’s safe. And the other parents are really nice.”

Genell Tonge is “really impressed by the beautiful quality of the toys” and likes that her children, 16-month-old Nadia Hill and Nathan Hill, nearly 4, “can be on their own here — and I know they will be OK.”

It’s usually mothers with their children coming in, but “I have been getting more dads and more grandparents than I had anticipated,” Feist said. “Because of the vibe in the place, a lot of parents stay really engaged with the kids, and that is what I wanted. Still, some will sit at a table and appreciate that they can just relax.”

Genell Tonge says she can leave her children, including Nathan Hill, to their own devices at Jabberwocky “and I know they will be OK.” John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

The age range is nine months to about eight years. Open art activities are included for children signed up for the play area; in addition, there are art workshops for children of different ages, and there is a music activity two mornings a week. Older kids can be dropped off for workshops, but parents or other caregivers are expected to be on hand for younger children.

Feist finds it gratifying “when parents come with a baby in their arms and a toddler, and maybe also a five- or six-year-old. The older child can be engaged in the art studio.

“A lot of moms tell me they had a hard time finding a place that caters to different age sets. They know they can do it all here.”

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