By Anna Lothson
Initiatives like the Early Childhood Collaboration have put Oak Park on a path that community leaders hope will bridge the minority student achievement gap. This Saturday, two educators will open a unique place, which they say is designed to help.
On June 1, Peekaboo Playroom opens at 206 S. Marion St., a location that recently created some early-childhood controversy. Co-owner and Oak Park resident Cindy Alvear is excited and eager to show how playtime and education can act in sync.
Peekaboo Playroom was designed by two mothers with teaching backgrounds who wanted new opportunities for children to interact and learn in a comfortable setting during the impressionable young age group of birth to 5. Alvear saw the limited opportunities kids have in town to "exercise their right to play" in a place close to home.
At Peekaboo, parents let their little ones roam while they relax in the space and meet other parents and caregivers. Alvear, who frequently drove to Chicago to find activities for her kids, realized a spot was needed where kids could interact with others outside the home.
Peekaboo doesn't allow parents or caregivers to leave children because it isn't a daycare, but it does allow them to come and go as they please throughout the day after paying a daily admission fee. Ten-week and monthly passes are also available.
Drawing inspiration from a small café in the city with a particularly nice children's area, the Oak Parker found this 2,000-square-foot space where to create a local haven for early-childhood activities.
"It's hard to find things to do every day [with kids]," she said. "I don't know how many children are actively playing. As an educator, I don't know if that's happening anymore."
For children who don't have play dates or structured playtimes, Alvear believes there are important social and emotional developmental chances being missed.
"Children go through a lot of emotions that they are not always able to express verbally. One way to express them is through play," she said. "As they play, a lot of emotions come out."
Children who aren't exposed to those pivotal interactions are less likely to be prepared for starting school, Alvear said. To her, Peekaboo Playroom is a stepping stone for young children before they enter the classroom.
Alvear and her business partner Ana Schreiner, said their own children provided inspiration for the playroom. Building on their teaching experiences and what they've learned from their own children, Peekaboo was designed around actives that kids can relate to.
For example, the space has five custom-built stations, including a firehouse, playhouse, a vet's office, garage and supermarket. The stations and décor reflect the architecture and design seen in Oak Park.
"We really want to be part of the community. We built them with that in mind." Alvear said. "It's all part of the Oak Park community."
The playhouse also will have an art area, space to practice motor skills, a sensory station and an infant area with age-appropriate toys. Most of the toys are made with natural materials and were well researched, Alvear said. Storytelling, music classes and Spanish classes will also be made available.
After joining the Early Childhood Collaboration in Oak Park, Alvear said she's in the process of reaching out to determine how Peekaboo Playhouse can serve that community-wide initiative. The Collaboration, funded by local school districts and the Village of Oak Park, has identified that many children are falling behind educationally during their young years.
Alvear thinks her playroom can change that.
"Our biggest mission is to bring the community together and focus on the art of play and the social and emotional skills of children," she said. "[The society focuses] so much on academics, we don't see the bridge between the social and emotional and academics.
"It empowers parents who are at home," she added. "As a parent, you are really your children's first teacher."
Peekaboo Playroom will be open from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on June 1. Opening day will feature music, balloons, cupcakes a photo booth and a surprise for each child. For more information, visit peekabooplayroom.com or call 708-848-4815.