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Why I Let My Toddler Run Amok in Coffee Shops

Looking for a kid-friendly third place? Try a play café.

James Figy

I was so smug. My wife and I took our son to see the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 at seven months old. Many attendees were supportive, though one complained to an usher before the concert started.

“We know our baby,” we said, and then we beamed as he quietly—dare I say reverentially?—observed the performance.

As he reached the cusp of turning two, things changed. We couldn’t go to a 7-Eleven without risking a meltdown from one or all of us, depending on the day.

Testing boundaries, navigating emotions, practicing fine and gross motor skills—these are normal, natural parts of being a toddler. Still, that’s little comfort when strangers at Caribou give you stink eye over their carefree latte and novel.

Prior to opening Maple Grove’s MiniSota Play Café in 2018, owner and general manager Mandy Wroolie felt similarly exhausted. She had a two-year-old and was pregnant with her second, and there just didn’t seem to be any kid-friendly places where she also felt comfortable.

Wroolie started asking questions: “Why isn’t there a coffee shop where we can take our kids and we won’t feel like we’re disturbing the peace or walking into 10 other people’s home offices? Why, just because you’re caring for little kids, is it so hard to find a fun and safe place to meet up with friends?”

Play cafés have popped up around the metro area in recent years, including three in 2023 alone. Each one has different amenities, rules, and costs for families looking to let loose.

“Life at home with toddlers can be messy and difficult at times,” says Laura Fritts, owner of The Little Village, which opened in March 2023 in Cottage Grove. “I think it benefits everyone to have a space where our parenting community can grow and where community can thrive.”

Enjoying some time away from home at Rebe’s Play Café.James Figy

What’s a Play Café Like?

The concept of an engaging play space combined with a coffee shop, an amalgam that’s just as focused on the kids as the parents, remains out of the ordinary.

“We didn't know play cafés existed when we had the idea for our space more than seven years ago,” Fritts says. “We didn't hear this term until we were researching other indoor play spaces when finalizing our business plan following the pandemic shutdown.”

Unlike the rodent-themed pizza-tainment dens or ball-pit battlegrounds of yore, play cafés focus on imagination, interaction, and building skills. Designed with toddlers and elementary-school-aged kids in mind, they more closely resemble children’s museums.

While Fritts found inspiration in Finland’s family cafés and educational system, The Little Village counts City Museum in St. Louis and the Meri Cherry Art Studio in Encino, California, among its influences.

“Our Imaginarium, the room that started it all, is our rotating exhibit space. It's a giant chalkboard room we change up every few months,” Fritts says. “Another big part of our space is our Creative Lab—our art room turned party room by weekend.”

MiniSota Play Café provides imaginative and dramatic play for kids ages 1-9. It has a series of small buildings (a music store, hospital, and so on) as well as boats on the pretend Lake MiniTonka.

“The fourth floor of the [Minnesota] Children's Museum is what really inspired me,” Wroolie says. “I wanted just that piece of the museum without the driving, parking, etc., in the suburbs.”

This later provided a model for Kirsten Winscher, owner and founder of Peekabooboo's Play Café in Albertville, when opening her own venue in September 2023. 

“MiniSota Play Café takes the cake on inspiration. I loved her concept … but my vision was different than hers. I knew I wanted to offer more than just imaginative play,” Winscher says.

Peekabooboo's offers gross motor and fine motor play where children can climb, slide, scoot, and jump as well as build, create, imagine, and explore. “There’s also a calming sensory room,” Winscher says.

While play cafés have become popular in recent years, Sovereign Grounds has offered a parent-friendly coffee shop in Minneapolis since 1995.James Figy

OK, Let’s Try One Out!

Rebe’s Play Café in St. Paul has turned into a sort of third place for my family. 

Rebe’s offers multiple play areas with everything from slides and play kitchens to dolls and trains as well as a full coffee bar with pastries and snacks. It’s the kind of place where thirtysomethings speak the language of gentle parenting, offering reassurances stolen wholesale from an episode of Bluey.

“Oh, are you feeling frustrated?” one will ask. Or “I know you wanted to play with that toy, but a friend has it already.” Everyone is a friend.

We visited Rebe’s on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. With daycares closed and subzero temps outside, the space bustled. That morning had been the busiest at Rebe’s since opening in August 2023, according to owner Rebecca Schwengber.

“It was amazing. I will say, the one thing that always amazes me is how few tantrums happen in here,” she says. “So while it was busy, it didn't feel like pure chaos. There was nobody yelling. There was nobody screaming. There were just happy kids running around.”

Rebe’s shares the space with Schwengber’s other business, Language Sprout, which offers tutoring, classes, and summer camps in a number of languages. While Rebe’s opened in August 2023, Language Sprout has a two-decade history.

At age 20, Schwengber became a single mother in addition to being a full-time student. To create a job that would work for her, she spent the last $500 in her bank account to rent a small room at the University of Minnesota. She used the Chinese department’s copier to make flyers for language tutoring, posted them around Dinkytown, and reassured herself it would work.

“Luckily it did. Otherwise, we would have had a hard time buying diapers that month,” she says. “People started calling, and then I had clients, and then I had too many clients for me. So I hired somebody. And it was miraculous and great.”

A student at the time, Schwengber would take her infant daughter to work and to her classes. When there was finally some modicum of time to relax, she found almost nowhere to go.

“When my kids were little, it was during that time period where the restaurants decided to start banning children,” she says.

The only local exception was Sovereign Grounds Indoor Playground and Coffeehouse in Minneapolis. Already a well-established coffee shop in the early 1990s, Hakan and Kris Sezer reopened Sovereign Grounds in 1995 as the first parent-friendly coffeehouse in the metro, according to its website. 

Then Schwengber, who’s fluent in Spanish and Mandarin and knows enough of several other languages to make do, traveled abroad. She saw how accommodating other cultures were, how they welcomed kids into daily life.

“With the exception of Antarctica, I've been to every continent, and I've lived abroad. The rest of the world is set up to be kid-friendly,” she says. “Kids and families are expected to be together and out and enjoying the world and socializing and learning social norms.”

Beyond kid-focused cafés, hotels, and a taco shop with a swing set, she remembers a restaurant in Italy with three play areas for different age groups and a babysitter assigned to your table. The kids would order, go play, come back to eat, and go play again as the grownups chatted. 

So while Rebe’s is a good start, Schwengber sees more possibilities. “The current generation of parents is much more hands-on and much more brings-their-kids-places,” she says. “At some point, businesses are gonna have to figure that out.”

The Little Village takes inspiration from City Museum in St. Louis, the Meri Cherry Art Studio in Encino, California, and Finland’s family cafés.Laura Fritts

How to Prepare for Fun

While Rebe’s and Sovereign Grounds have no admission cost, others charge fees ranging from $10 to $15 per child (and sometimes for adults). MiniSota and The Little Village also offer memberships, which can reduce costs if you go several times per month.

Most require some sort of grippy socks, which you can bring or purchase on site, to prevent accidents. Enrichment classes, from languages to music, carry an additional price tag.

But the payoff can be very worth it, not just for parents but grandparents and childcare professionals. Winscher, who has a background in early childhood education, wishes she’d had a space like Peekabooboo’s nearby during the eight years she worked as a nanny.

“In Minnesota, known for its challenging winters, we believe in creating a warm haven for children and families,” she says. “Our community space offers a chance for socializing, making friends, and providing a safe yet enjoyable environment for children to flourish during the crucial 0-5 developmental years.”

I can relate. There’s something that separates play cafés from restaurants and breweries, even those with a play area. A few months back, while catching up with a friend from high school at a brewery, my son rampaged the taproom. 

“Everybody talks about terrible two, but three is worse,” my friend commented. “Just wait.”

Still, I won’t wish to rush past these years. Raising a toddler is challenging, but it’s also its own reward. You get to see the world fresh, noticing the incredible, interesting things around us. I mean, it’s been years since I was so excited to see squirrels or a city bus or the moon.

Your children growing up doesn’t make things easier, just different. As we talked at Rebe’s that day, Schwengber noted how now she pays her older kids to work the barista station and clean.

“That's like the second best part of this,” she says. “It's really hard to get teenagers to hang out with you.”

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