Making a business out of child's play

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Excitement and adventure ruled the day as the first kids to use a new Juneau family recreation facility bounced, climbed and slid their way in and out of Willy Wonka-size yellow tubes and padded, blue and red play structures.

The facility is Our Back Yard, the brainstorm of mom and accountant Kristi Elliott. Our Back Yard, which opened Saturday, is a 2,200-square-foot recreation center that gives children, from crawlers to climbers, a spot for working off youthful steam no matter the weather.

Although the facility, located near the Nugget Mall at 9342 Glacier Highway, offers lots of slippery and slidey activities, there's neither ice nor mud nor dark of night to distress parents, and surfaces are thickly padded with foam encased in vinyl. Light streams in from two big walls of windows, and white walls reflect it back on the climbs, giant bouncy balls and slides.

At the end farthest from the entrance is a low ball pit for infants and toddlers. A small slide - just right for 2-year-olds - can be reached by a set of soft steps. Kristin's son, Logan, 3, enjoys immersing himself in the "pool" of small balls at the bottom of the slide, as if he were snorkeling. His sister Teslin, 1, the other "official tester," can climb the soft steps opposite the slide, and throw the balls out onto the surrounding mats. The balls also can be stacked in transparent tubes. A tiny padded playhouse in this area allows the smallest kids to crawl through with a clear view of escape on the far side.

Older clients can crawl, climb, roll, duck and bounce through padded compartments that lead to a spinning walking tube, a padded obstacle course and a net walkway. Punching-bag-like posts are sure to soak up energy, as will an air bounce coming to one corner soon.

The various areas are connected by colorful cubes or junction boxes pierced by padded portholes, some topped by clear plastic domes with a spaceship look.

"The idea was to keep the younger kids separated from the older ones so the younger ones don't get trampled," Elliott said. Facility rules help: No shoes past the front desk.

Inspired by a trip to a children's gym in Ohio, and frustrated by the limited choice of activities for her children, Elliott decided to fill the market niche.

"The plan was to make it a family environment and not to have to work away from my kids," she said. "There is not much to do in Juneau when it rains and blows sideways, and my kids were bouncing off the walls. That was my inspiration."

Elliott has carefully chosen her location: In the same building and sharing an entrance with Vito 'N Nick's Pizzeria; and in close proximity to two other destinations familiar to parents, Sweetpeas Consignment Shop and Bright Beginnings Early Learning Center.

Elliott has worked for Head Start in Juneau, and is a sophomore in early childhood education at the University of Alaska Southeast. She will run the business herself with the help of three part-time employees, including Akira Uehara, 15, who shares Logan's love of "getting buried in the ball pit." Uehara thinks the facility will be a hit with middle-schoolers and teen-agers.

Elliott has lived in Juneau for 14 years. Her carpenter husband, Tom, built the picnic tables along one side, where parents can sit and observe, and where customized birthday parties and arts and crafts will be offered. The arts and crafts lady is Melissa McCormick, a home child care provider known for decorating local windows through her business Creativation.

Fees for playing in Our Back Yard begin at $1.99 for mobile (crawling) infants to age 1; 1 and up, $5.99 per child. Time in the facility is unlimited, and adults play for free. There are special group rates for day care providers. All children must be monitored by an adult.

Birthday parties include two games to play and two prizes, plus one balloon per guest. During regular business hours, parties are $99 for 15 children. After-hours parties are $119, with up to 30 kids.

"In the fall we will add more party packages such as a little girls' dress-up tea party, themed plates, and a boys' camp-out party," Elliott said.

Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m., Sunday.

After-hours parties are held from 6 to p.m. Monday through Friday, and 5 to 7 p.m., Sunday.

The grand opening of Our Back Yard is a two-day affair, Friday and Saturday. Friday's events include free admission and free arts and crafts from 1-6 p.m. for everyone donating a nonperishable food item for the Southeast Alaska Food Bank. There will be a live radio broadcast from 2 to 5 p.m.

Saturday, there will be free admission again with a donation to the food bank and free activities including face painting, cake provided by Costco and fun with Buttons the Clown.

For details, call Elliott at 796-2007.

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