Saturday, April 25, 2015

Indoor Play Space Review: La Petite Playhouse (Redwood City)

One of my goals for this past winter was to use the chilly, wet weather as an excuse to try out all the indoor "physical play" options in the South Bay -- places where a high-energy kid (hello, Toddler X!) can burn off some steam when outdoor playgrounds aren't an option.

Well, as you know, the chilly and wet weather never materialized -- but a plan is a plan, of course, so we went to the indoor play places anyway. In the past few months, we've hopped on inflatables, jumped into foam pits, and climbed on Goliath-sized indoor play structures. And none of them have impressed us quite as much as La Petite Playhouse in Redwood City, which we finally visited last Tuesday.

La Petite Playhouse is everything an indoor play space should be. It's huge. It's clean. It's creative and unique, with entertaining features you can't find everywhere else. It's challenging for older toddlers and still fun for elementary-age kids. And it offers a variety of entertainment options that is unmatched in the places we've visited, all wrapped in a cute oceanic theme. Overall, it's a total winner.

The biggest negative about this awesome place is that, as with many play places, Open Play is limited to weekdays -- on weekends, it is reserved for private parties. Obviously, this is rough for working parents. If you work, but occasionally enjoy a little "staycation" day, I would add this to your list of places to visit.

The Play Structure

So...what's the Petite Playhouse experience like? Well, for starters, it's hard not to utter an "ooooh!" as you enter the building -- the play structure in front of you is HUGE, complex and interesting, with a fun sea theme. The warehouse-style building is more than big enough to accommodate it, with high ceilings and tons of space for parents and caregivers to relax.

But man, it's not until you actually get inside the play structure that you realize what a feat of construction and design it is! I've been in some structures where there's basically one path you take -- a single set of diversions as you pass through the structure in one direction or the other. Here, it's like a labyrinth. There are twists and turns galore, different paths leading back to the same places, the same path seemingly leading to different places, various ways up, various ways down. You spot a slide you want to try, and it's a genuine challenge figuring out how to get to the top of it (much less getting there!). It's tons of fun.

The features inside the structure are awesome too. They have one of those cool interactive ground-projectors (see below), where kids can play soccer or pop bubbles, just by tapping the ground with their feet.

There are things to climb over, under and through, things to hang on, things to drop from. It's exciting and challenging for kids and adults.

Other Fun Features

La Petite Playhouse offers more than just the main structure. Towards the front of the building is a dedicated toddler area for kids 3 and under, with soft foam playthings -- ride-on animals, blocks, tunnels and more -- as well as a little tunnel slide, bead mazes and padded floors. The area is almost entirely enclosed, but with two large archways leading in, it's easy for bigger kids to enter -- be alert if you have a young toddler.

Three views of the toddler area...
...and one of Toddler X taking a break there.
Towards the rear of the building, on the far side of the main structure, are two sport courts -- one a mini soccer field, and one a basketball court with kid-high (though not exactly toddler-high) baskets. There are plenty of balls, and plenty of happy kids running back and forth.

Amusingly, some of the most popular features, at least among the toddler through kingergartener set, appear to be the play kitchens, shopping carts, tea set and train table set up in the front seating area, apart from the main structure. Despite the awesome and unique play structure a few feet away, these pretend play toys were mobbed during our visit. It was cool to have a place where kids could enjoy some downtime before returning to the physicality of running, climbing, ducking and sliding -- it certainly helped balance the day for Toddler X.

The Parent Experience

The parent experience at La Petite Playhouse is just as nice as the kid experience. There are plenty of pleasant tables with chairs, magazines, and free Wi-Fi passwords on them, as well as a large oval of padded benches. While no food is allowed in the parent area, lidded beverages are. Once your child gets the hang of the play structure, this is a great place to sit back and relax with friends.

Of course, the structure beckons to fun-loving (and able-bodied) parents as well, and you're more than welcome to check it out with your child, provided you take off your shoes and wear socks (a requirement for everyone who goes on the structure). I had a lot of fun climbing through with Toddler X, though I have to admit, it was hard work not bonking my head or tripping over the many obstacles (and those of who saw my Facebook post the day of the visit will recall that I injured my toe pretty badly about 45 seconds into my adventure). Everything is nicely padded, though, and boy, are those slides awesome!

Interactions with the staff were purely pleasant, and the other parents seemed nice as well. Overall, I think most parents will find this to be a fun outing for both their toddlers and themselves.

The Facility -- Cleanliness and Maintenance

One of the major criticisms I've heard of the indoor play places is a general lack of cleanliness -- the feeling that everything is sticky or germy or just plain dirty. I'm pleased to tell parents who are sensitive to those issues that you now have a play space to call your own! La Petite Playhouse is spotless and well-maintained, and they clearly make an effort to keep it so. The lack of food or drinks (without lids) beyond the front lobby significantly reduces the stickiness quotient, and there is no ball pit at all (the subject of many disgusting anecdotes I've heard).

Furthermore, there's a clear focus on sanitation. As you check in, each child is instructed to wash his or her hands, and La Petite Playhouse makes it easy, with a large, multi-station sink in the middle of the playroom and plenty of stools to help kids reach the water and soap (they also have hand sanitizer up there and, thoughtfully, skin lotion as well). The bathrooms are also extremely clean, and I can't say I saw a single inch of the place, during my 3 hours there, that did not look well-maintained and cared for.

As I mentioned above, socks and no shoes are required for everyone who enters the play structure, so be sure to have socks for both you and your toddler if there's a chance you'll be heading in (and I would be prepared to, just in case). You can wear shoes while sitting in the lobby area.


Overall, I found La Petite Playhouse to be quite safe, though obviously parents should evaluate everything there for themselves and make their own determination before setting their child loose.

The single entry/exit is well-defined, gated and monitored, so no kids are escaping and no sketchy people are getting in.

The structure is very well-maintained, and I didn't see any fraying parts or loose flaps that could pose a tripping risk. The big steps (maybe chest high to a 2 year old) between the levels might allow for a fall or two, but it's one of those places where, by the time they're able to get up there themselves, they're also probably able to manage the challenge of getting down.

The ground surface in the structures and in the sports fields is padded, but the surface in between is not -- I didn't see anyone fall there, but it's something to be aware of.

Also something to be aware of is the inclined tunnel in the main structure, with grips inside that allow for climbing up...or for going down. I'm not sure if there's a "right way" to go, but it did strike me that there could be collisions between larger kids coming down fast, and smaller kids going up slowly. Perhaps check it out with your toddler before you let him or her climb through alone.

The one actual danger zone I did see -- and one I mentioned to the staff as we were leaving -- was at the rear of the soccer field. While the two goal sides of the field are enclosed, the back side has only a low wall, above which is a La Petite Playhouse banner -- see below.

Balls from the field can go between the bottom of the banner and the top of the wall (indeed, it sort of became a game for the older kids to make them do just that), and the only injury I saw during our visit happened when a child -- maybe 4 or 5 -- reached over the wall to try to get a ball on the other side, and ended up flipping over it, landing on his head on the concrete on the far side. He ended up okay (after quite a bit of crying), but it is a dangerous spot that could easily be remedied by extending the higher clear wall around the back of the field, or simply putting in a padded mat behind the wall so that if a fall were to happen, there would be less chance of injury. Like I said, I did mention this to the staff as we left, so hopefully they will come up with a remedy.

Honestly, the biggest safety issues, as I mention below (see the ** comment), are the other kids, specifically if you go when lots of bigger kids are present. Toddlers can easily get mowed over by 7 or 8 year-olds eager to climb on the structure, even if the big kids aren't doing anything "wrong." It'll be up to you to decide how close to your toddler you need to stay.

In terms of staff involvement in safety, there is nobody in particular patrolling the structure -- I saw one staff member asking a child not to climb up the big slides, but besides that, they stayed toward the front of the room. They were very sweet, interacting with the younger kids around the pretend play area, but they are not there to directly supervise kids on the structure, so that will be up to you.

Note that once your child enters the structure, you will not have them in view at all times if you stay on the outside. If that concerns you, crawl inside with them. And definitely dress your child in bright colors to make him or her easier to spot!

Overall, I would consider this as safe as an indoor physical play space could be -- I was very impressed.

Age Recommendations**

This is an interesting topic, as kids of the same age can be so different in their preferences and abilities. La Petite Playhouse's website says Open Play is designed for kids aged 0-10, but that's obviously a huge range, developmentally, and you'll have a very difference experience if you bring a newly-walking one year-old versus an independent and agile eight year-old.

My most basic recommendation is not to bring a pre-walker (unless, of course, it's a younger sibling -- in other words, don't come just for a pre-walker). This is not like a Gymboree, with plenty of mats to crawl around on, balls to push and mirrors to look at. A crawler won't be able to safely enjoy the offerings of the main play area, and even in the little kids' area, you'll have to be constantly on guard so he or she doesn't get stomped on by older toddlers. I'd say you'd have more fun at a My Gym, Little Gym or Gymboree (some of those offer Open Play hours, though they're pricey), the Duck Pond, or even the Wonder Cabinet (and its crawlers room) at the Children's Discovery Museum. If you're bringing an older sibling, then by all means, bring the little one along -- non-walkers are free -- but don't expect to get a lot of relaxation while he or she plays on the ground.

With a true toddler -- say 1 to 2 1/2 years -- it's a judgment call, based on what you're looking for and your child's personality. The toddler area (ages 3 and under) is definitely nicer and larger than at some other play spaces we've visited (Safari Run, for example), but I wouldn't say that it, alone, warrants a drive from the South Bay to Redwood City (and $10 admission). The play kitchens, train table and tea set will definitely be hits, but you can find a more complex train table at Barnes & Noble stores (for free), and there's far more of this kind of pretend play stuff at the Duck Pond in San Jose; if pretend play is your sole draw, again, I don't know if it's worth the trip. I don't think you'll feel that you wasted your money -- it's a nice space and a very happy place, so no doubt you and your toddler would have fun -- but I just don't know if it's worth the drive from the South Bay to Redwood City quite yet.

The gaps between the steps would almost certainly
be too much for 2 year-olds to manage without a boost.
For kids on the older end of this range, though -- say 2 and up -- there are many things they'll enjoy in the main structure, assuming a parent is ready to come along for the ride. I wouldn't send a 2 year-old into the structure alone. A child that age wouldn't be able to get from one level to the next on their own in much of the structure -- the steps are high, and young 3 year-olds were still having a tough time pulling themselves up. Several of the diversions would be fun, though, as would the multi-colored slides (long, but not crazily fast, and you can go down on the slide right next to your child) and the cool, interactive floor projector. If your toddler is 2+ and a little adventurer, and if you're ready and willing to do some crawling, ducking, climbing and sliding yourself, it would be a fun outing; as your toddler's age increases, it will become better and better. Plus, the play kitchens will be more enticing too -- it was funny how many older kids were focusing on those during our visit, even with the massive structure just a few feet away!

Now for 3 year olds and up, this place is just plain awesome. The little kid area is still available to the 3 year olds, but if ours are any indication (we went with two friends Toddler X's age), it will hold their interest for, um, 30 seconds before they're off to check out the big structure (though all of them did return to the toddler area for little breaks throughout the day). Most 3 year olds will be able to physically manage most of the big structure on their own -- as I mentioned above, there are some steps between levels that are high, and actually, when we first arrived, Toddler X kept requesting boosts from me. But after we reached the top once and he discovered how awesome it was, it was "So long, mommy!" -- he learned to pull himself up those same big steps, and never looked back.

Also, if Toddler X and pals are any indication, most 3 year olds also will not be at all intimidated venturing into the structure alone, maybe with a first pass alongside a parent. I was in there for about 5 minutes of our 3 hour visit -- after that, Toddler X and his pals were fully independent. Every once in a while, one of the moms would check in with the three of them and do a slide or two, but overall we stood or sat and chatted while the kids totally directed their own experience. It was really nice.

And again, as the kids get older, it will just become more and more enjoyable. I saw some moms in there working on their laptops while their children played -- I imagine if you have a 6 or 7 year old, that's totally doable. I look forward to seeing Toddler X play here at 4, 5 and beyond.

** Now, a big caveat for all these recommendations: they depend to a large extent on the age of the other children present during your visit. We made the mistake of visiting during Redwood City schools' Spring Break, so (surprise, surprise!), the place was not only crowded, but crowded with 2nd, 3rd, even 4th graders, several of whom came in big groups (one an unofficial birthday party), and tore around the structures en masse playing hide-and-seek, tag, "Can you do this?," "Let's figure out a way this feature can be used that was definitely not in the manual," "How many little kids can we crawl over on our way up the structure?" and all other manner of rambunctious older kid games -- which were, of course, terrifying to toddler parents.

These kids weren't necessarily doing anything wrong -- they were playing in a manner appropriate for their ages, and they had just as much a right to be there as our kids did. Some could have been more sensitive, sure, but others were actually quite considerate of the younger kids on the structure.

That being said, their presence did impact our visit. When the large group arrived, our stress level went up considerably -- when they all sat down to eat pizza and the structure was quiet again, we relaxed. If you're traveling with a toddler, I recommend you try to visit when older kids will be at a minimum. Fortunately (with respect to the presence of older kids -- not to the needs of working parents), La Petite Playhouse's standard hours are weekdays from 10:00 onwards, so most older kids will be in school. Unfortunately, that only holds true for about another month, as summer break will probably bring a flood of them. I'm not sure what to recommend in terms of time of day or day of the week to visit with a toddler once summer arrives, but I will reach out to the management and see if they have any suggestions.

Here are some additional details to help you plan your visit:

Location: La Petite Playhouse is located at 1264 Oddstad Drive in Redwood City. It's tucked back in an industrial part of town, across the street from the Highway 101 sound wall. While the neighborhood isn't particularly charming, it's not everywhere that you can find the type of massive, warehouse-ish space needed to create the super cool play structure they have inside. The "ooh!" factor starts once you walk in the door. Parking is plentiful and free.

Hours: La Petite Playhouse is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. for Open Play hours, and is reserved on weekends for private parties.

Admission: What a deal! Admission is $10 per child for unlimited play, with no charge for adults or younger siblings under age one. While there are no in-and-out privileges, it would be easy to play there for 2-3 hours with a few snack breaks, bringing the per-hour charge down to virtually nothing.

I personally love the play places that charge a flat fee for unlimited hours, because when you're paying by the hour (like at Safari Run), it's hard not to try to make sure your toddler gets your money's worth. Toddler X spent at least half an hour playing with the train table and play kitchen at La Petite Playhouse -- two toys he has at home -- when he could have been enjoying the amazing structure and features. Had I been paying by the hour, I might have been annoyed; as it was, I was simply amused. So hooray for La Petite Playhouse for having such a reasonable charge!

Food and Drink: La Petite Playhouse doesn't have a cafe, so the only food available for sale is from two vending machines -- one with a few (relatively) healthy snacks, and the other with cold drinks.

While the website says "No outside food", from my experience, it seems like that is not enforced (I saw a group come in with Little Caesars pizza and camp out in the lobby, and several other moms pulled out cooler bags with packed lunches). Based on what I saw, I don't think anyone will challenge you at all if you bring snacks or a meal from home and eat it in the front lobby during your visit -- but, of course, I can't promise anything.

For those with nut allergies, they do say on the website that nuts are not allowed, but I didn't see any signs to that effect on the premises, nor did I see any staff keeping an eye on the contents of people's meals (and how many people, besides me, actually read all the details on a website before visiting?). So while it's very nice that they make some effort to provide a nut-free environment, if Toddler X had a nut allergy, I wouldn't feel 100% comfortable here.

Random Last Tips: Do remember to bring socks for both your toddler and yourself -- while you may not expect to climb in the structure, you just never know. Also, do dress your toddler in bright colors -- it's far easier to spot them when they disappear into the structure. And finally, do try to come on a morning when school is in session for the most toddler-friendly environment -- don't show up during Spring Break, like we did!

Overall, I would 100% recommend visiting La Petite Playhouse with an energetic, adventurous toddler of 3+, and even down to 2 or 2 1/2 for the particularly ambitious ones. Plan to spend several hours here, because you will have a blast!

Happy toddling!

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