Although City Parents Dream of More “Play Cafes”, Operators Say Keeping Them Open Is Tough

Ilva holds a block of green and orange Lego to her mother’s mouth. “I’m being fed a meal here,” says Edda Grol with a laugh, through a video call on Monday.

Ilva, who is two, and her twin brother spend most rainy days playing in the sitting room of Grol’s home in the Liberties.

But, sometimes, Grol wishes there was somewhere handy she could go to have a coffee, meet other parents, and let her kids play with others their own age.

Where she lived in the Netherlands, in Amersfoort, there were plenty of play cafés a walk or bus ride from her home, she says. But she hasn’t found any in the six weeks since moving to the Liberties.

“Just go, have some time, children will be happy to play, you’re happy because you can make a phone call or read or anything,” she says.

The change of scenery in a place where there are other parents to talk to, breaks up the routine of the week, she says.

“It was often a very nice compromise between doing something for myself and doing something for the children,” she says. “Not being extremely focused on them, all the time.”

Grol is not the only parent in the city wondering why there is a dearth of play cafés.

A Need?

Like Grol, when Louise Fitzpatrick moved to Inchicore from the Netherlands after her second child was born, she acutely noticed the absence of play cafes.

“I looked in the area we live in and all I could see going up and down our front door was parents and buggies and slings, nowhere for them to go,” she says.

Some parents would go to the café in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which had a play area before the pandemic, she says but now there’s very little.

There are playgroups and baby yoga classes in Inchicore, says Fitzpatrick. “But they’re all in separate places and you need to pay for them, and be there at a certain time.”

In the Netherlands, the local play cafés were her daily refuge, she says. “It’s where I learned how to pump, all these basic things, and there was always somebody there that you could ask advice and chat to other parents.”

Grol too says she has really noticed the loss of play cafés since arriving in Ireland, she says. “Sometimes it’s really nice not to be creative with your mornings or your afternoons. You just know where to go, and you’re not dependent on the weather.”

Her twins shout playfully in the background, and pull her to her feet. She smiles. “Of course I love to play with them, but sometimes you just want some peace and quiet.”

Coming and Going

“It’s a great business to do, but it just financially isn’t rewarding,” says Zoe Poynter, who ran the play café, Little Monkeys in Killester for four years, before closing down in 2017.

It was very uncertain, she says. “It’s very expensive to get your own premises because it’s quite a seasonal business.”

Poynter rented a room from a football club but didn’t have full access to the space, she says. She had to transfer the toys back and forth from a hired storage container early in the morning, and after closing.

“You are always at the mercy of the football club or the bar, so if there’s a funeral, I couldn’t open it because they needed it,” she says. “If there was a party, they would just tell me to close.”

Insurance was steep too at €200 a month, she says. “Most insurance companies don’t have a set bracket for play cafés. So they can kind of do what they want.”

Young customers demand entertainment. Toys have to be replaced as they wear down, she says, and she would hire a full programme of dance and art teachers for sessions.

Poynter eventually decided it would make more financial sense to become a special needs assistant, she says. She misses Little Monkeys, and still bumps into former customers asking her when it will open up again for their younger children.

“I loved it, I really enjoyed it, and my kids were the right age, but financially, it just didn’t work, I just couldn’t keep up,” she says. “I think it’s more of a project that people take on because it fits their family life.”

Susan Moran, who runs Little Darlings, a play café in Santry for kids under four, says she has the impression that many play cafés have gone under with the pandemic.

She closed down briefly but is now back up and running again, she says. Before she reopened, she rang around to other play cafés, to see what their plans were.

“I couldn’t get anything from them. So don’t know whether they’re open or not,” says Moran. “There’s not many, I don’t think there’s many left at all.”

The Rewards

In Santry, Moran’s café has been open nearly four years and she has lots of regular customers, she says.

“They love it. We’re just one room, but we’ve a big enough room that you can actually fit about 40 or 50 people in it,” she says.

She rents the room from the Santry Scout Den, who are really supportive of the café, she says.

There’s enough space to sit and relax with a cuppa, she says. “And the child can’t go anywhere because you can see everywhere they go, so you’re not constantly up and down.”

“We do a little food menu, and a bit of entertainment comes in. At the minute she only comes in once a week,” she says. “She does singing and dancing with the kids.”

Running the place is hard work though, she says. She works from nine until between one and three, and bakes cakes and does planning for the café at the weekend. She pays between €400 and €500 a year for her insurance.

“It’s not financially rewarding at all. If someone was going to set one up, it’s more suited to someone who’s just looking for a bit of pocket money,” she says.

It’s been harder to predict when it will be busy, since the pandemic, she says. “You open the door, you cross your fingers and you hope for the best.”

When she took over the business from a friend, Moran had been dealing with the consecutive losses of her parents.

“It was like it was meant to happen,” she says. “When my dad died, and I was feeling in any way, I’d go in and I’d have a chat with everyone. And I’d go out feeling an awful lot better. That’s what it’s about, to me.”

The café is a safe space for her and her customers, she says. “To me, it’s about having somewhere to go that you can relax.”

“As much as I’d love to make millions out of it,” she says. “It’s seeing them coming in the door that makes me happy.”

Kidspace Playcentre, a chain of play centres in Dublin, has a play café in Rathfarnham, above Rathfarnham Day Care.

Gillian Daly, a PR representative for the company, said they have definitely noticed an increase in footfall since the pandemic. Especially for birthday parties, she says.

Babies born during the pandemic might not have had the opportunity to socialise, Daly says, but there are strong mental-health benefits for babies and parents alike to having a tribe, as it were.

“You know, to meet other people and, you know, be in support, and talk, to sort of have our community,” she says.

Finding a Space

Fitzpatrick, in Inchicore, says she prepared a business plan for a play café during lockdown when she had a bit of time. “To see if it’s something that I could do myself,” she says.

She presented it to Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, which funds community business initiatives. But her plans predicted she would struggle to break even, let alone make a profit, so she abandoned them.

Rent alone, she estimated, would have been at least €5,000 a month.

In the Netherlands, Grol says play cafés could be that bit more expensive to go to.

Since the play space took over a large portion of the shop, she says, the play cafés would have had to charge more to make up for the lost tables. “People that have something to spare, to have that cappuccino, or to have that cake,” she says.

Says Fitzpatrick: “I see that the need is still there. So the thought came into my head, of why not a community-run cafe?”

There are parents in the area with skills who could contribute on an organising board, and volunteer their time, she says.

She has pitched that idea to the Dublin Food Co-op, she says, which is looking at the moment on what to do with its extra space in Kilmainhaim.

If the council were to explore play cafés, it would be a collaborative initiative with private businesses, said Debbie Clarke, the council’s play officer, on Tuesday.

“[It] would require exploration of a number of issues such as supervision, health and safety etc,” she said.

Clarke said a play café initiative could address some aims in the council’s upcoming play strategy, a plan for improving city life for kids, which is currently in draft form and due to be published in April.

Hazel de Nortúin, a People Before Profit councillor, says Dublin City Council could use some public buildings that they have for play cafés, if people want them and are willing to run them. But within the city centre might be harder.

“Outside of the city they would be able to step in a lot quicker. There’d probably be more units available,” she says.

Deirdre Heney, a Fianna Fáil councillor, says she’d be wary of providing grants or free space for a certain kind of café, as it would be unfair to those who had already set up cafés without help.

“For the city council to subsidise a cafe up the road, I think would negatively impact the business that has already been set up and they would feel like they were being disadvantaged,” she says.

It would be better to incentivize a cafe that’s already established, she says. “For example, you could say there’s a grant available for play equipment for cafés who would allot one third of their café space towards play.”

Poynter, who ran Little Monkeys, says she may have stayed open if the place she was renting had been more flexible.

If she could have left toys and equipment out the day would have been shorter, she says. “So I might [have gotten] €300 as my wage for the week, but I would be working 7.30 to 5 every day,” she says.

She would have had more time for her family too, says Poynter.

Moran has to do the same. “We have a little cupboard, and everything goes in it,” she says. “There’s not a trace of Little Darlings there.”

It would be brilliant not to have to pack and unpack, she says. “That would be fabulous. But that’s just not how it works.”

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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