One by one, the children removed their winter jackets and put on big smiles, shedding their inhibitions for the promise of shiny red tricycles, plastic slides, and the undivided attention of their adult companions.
The children transformed an empty cardboard box into a boat, a drum set, and dream house. Foam block cities were raised in mere minutes and then sent tumbling by a passing dinosaur. An unoccupied preschool gym became an indoor playground.
The Brookline Recreation Department’s Indoor Play Program at Soule Early Childhood Center, 652 Hammond St., was created by the Brookline Recreation Department for children ages 6 months to 3 years.
For $5 a child for Brookline residents ($7 for non- residents), caregivers can bring children to Soule on a drop-in basis Tuesdays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The Soule gym offers a safe, warm and dry alternative to outdoor playgrounds for adults to supervise their small children during the colder months of the year. While start dates and times change tentatively from season to season, the program usually runs from October until the end of April.
Program administrator Joan Kibrick, a teacher at Soule, describes the beauty of the program as being the freedom of open play.
“It’s a truly interesting environment that allows kids the freedom to explore. It’s safe, and free, without the interruptions of scheduled snack times, or circle time, or nap times,” said Kibrick.
Kibrick said the program is a beneficial way to socialize young children and for parents to get out of the house and meet other families who have small children in their community.
“Even the littlest kids start to develop relationships at this age,” Kibrick said. “Whether they are fighting over a toy or collaborating on an art project, this is a great opportunity to engage them with children of their own age in a safe and healthy environment to prepare them for later daycare or school environments.”
Mona Perez has been bringing her son Mateo to the Soule program for the past five months. Mateo is 3 years old, and his family moved from Mexico a little over a year and a half ago.
“Indoor play is a good way to prepare him for the transition into preschool and into speaking English,” Perez says. “Vocalizing his feelings and being around so many other children has been a great experience for him.”
Miriam Pappas is a mother of three. She brings her youngest daughter to the program because it is flexible and works well with her family’s busy schedule.
“I love the drop-in aspect of the program. Unlike classes, which parents pay for and feel pressured to attend on time, I like that we can pay as we go and arrive and leave on a time schedule that we choose,” Pappas said. “I also like that the area is contained, so there’s no stress of losing your child in a crowd or of children wandering too far.”
The program includes activities ranging from group art projects to yoga, music, slides, age-appropriate playground equipment, and much more. There is a designated snack area, books, and puzzles for different levels of supervised play. Children are encouraged to move freely from activity to activity. All the children are encouraged to help during the clean up and break down process of the indoor park. With the collaborative effort the total process takes no more than 20 minutes.
Kibrick said this initiative began as a service project and has never been intended as a source of profit. Kibrick, a Brookline resident herself, can remember bringing her own children many years ago when the program was un-administered. There was only a $2 trust box left for people to make donations to use the free space and few balls and toys donated to Brookline Recreation.
While the program has grown since then, its foundations have remained the same.
“Its all about the families and giving them a place to be together. From the start of the season we average about 14 or 15 families per day. At our busiest we’ve had maybe over 25,” Kilbrick said.
The indoor play season will continue until April 30 this year, its doors open to anyone who embraces the spirit of free and unstructured playtime.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.