By Cathy Gorga
On a Tuesday evening, the GameStart School, located in the Plymouth Mall on Ann Arbor’s northside, was bustling. Students stared intently at their computer screens, testing out the video games they themselves have created. One teacher, wildly enthusiastic, bounced back and forth between a girl and a boy who were trying to complete their game level. She managed to support them technically and emotionally at the same time, stepping in to offer quick coding advice, troubleshooting, encouraging them (“Sure! You wanna try a new thing? That’s cool!”), and then cheering with them as they reached their goal. The kids leaned back in their chairs, clearly satisfied with their progress.
Ironically, it was a computer programming class in high school that almost stopped Nate Aschenbach, the co-owner, technical director, and Invent-O-Nater at GameStart School, from becoming a programmer himself. Although the Ann Arbor native grew up loving video games and aspiring to make them himself, he walked away from his bad class experience believing that he was not cut out to be a programmer. Instead, he learned animation and digital artwork at the University of Wisconsin-Madison “thinking I could make characters for the games.” His childhood friend David Arditti was on a similarly circuitous path, also disillusioned by programming classes in high school. Arditti, now GameStart’s co-owner, education director, and MindCrafter, pursued a degree in education and then taught at Title I schools in Texas. Though Arditti loved teaching and connecting with kids, he was growing increasingly frustrated by his perceived lack of impact within the school system structure.
Meanwhile, Aschenbach had joined a club in Madison, where he was providing artwork for video game programmers. They ended up teaching him how to program. He recalls being pleasantly surprised to discover, “Wait, maybe this is something I really enjoy after all!” He and Arditti began formulating an exhilarating idea together: What if they taught kids how to program using video games?
Arditti eventually moved back to Ann Arbor and joined Aschenbach working at Menlo Innovations, a custom-software design firm on Liberty Street downtown. Aschenbach said Menlo “kind of incubated” the two as they taught programming at after-school programs and started building curriculum ideas. They came up with “several different curriculums, some of them more focused on the technical, some of them more focused on the art,” but the bottom line remained stable. “What we were trying to do was basically fix what went wrong for us” in high school, where they tried to learn programming in a technological and social vacuum. Without the concepts being connected to their skills and passions, Aschenbach explained, most people are far less likely to gain competence in programming, let alone excitement and mastery.
Hence, GameStart School. Through word-of-mouth, the pair’s weekend video game programming classes, hosted at Menlo Innovations, doubled and tripled in student numbers until they grew to the size where they could hire some full-time employees and move to an independent facility. Currently offering a variety of classes, workshops, birthday parties, and summer/school break camps to children from first grade through high school, Aschenbach said that their “goal is to connect the kids with what they’re already excited about, with whatever technology empowers them to do that thing. Whatever it takes to create [that excitement and passion] is fine, because then once they’re in that zone, they’re going to learn it all on their own.”
This philosophy is proving majorly effective with GameStart students. Parents are excited about the programming school, too, perhaps spurred on by hopes that their child will be the next Mark Zuckerberg, or perhaps just hoping to expand on their children’s passion for games like Minecraft. Concurrently, programming is taking on a new cultural and educational significance. President Obama recently proclaimed, via his “Computer Science for All Initiative,” that all kids should learn how to code. Aschenbach obviously agrees that digital literacy is imperative, but also recognizes that humanity is still in the nascent stages of discovering the power and reach of technology. He warns against narrowing programming to simply the coding aspect — for example, trying to accomplish President Obama’s goal via a solitary programming class here or there. Aschenbach explained:
Learning to program or not learning to program is, like, whatever. It’d be cool. But what you really don’t want to ignore is the fact that so much of reality and the ways that communities connect, and the methods of empowerment that small local communities have, is really going to be defined by digital tools. That doesn’t mean that everybody has to be a hotshot programmer, and that doesn’t mean that everybody has to have an iPhone in their pocket.
Rather, giving kids a broader sense of digital literacy helps place them in a position of leadership:
There are so many important tools out there that are just being defined, and how exciting to be a part of helping to define them in the first place. But also, if you’re not going to do that and you’re not going to stay involved, you’re really going to be at the whim of the people who have invested in figuring those things out. It’s important for more than just gadgets. It’s important for how human beings relate to one another.
That’s exactly why GameStart classes are held in-person rather than online, despite many people assuming that online would be an appropriate venue to learn programming. At GameStart, kids work both individually and collaboratively, and they see firsthand the importance and power of working as a team.
Along those same lines, the GameStart group places a solid emphasis on creating various avenues for learning. As Aschenbach himself experienced, not all students will respond to a singular or uninspiring coding class. Likewise, children have a natural tendency to pigeonhole themselves and their strengths at an early age, a barrier to which Aschenbach is sensitive. At GameStart, instructors work hard with the students “to break down the idea that ‘I’m an art kid’ or ‘I’m a math kid’ or ‘I’m a programmer kid.’ You want everybody to be doing a little bit of everything.” Again reinforcing the social aspects of programming, Aschenbach and the GameStart educators encourage students to explore their personal preferences, while maintaining that:
What you’re not allowed to do is say, ‘I am something other than that, and therefore I’m not doing it.’ You’re allowed to say, ‘This one’s more interesting.’ And if this one is more interesting, then it only makes sense for you to find somebody who’s mostly interested in the other one. Because then what you create is going to be way cooler than it would’ve been otherwise.
That collaborative community, Aschenbach maintains, is a crucial aspect of what programming is and should be all about.
GameStart’s curriculums are developed with a keen knowledge that, in the tech world, everything changes at lightning speed. Some of their students’ parents have asked on occasion if GameStart is teaching all the “right” programs. Aschenbach, however, is deliberate in his approach:
Half of our teaching staff comes from a professional software development background, and the other half are educators. We build and re-build our curriculum constantly…. Because we’ve spent so much time in the actual industry, that puts us in a spot where we can pick out the things that we’re confident aren’t going to change quite as much as the other things.
In Aschenbach’s view, this is exactly why GameStart needs to prioritize the social aspects of programming. As he said, “It’s not going to change in the next five years that in order to get something done, you have to talk to somebody about it, and you have to plan together.” There are certain static aspects of programming that GameStart can teach to help students be flexible and readily adapt in a fast-paced world of technology. The team, after all, is tasked with a similar mission when it comes to curriculum planning. Aschenbach said they try to make all their lesson plans “as flexible as possible” to be integrated into whatever the latest tech fads are. “Logistically, if we’re going to keep hosting classes that kids want to come to, then we need to keep up to date with their games.”
And the kids do want to come to the classes. So much so, in fact, that the GameStart team has greatly expanded their offerings to include an impressive range of digital media: 3-D printing, advanced digital art, video editing, web design, coding, audio production, radio production, and virtual reality classes, where kids make their own VR worlds. Aschenbach said their Minecraft classes are by far the most popular and therefore have spawned GameStart’s most well-rounded and polished curriculum, hitting multiple domains such as animation, drawing, and coding. GameStart hosts camps, classes, parties, school field trips, and even a weekly homeschool group with rotating topics, where the kids can take materials home to keep working on the things they find interesting.
Though that sounds like plenty to keep a small organization busy, community outreach comprises a significant portion of GameStart’s time as well. They have collaborated with the Gamers Society to raise funds to go to the Children’s Center in Detroit; with EMU Bright Futures to bring digital literacy content to after-school programs in Washtenaw County; and with Mott Children’s Hospital’s Child Life program, bringing new technologies into the hospital for pediatric patients to use for recreational and therapeutic purposes alike. Through the Youth Arts Alliance!, GameStart teaches weekly workshops at juvenile detention centers — no small feat, considering they need to haul computers and boxes of cables and cords and equipment into facilities where even pencils are forbidden. They pursued grant opportunities to purchase equipment and develop a curriculum for specific use by juvenile detention centers, which they hope will eventually be picked up by detention centers around the country.
As evidenced by their work with at-risk youth and children in hospital settings, an ongoing goal for GameStart is to continue to reach out to various pockets of the community that need greater access. Acknowledging the gender disparities apparent in STEAM programs, GameStart hosts a regular, free program called Inspire Her once a month. Community experts help them run the program, including female computer science professors, female engineers, female start-up entrepreneurs, and local female engineers from Google. Aschenbach said about 25 percent of GameStart students are girls, which is good “for where our [science and technology] culture is at.” GameStart is working on addressing the attrition rate of their female students, who are historically less likely to participate in the computer sciences as they get older.
All this talk about increasing access to technology, however, might rub some folks the wrong way if they are concerned about limiting the amount of screen time their children get. Aschenbach’s take on the matter is both pragmatic and liberating for parents. Rather than addressing the issue by instituting strict limits on amounts of screen time, he said it’s more important to cultivate educated consumers of media. Equally as important is watching for uncontrolled content, such as adverts and links, coming through the devices kids are using. He compared it to sending kids outside to play, an activity that has genuine, measurable benefits, but that still needs to be monitored to ensure that it is “creative and constructive…an empowering experience, rather than subjugating.” In today’s world — and tomorrow’s world — kids who are digitally adept will have more access and options.
Aschenbach ultimately embodies the philosophies around which GameStart was built: model adaptability for children. Follow your passions, mold your world around those passions, and seek to make a difference via your passions. He wants his students to have ample experience with failure, and with bouncing back from failure, all with the help of their “social network,” so to speak — their friends and community. He wants kids to walk away from their GameStart experience knowing “that programming is not something that’s for somebody who looks or is aged differently than you. Programming is a useful vehicle to do things, and to do things you may not have expected you’d be able to do. Furthermore, programming is not something that you do by yourself. Programming is and should be very social.” The tools he and his team provide for kids allow them to take ownership, initiative, and agency. For example, “If something’s not on the app store for me, you don’t shrug and say, ‘Oh, well. I guess that’s not a thing.’ You say, ‘Oh! Here’s an opportunity for me to do a thing.” We could all stand to adopt a mantra like that.
GameStart School is located at 2765 Plymouth Road in northeast Ann Arbor. To register for upcoming classes, workshops, and camps, and to see a list of course topics, visit gamestartschool.org. For more information, visit their website, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (734) 926-9213.
Make Art Studio
Two years ago, a dream came to life in a second-floor rented flat on Main Street. Up a flight of stairs and through a thick wooden door, you’ll find two intimate, light filled rooms with creativity (and paint) dripping from every surface: walls, shelves, windows, tables, even the carpet. With clay remnants scattered about and twinkle lights draped across the ceiling, the Make Art Studio is everything you wanted your school-age art classes to be.
What better place for kids to come and create? Khadijah Kolleck, founder and owner of the studio, has been, and is, a great many things. Formerly the market manager of Ann Arbor’s Sunday Artisan Market and an artists’ representative, she currently does part-time graphic design work and private art mentoring. She also used to homeschool her five children, although they have transitioned to traditional schools, allowing Kolleck to devote her time to her studio. The common thread woven throughout each iteration of her passionate self, though, is artistry. Kolleck is an artist and creator, and her vision of facilitating others in their process of making is coming to life each and every day at Make.
“I just want kids to be using their hands more, and making things with their hands,” she said. And through Make’s wide array of camps, classes, and party options, taught primarily by Kolleck and with the assistance of a few fellow “makers,” the making is most definitely happening.
Despite being an active member of the DIY/crafting/Maker movement, Kolleck found herself frustrated by her own tendency not to follow through on her creative ideas. An Ann Arbor native, she founded the Make Art Studio with the intention of hosting “chic adult craft nights,” and to spend her days providing local kids with another outlet for creating outside of their hurried art classes in school. Kolleck hears from all of her students, who range in age from kindergarten through early high school, that “art is too short.” She is sympathetic towards art teachers in the school system, who have strict curriculum standards and administrators to answer to, and who are left with little flexibility to let kids take their time and explore materials at their own pace. With that in mind, her goal is “to buffer that and provide another outlet for kids. That’s why my classes are at least two and a half to three hours long. I don’t like to rush this at all.”
As an instructor at her studio, Kolleck emphasizes the importance of allowing children to flex their creative muscles, expand their imaginations, and connect deeply with the sensory aspects of art. She noted, “Creative thinking and imagination and art all go hand in hand with success later on in life… in any kind of job.” With her educational background in graphic design and child development, Kolleck sees herself in a unique position to guide her students as they discover the creative process.
MAKE… It Your Own
What that creative process looks like can be different from child to child, which is why Kolleck works hard to offer multi-layered projects and to have a wide variety of materials on hand. Although she plans her classes ahead of time and will often make a project prototype “just to show one possibility,” she encourages students to take each project in their own directions, whether independently or collaboratively. As she said, “We don’t just think outside the box. We make the box.” She aims to strike a balance between providing opportunities and letting children spin their provisions as they deem fit, each day “setting things up just enough so that kids drool at getting over there to touch the stuff and do things with it.” She loves to see the ways her students will interpret and expand on project ideas, turning simple clay pieces into mini-cities and paintings into 3-D mobiles. One class created a bunch of beautiful fish, a one-time project that morphed into an ongoing public art installation on the fencing at Ann Arbor Open School.
A primary goal of Kolleck’s is “getting kids to loosen up with art a little more… and being silly. There’s silliness in art!” Encouraging silliness could easily turn into a classroom management nightmare. Kolleck, however, said that the studio is “never chaotic. [I] get kids to loosen up, but still be totally engrossed in their work. The younger kids [her four- to seven-year-old cluster], you never see them running around. I rarely ever say, ‘Please sit down.’ It’s been amazing to watch three hours go by with just art and them and me.”
The studio itself has grown in a similarly organic fashion, with themed summer camps and play date gatherings popping up at her customers’ request. Advertising has been “very word-of-mouth” so far, with many of her students returning again and again. The students’ parents, Kolleck reported, tell her that their kids “can’t wait to get back in the studio.” This summer, interested families can choose from a variety of camp offerings. “Morning Maker Camps” will run daily from 9:30-12:30, and children will spend their summer mornings “making” all sorts of crafts and projects. For these morning camp sessions, Kolleck has outlined weekly themes such as Miniature Worlds/Dioramas, Minecraft/Geometry, Room Decor & Interior Design, Paper Arts, and Mythical Creatures. Afternoon camp sessions (12:30-3:30) are also available, but with a different twist. Ann Arbor Rec & Ed dance teacher and Pioneer High alum Maurice Archer will teach “Afternoon Breakdancing Camp” right in the studio, with dancing excursions at nearby parks and outdoor spaces. The breakdancers will focus on teamwork and self-expression. Before- and after-care are available for the summer camp programs, and for advanced students, Kolleck offers the option of creating a personally tailored, more independent camp experience.
A three-hour art session may seem long, but Kolleck’s objective is to “take lots of time to talk through ideas and slow the process down.” She realized that, in school, children weren’t properly learning basic skills like cutting, folding, and gluing. As a result, she found them struggling to execute their ideas. That’s why, in her classes, students will spend a lot of time doodling, as well as working with “lots of clay and origami, to slow them down and help them be precise.” Likewise, she finds that kids’ first instinct is to rush through an exercise haphazardly. She views her role as one of slowing them down and pushing for quality. “I’m a designer, and I do approach them in kind of an adult way where I’m just like, ‘This has not reached its potential.’ Then when they actually deliver, they’re like, “Yes!” Generally, the projects the children do are purposefully designed to have as many layers and stages as possible; when kids invest that much time and effort into their work, Kolleck said, “You get this quality art project that just means so much more to them.” Their projects end up being about both the process and the product.
With her homeschooling and child development background, Kolleck is confident in her ability to assess group dynamics and adjust accordingly. As she said, “A good teacher knows how to work a room. I can work my room.” She employs a number of Waldorf concepts in her classes, including contracting and expanding energy levels in accordance with what the students need in any given moment. “Sometimes we will have loud, cool music going on, and we’re all using clay and kids are laughing. And then we’ll kind of slow it down and put Spanish guitar on, and watercolor.” In a two- or three-hour art class, this fluidity of energy doesn’t need to be rushed or pushed.
MAKE… It Intentional
While Kolleck encourages her students to explore all layers of a project and take it in new directions, she also requires that the new directions be intentional, and that kids purposefully develop a vision to carry out. Vision development, in Kolleck’s view, is “a skill to be honed. Return students know how to do that.” She prioritizes cultivating relationships with her students, which allows her to help them develop their vision: “When you have a genuine connection with kids, you can ask them, ‘Is this really your best work? Are you rushing?’ I make them defend their artistic choices.” That said, “[If a child has] a strong vision, then you see me back way off. And that’s a skill that is in anything — that ambition to create something, whatever it is. By me sending them back, that toughens them up to have that skill.” She weaves mindfulness activities into the making process, heightening the students’ awareness of their processes and goals.
Kolleck’s emphasis on intentional creativity is also reflected in her style of connecting with kids. She believes strongly in being genuine with children, building mutually respectful relationships, and offering specific praise. She prides herself on her ability to bond effortlessly with her students and said she uses that skill to leverage best efforts from the kids when they’re in her studio. That way, too, they learn to trust that she means it when she says, “You can make anything if you just put your mind to it. We will find a way at Make.” It is important to her that she help break down any barriers to making for her students. “If they can imagine it, I want to find a way to make it happen, no matter how big or small.”
MAKE… Dreams Come True
And that, in essence, is Kolleck’s purpose. She goes to the Make Art Studio every day in hopes that she can facilitate others’ creativity, knowing that the studio has done the same for her. “I love Pinterest, because it’s getting people to go back to making stuff. That’s what really brought me to the studio, was making it happen. Because I kept looking at pictures going, ‘I wanna do that,’ but you don’t do it. Make it happen!” Kolleck hopes to eventually incorporate more kids who don’t have regular access to high-quality art programs, and she would love to host art groups for babies and new parents. Likewise, she is “open to working with other entrepreneurial moms with visions.” As she said, “I hope… that I can continue to have more and more kids experience being able to make without pressure of time, resources, or materials. I want to reach everybody.” She has made her own vision for Make Art Studio a reality, and she aims to make that happen for others as well:
Sometimes I’ll sit up here and the twinkle lights will be on, on Main Street, and I’ll just look out the window and be like, ‘I am living my dream.’ That’s an amazing feeling. And it came from digging way deep down and being like, ‘I can do this. I can make this a reality.’ You surprise yourself.
Make Art Studio announced that they will be moving soon to a new location in historic downtown Ypsilanti. The new space offers adjacent parking, gorgeous natural light, and plenty of room to grow! You’ll be able to find the studio at 11 South Washington Street in Ypsilanti. For more information, including details on classes, birthday parties, and upcoming summer camp programs, visit www.makeitonmainstreet.com. To get in touch with owner Khadijah Kolleck, email her at email@example.com. You can also follow Make Art Studio on Facebook.
Earlier this year, Kidopolis, the newest indoor play zone in Ann Arbor, opened to much anticipation. Even with a mild winter, many local parents and caregivers were ready for a fresh locale to add to their family outing arsenals. Formerly a woodworking supply warehouse, the interior of Kidopolis is now smartly divided into themed playrooms. Kids can move freely among a firehouse, an enchanted forest, a theatrical stage, a space station, and other areas, accessing authentic materials and costumes along the way.
Owner Jessica Ramos said that she designed Kidopolis to promote creativity, imagination, and free play. While infants and toddlers are welcome (and present in abundance!), Ramos emphasized that Kidopolis was created with grade-schoolers in mind as well. She said free play is especially important for this age group, noting that “in school systems, the only play that goes on is on the playground, and that’s more for the body.” While she recognizes the importance of allowing children time for physical play, particularly during the school day, she wonders whether they are provided with sufficient opportunities for their minds to wander freely. “There’s a lot to learn in play. Play helps bring [children] together and helps them to develop. It does make them smarter; it gives them more confidence.”
A mother of three — a high school graduate, a seven-year-old, and a three-year-old — Ramos said she has spent her fair share of time getting to know what kinds of play spaces exist, as well as what she feels may be missing from them. The idea for Kidopolis had been brewing for years before coming to fruition, a process Ramos chalked up largely to “destiny.” An entertainer by nature, she loved to throw big birthday parties during her eldest daughter’s formative years and always encouraged her to build forts and play dress-up. She did intermittent homeschooling and spent a good amount of time “homeschooling around town and watching [her daughter] play, watching kids play, and observing what kids naturally do.” Now that Ramos has two younger children in the mix as well, she said, “I’ve had a lot of experience being a parent and seeing the needs. I’m quick to pick up on people’s needs.” Between parenting and working with a variety of age groups as a yoga instructor, she found a niche in “going to [kids’] imaginary level” and felt strongly that running a play space would align perfectly with her background, personality, and passions.
Ramos labored intensely over the design of the space and rooms, changing the layout repeatedly along the way. Many of the eight themed areas were inspired by her own children, in particular the police and fire stations; her son loves public servicepeople, and exploring a fake jail cell and climbing child-sized fire trucks is right up his alley. She said her girls requested the enchanted outdoor room and the dress-up/stage areas. As for one of the most unique rooms — the “Space Place” — Ramos declared, “The space room is mine! I’m a really celestial person.” Kids can sit at Mission Control and use joysticks, keyboards, buttons, and speakers to guide their shuttles and explore the universe. In the separate “Crawlerville” area, younger babies have a safe space to ride rocking toys, play with developmentally appropriate toys, and crawl through a little tunnel maze. Ramos hopes to see additional intricate painted designs added to walls as time goes on, and she continues to collect a variety of gadgets and materials, such as vintage pay phones. “I’ve gathered this stuff for a couple years. From thrift stores, or the house, or whatever I could find. It just calls out to me.”
Ramos’s main goal at Kidopolis is to prioritize imaginative free play, which she sees as essential for fostering social and emotional intelligence. The themed playrooms at Kidopolis are kept intentionally spare rather than overflowing with commercial toys, and each provides a space for children to role play and get lost in their imaginations. “For me, my imagination is probably what brought me through my childhood. Some kids really need it. I think it’s really important for kids to have a healthy imagination,” she said. Likewise, children are encouraged to share their play and ideas via Kidopolis’s stage, which occupies a large corner of the main room. Ramos said:
I think that’s important, for girls and boys to play different roles and feel that out. They have kitchen sets and baby dolls and trucks, but you should also take that to a stage. Perform for your parents. Just one little step up — they feel a little bit more empowered and it builds their confidence. And then they can pretend to be somebody else, take a break…. Even changing your voices, changing your outfits, changing your walk. You get to go outside of yourself.
Ramos said each of these is a building block for social and emotional intelligences.
She is certainly not the only parent out there concerned about when and how kids will learn social-emotional skills. In her experience, these non-academic intelligences are typically not explicitly taught in traditional school settings, where the ideal times for supporting social and emotional growth are disappearing. Many schools have decreased or altogether dissolved recess, art classes, theater programs, and gym time — in other words, times where kids were more free to play, chat, pretend, and problem solve. Likewise, after-school hours are often spent in structured extracurricular activities rather than playing with siblings or neighbors. Ramos’s theory is that ready-made, community play spaces like Kidopolis can be a helpful launching pad for both imaginative and interactive play. The skills built during free play, she said, are important both in the moment and in the long run — for example, by fostering a healthy sense of self. “[Free play] leads them to be more self-confident, because when they free play, they’re guiding themselves. Nobody’s leading them; they’re using their intuition, and that builds confidence.” She said the grade school years are a prime time to hone social-emotional skills in a supervised setting: “They need these skills to be as developed as they can be by the time they get to high school, because kids are mean to each other. We’re all really animals at heart; we’re quick to pick out the weak ones.”
With that kind of societal pressure, Ramos said it’s especially important to “empower the spirit of children.” She sees children as old spirits in new bodies, with new families and cultures to navigate — a tall order, without the proper methods and skills. Play, Ramos feels, is the most appropriate and efficient vehicle to help kids discover themselves and grow. She said:
When they play, even if they’re playing by themselves, their own spirit is free to just be. It’s just when they start to get socialized then you start to put yourself in a box, to fit in or be accepted, whether it’s your culture or your gender. Imaginative and creative play can help them realize that they are free, that there’s a free part even when they’re in the confines of home and family or sibling order. They can still experience freedom, and usually it is through play.
Going a step beyond free play, Ramos also recognizes the value in parents joining their kids in child-directed play. She loves that parents in the Ann Arbor area, where she’s raising her children, “are so about their kids.” She is energized and inspired when adults playfully interact with children at Kidopolis and hopes to foster that as much as possible. “I do want more parents to interact with their kids. I know now they’re so used to other play spaces where they don’t. But parents should play more with their kids. A lot of these costumes — they’re adult sizes!” She said she recognizes that parents absolutely need an occasional break from their children, but that children gain so much when given the opportunity to play with their parents in an unstructured setting.
One way Ramos promotes this is by supplying costumes for both kids and grown-ups in the theater and stage area; Kidopolis’s Instagram feed features a family who dressed up together. Ramos commented that “parents that have come in and dressed up — they turn on the fun switch, they have a big smile. The first week [at Kidopolis], I was in a sailor suit. I like to dress up, myself.” She aims for parents and caregivers to be comfortable when they come in, but also aesthetically pleased by Kidopolis’s style. She wants them to “feel that they were a part in the design, too — that they also inspired it. It’s not just kids… I want [parents’] eyes to be pleased, too.” Ramos noted that feedback and ideas from customers are helpful as Kidopolis evolves.
Indeed, given that Kidopolis opened just a few months ago, Ramos candidly admitted that she continues to weave together her goals with ongoing feedback and her own daily observations, as she watches children interact with each other and with the play areas. For example, while the outer space room and the fire station are always hopping, she said the fairy room isn’t as active as she had imagined. That room will be remodeled soon with a new theme.
As for her customer base, Ramos is thrilled that families with very young children are drawn to Kidopolis, but she still hopes to attract older children as well, possibly through scheduled play times for older age groups on the weekends. Kidopolis currently hosts birthday parties, organized play groups, and other special events, and Ramos envisions hosting field trips for schools and summers camps as well. She would also like to procure a van to help accommodate families without transportation: “More than likely, [some] kids that really need to have an escape probably don’t have access to come.” On a large scale, she very much wants Kidopolis to be a venue for fostering community and hopes to accomplish this via calendared events for groups and families. Her ideas include movie nights, potluck dinners, family parties, and even collaborative theater events, with community members coming together to put on plays in the space. “I’m a Shakespeare person at heart. I would love to put on plays and theater, but interactive, where the families all partake together.”
Eventually, Ramos would like to see Kidopolis develop and host learning sessions for grade-schoolers focused on crucial topics like social skills and navigating bullying. In the meantime, she said she’ll continue to tweak and modify each themed playspace so that all of her customers — children and adults alike — “get a big dose of imagination and creativity,” and that they leave feeling happy, satisfied, and “that their minds have been exercised.”
Kidopolis is located at 509 State Circle in Ann Arbor. Hours are Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Monday by appointment only. To schedule a birthday party, play group, or special event, call (734) 769-0263 or email
firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is available at www.kidopolis.net.