BELFAST— Two years ago, Lee Parent had just opened her first brick and mortar business, Kids Unplugged, in the Reny’s Plaza with the aim of unplugging kids from screen time and actively engaging their imaginations through play.
With no other marketing or advertising than Facebook, the play space caught on with parents as Parent’s vision for her business hit the next phase. Last October, Kids Unplugged moved to 17 Airport Road (the business park by the airport) into a building that was double the square footage. With a new licensed day care on the premises, five new staff members, two huge Gym and “Ninja” rooms, complete with CrossFiit type equipment, a climbing wall, a trampoline, loads of floor toys, and even an outside fenced in play area, Parent still wasn’t done dreaming about her future.
On June 13, Parent announced to her Facebook followers that Kids Unplugged had been chosen among 26 contestants to compete in a Maine business pitch and mentoring competition for $100,000.
“I just thought, why not try?” she said. “So, I submitted a video. I was totally petrified and excited at the same time. But, the concept resonates with people. We need to get off our phones and get active.”
She said the first taping will be July 16 and will position Kids Unplugged against another yet-to-be announced Maine business.
“Whoever has the best pitch wins that round. If we survive that round, I think we have two more rounds,” she said.
Parent said an unexpected outcome to offering the play space to the public has attracted a number of families raising autistic children and children with ADHD.
“The effect on some of these kids has been this unexpected bonus. I have parents and grandparents tell me their child feels very safe here and after an extended time of playing, will come home more verbal and more content. Another trend we are seeing are grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. More and more, I talk to grand parents who are emotionally and physically exhausted and need a place for their grandchildren to get their energy out. We provide a safe place for them to rest, participate with their grandchildren while getting some ‘play support’ that they don’t always get at home. I’ve started a private Facebook group for these grandparents to have a outlet of mutual support.”
Parent, originally a graphic designer who worked out of her own home, has had to teach herself every aspect of business.
“Before this, I worked for myself for 18 years with no overhead,” she said. “It was like jumping off a cliff head first.
“I’m now in phase two of my business plan, which is to offer the space, not just to little and school-aged kids, but also to parents and older teens. As a mom, it wold drive me crazy to have to go to the gym, drop my kids off, then pack everything up, drive back to pick them up, all of those hours running around. A key component to my business is to provide a place where the entire family can come to one place and there’s something for everyone.”
Her next plan is to integrate a model for teens and adults called Gravity Sports into the space.
“I’m picturing a cool place where teens want to go, a gym, study space, and a cantina,” she said. “That would require expanding here or another building, but it’s in the plan. But, basically I’m thinking a one-stop healthy place for families.”
Currently, Kids Unplugged offers weekly gym and play classes, a summer camps, “Nerf Wars” nights, kids’ Ninja Warrior classes and other pop-up classes for adults, such as the “Self-Defense for Women” Wednesday series, taught by ju jitsu instructor Angela Crawford.
“I was talking to some of the women after,” said Parent. “They learned psychological awareness, self-confidence choke holds, grappling techniques. It was a workout. Every one of the women in the class were sweating once it was over.”
The pop-up classes are an experiment to see how well other fitness and self-defense classes for adults will fit in with the Kids Unplugged expanding model and gym space.
“We want to be an incubator for other micro-businesses that share our philsophy of creativity, imagination and the freedom to play. The great thing about each class is that the instructor goes back over the previous week’s lessons, so even if you drop in, you’ll get up to speed quickly and if you learned some techniques the week before, you’ll be that much more ahead.”