A Fredericksburg pediatric occupational therapist’s new business is child’s play—literally.
Jodie Vaughn is the owner of Fort Pure Play, a house at 202 Herndon Street in downtown Fredericksburg that she’s turned into a light and airy space where little ones can dip their hands into a water sensory table, arrange a family of felt mice in a dollhouse or turn a multitude of wooden pieces into all sorts of imaginative creations.
“As OTs, we view the occupation of childhood as play,” she said. “We have a rich understanding that all of their milestones are driven by play. It’s kind of like their birthright.”
Vaughn said that Fort was inspired not only by her professional background, but by watching how central play was for her three sons, now ages 7, 11 and 14.
“I noticed in them that play was as important and as meaningful to them as my job was to me,” she said.
Fort is aimed at three- to six-year-olds, although her two younger boys love coming there on snow days, Vaughn said. She picked age three as a starting point because children that age typically know not to put small objects in their mouth, their creativity is starting to spark and they’re learning to play with others. By age six, children are usually in school during Fort’s hours. Slightly younger or older children are welcome as well.
Vaughn opened her business last October, and it soon developed a loyal clientele, largely through word of mouth. Play times, which are offered Tuesdays through Thursdays, are limited to 10 children accompanied by an adult. Usually there are at least eight little ones, each with a guardian.
Maura Schneider has been bringing her daughter Ingrid, 2½, to Fort since it opened. Last Tuesday Ingrid played with the feathers, rocks and sticks arrayed in a “touch table” before heading over to a toy barn complete with farm animals. When another little girl reached for some of the animals Ingrid was playing with, Schneider asked her daughter to use the words she knows for sharing.
“That’s one of the benefits,” Schneider said as the two little girls began playing with the toys side by side. “They get to work it out.”
Upstairs, 3-year-old Emma Kinnaman built a small fortress made of blocks around her au pair, Lily O’Rourke, while her 5-year-old sister Ellie helped put together a towering construction that included boards, blocks, hoops and a toy laundry cart. When it fell apart with a crash, Ellie and some of the older children immediately started over.
“There’s so much here that every week they can do something different,” said O’Rourke. “They’re very imaginative.”
Vaughn came up with the idea for Fort five years ago and began collecting objects that could be used in creative, open-ended play. She’d pick up rocks with rounded edges that are smooth to the touch, for example, as well as large bird feathers that were easy for small fingers to grasp. She also started buying toys, including Danish designer Dorthe Mailil’s charming felt mice, lovelane designs’ colorful superhero costumes, and what she calls “loose play parts”—an assortment of large and small unpainted wooden boards, blocks and hoops that can be assembled in myriad ways.
She and her husband began looking for a space they could turn into Fort, a name she came up with because it had the ring of a neighborhood hub that kids could call their own. The Vaughns didn’t want it to be downtown, because they wouldn’t be relying on foot traffic. Instead, most people would purchase memberships, although individual passes would be available.
The Vaughns decided to buy the house on Herndon Street and turn it into the play space she’d envisioned. They hired Spaces Design Studio to figure out the layout, Jason Gallant of Rappahannock Renovations to do the remodeling, and Mark Eitt to install such finishing touches as the tree planted in the middle of the second floor and the wooden bicycle that hangs from the ceiling.
Higashi Glaser Design came up with the main logo, which is the word FORT topped with a tree branch, and combined the Vaughns’ youngest son’s love of sticks and frogs to create the secondary logo that adorns the T–shirts for sale in Fort To-Go, Fort’s small retail section. It features a branch that forms the side of the letter “F,” a banner for its top bar and a frog stretched out full length for the other bar.
“I’ve been lucky to have all these local people,” Vaughn said.
The look of Fort, however, is all hers. Walls are white, floors are covered in cork, and one of the few pops of color is the lime green paint on the stairs leading to the second floor. The effect is a calm, relaxed vibe.
“The whole social, emotional development is really learned here,” Vaughn said. “You’re using play to help children develop well and in a healthy way. They’re actively participating instead of passively looking at a screen.”
Fort also offers a Happy Baby Yoga class taught by Kiersten Kennedy, owner of Flux Movement, on Tuesday mornings, and Kara List, the former artistic director for Christian Youth Theater Fredericksburg, will begin teaching Baby Band, a music and movement class for 6-month-olds to 3-year-olds there April 9.
“We’re starting to add things that aren’t pure play but play and wellness for kids and families,” said Vaughn, who runs Fort with the help of operations manager Ashley Carpenter.
She’ll also open Fort’s backyard for imaginative, nature-inspired play April 9. It already features a “thicket,” a playhouse woven using willow branches. New additions will include a play kitchen where children can get messy turning mud into cakes and pies, large outdoor play blocks and natural “loose parts” for imaginative play.
“They’re only little once. Let them go at it,” Vaughn said. “It’s all good and healthy.”