I find coffee shops a great place to work. Responding to emails, writing a blog post, or creating a presentation seem enhanced by the buzz of the coffee grinder and the murmur of conversations. One of my favorite urban spots has an 8-by-8-foot play area for toddlers and preschoolers, many of whom have arrived in strollers pushed by their parents.
Today, as I was adding cream to my coffee at the kiosk next to the play area, I overheard a mother say, “If we can’t have proper behavior, we have to leave.” I watched as she carried the toddler and marched the 4-year-old out of the coffee shop.
Nothing about this scenario was unusual. Chants of “we are leaving because of your behavior” often arise in this corner of the shop. I remember watching a dad whose sons, ages 4 and 2, played with blocks as he worked on his computer at a nearby table. The 2-year-old interrupted his dad frequently despite the 4-year-old’s attempts to follow dad’s instructions: “Play with your brother.” After 30 minutes, four doughnuts, and frequent interruptions, the frustrated dad closed his computer and announced that the trio would go home because of the children’s poor behavior. The toddler looked happy.
Scattered Duplo® blocks, a small table, small cars and trucks, and a wire bead maze may seem to be enough materials for play, but for very young children, play is still about people. In the same way that adults love coffee shops as places to meet friends or send email—in other words, to connect with people—children love toys and play areas when they can share their experiences with caring adults. Playing alone with cars or blocks is a time-limited activity, no more than about 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the age of the child. A toddler needs adults to extend the activity and assist in creating play themes. A preschool-age child can easily get bored without a playmate. From the child’s perspective, leaving the coffee shop may be more of a relief than a negative consequence.
The coffee shop is an adult oasis. A doughnut and play area doesn’t provide the same level of satisfaction and appreciation for children. Children want and need engaged adults whether they are on the playground or at the coffee shop.