You have become the go-to voice on parenting for so many moms. Tell us how you got here!
When my friends started to get pregnant, even before being a mom myself, they’d ask me a ton of questions about what to buy or do. I realized how scared they all were because they had no idea what to do with a human baby to take care of. I realized that with all my experience working in early childhood, I had something to offer: I wanted to empower moms to become their own experts. With a background in psychology and education, I knew how to refine motherhood in a way that allowed moms to breathe and be confident that less is truly more. I knew how to encourage children’s natural abilities through meaningful play right from the start in a way that wasn’t overwhelming.
The truth was, I had no idea just how hard motherhood would be and that playing with your infant was the last thing on your mind amidst healing, recovering, hormonal moods, breastfeeding, and well, just surviving. So two months into launching my blog, I gave birth and figured out that even with my experience, this motherhood thing, it’s really hard and lonely! Moms need each other. So at 8 weeks postpartum, I wrangled some new moms together, we dragged ourselves to meet and I pretended I knew what I was doing by leading a moms group. Really, I just wanted to hang out with moms so I could feel more sane! Moms came to me for guidance on what to do with babies and I kept going, thriving off this community of moms supporting moms. In one of those groups, I met a mom, Sandra DiCapua, who turned into my business partner along with Anthony Rudolf and we created a physical space called Union Square Play. USP is not only a place for moms; it is a space where young children come to feel a sense of "home away from home."
Your focus on PLAY as a way for parents to connect with our children, and understanding the value in watching and listening to our children perhaps differently than the way we might naturally approach it, is so helpful! Can you share a couple words of wisdom for parents who might be struggling with connecting with their children right now?
Every child is different. When I share my ideas and philosophies on play, I want to make sure parents understand that it starts with the child, their experience starts with their child. Spend time seeing who your child is, watch them, react less, and observe more. That may seem easier said than done, but just knowing that it's important, will help. When we pause and react less, we see what is going on inside our children more readily than if we just reflexively respond on autopilot. These small windows are glimpses into who they are, what calms them, what frustrates them and what interests them. Then you are more equipped to set up play that will appeal to your particular child rather than setting up what you see on instagram and becoming discouraged when your child just kicks it vs. engages with it.
Also, sometimes we have to just muscle through and that’s ok. It’s ok to just say out loud “this is SO hard! Nothing feels right!” and to take deep breaths, when we model imperfection, our children learn that being imperfect is ok, something that is SO important.
Parents love your recommendation for engaging play. Can you share some of your favorites?
A few of the best developmental toys & sensory objects for babies (0-6 months):
- A metal tray or metal bowl: So random I know, but what babies love about this is that nothing else in their play nook is shiny and reflective like this. It’s sort of a mirror like but sort of not, it's shiny, reflects light and cool and smooth to the touch. They may not interact with it much until they are comfortable on their bellies or able to grasp the bowl, but once they can, you’ll see the magic. Add in a metal kitchen utensil as long as you have no zoom calls for some noise making!
- Giggle Spots: What is so cool about these is that you can use them literally ANYWHERE. They come with tiny little velcro dots so that you can adhere the black and white photo on any surface. Some of my favorite spots are on the seat of the car where their car seat faces (i always feel bad they have to stare at the set and so this makes that more exciting) and on the wall by the changing table. Eventually your baby will love reaching and pulling them off the spot that they are adhered to and putting them back on.
- Hair Rollers: My favorite toys are non toys, that’s because there’s something about real life objects that just intrigue babies more than soft plush toys. Everything is soft and plush but not everything rolls, has tiny holes in it and is easy to pick up and stick their tongue through. That’s what a hair roller does! A baby who can sit up will even try to nest them through one another seeing what fits and what doesn't.
- Oball: This is one of the first toys I recommend introducing to a baby. It’s because its allows for an “Accidental grab” with all the holes in it. So even before a baby has developed the ability to intentionally grab an object, they can intertwine their fingers in this and hold it. Put a cloth napkin through it if the rolling away is frustrating for your baby who can’t crawl yet.
- Water: There’s something about water that intrigues and calms young children. If you add water to a bowl and put it in front of your infant, they’ll love splashing, dipping and swishing it. Even put some down on a baking tray while your baby is on their belly and watch as they smack the water.
- Silicone cupcake tray: its like a tray of buttons! Babies love buttons and they’ll also love mouthing this. You can even sprinkle some water in each “button” for exploring.
- Skwish: Similar to the oball a baby can grasp and hold this more easily. It also makes the most lovely noise as the wood clangs against each other. I also appreciate that the noise is visible unlike a rattle where a baby has no idea why or what is making noise, a baby can see that the wood beads sliding against one another is making noise (once they are old enough to notice this)
PLUS a few for your older kiddos (12m and up):
- Salad Spinner (ages 24-36 m): Jennie says just trust her on this one...
& Water Play Options:
- Play Sink
- Water Play Set (Dog bowl, but for your little ones)
- Color Tablets! (3 and up): Make the bath more fun and mix your own colors for “science experiments” outside of the bath too!
What about when you’re on-the-go? Any recommendations to toss into our Kibous?
- This masher is a go to for babies - you can mash anything for babies who are starting solids
- Metal condiment cups for toys - babies love mouthing and clanging them and toddlers love stacking them.
- Ever Eden sunscreen - I use for both me and the girls
- Reusable sticker scenes - I love that the stickers are thick enough for smaller hands to maneuver
- Drunk Elephant lip balm
- My favorite scrunchies
Pre-covid, Union Square Play was a mecca for children and parents alike, how have you pivoted since the pandemic and what have you learned along the way?
We had already really hoped to widen our community to those who couldn’t come in person. So when the pandemic hit, we got the ball rolling on things we ultimately wanted to be able to do--for instance offer moms groups virtually or inspiration for play for those who were out of state or who weren’t able to come into Union Square Play. So while we didn’t have anything in the works yet, it was just like let's do this. We pivoted our entire business; we closed our physical space to be able to really focus on being there for families not in-person. That started as virtual classes and moms groups. And ended up including toy play kits and now our Parenting Plus platform, P+.
On P+ we offer everything on this platform/app where you can access each other--the community, experts if you have any issues or challenges you want to work on with a professional, and endless play ideas and educational resources, too.
How is P+ different from what’s already out there in terms of parenting support websites or apps?
It’s not a message board where you don’t know who you’re talking to, it’s a community where you create a profile that allows you to know the community you’re interacting with, as well as providing you with access to connect with vetted experts who are a resource for you to connect with around questions you may have. Plus, there’s a sort of approachable Pinterest of educational ideas. It’s really not intimidating or aspirational because we’re all in the same boat, so I won’t put anything on there that requires intense set up. It’s more these are things that you can feel good about offering your children for play, that are easy to put together.
It sort of embodies all of the questions that I get on DMs that I don’t always have the time to answer individually. At least in this way, if people are on the platform asking a question, they can help each other. In this space, they have access to each other, to me and to other experts. People often have the same questions, so they also learn so much through other people’s questions, too.What is the most rewarding part of the work that you do?
The community. Being able to bring parents together. I think we’re all better together; it makes parenthood more fun, easier and communal. You feel supported, less isolated and alone. And that’s the most rewarding for me--that I’m able to reap those benefits and learn from my community and even be able to lean on them.
And of course, although it’s been a long time, I love that there was flexibility as a mom in our workforce at Union Square Play. I could bring my kids with me, and in a non-pandemic world that was a really nice thing to be able to do.
How do you do it all? Make time for intentional play, run a business and manage a very engaged IG community--all while being a present mom and wife?
Had there not been the pandemic it would have been a lot harder. I had a 5 month old and a 2 ½ year-old, and I was just trying to figure out how I was going to balance between work and 2 kids. And then everything transitioned to working from home, which I wouldn’t say is necessarily easier, I think it’s harder in many ways, but from a physical standpoint being able to be in many places at once, it's feasible. When I hear a tantrum, I can potentially help them through it before hopping back on a call - I’m able to sort of, kind of juggle that in an impossible way. I also don't think I do it all, I think I got to a place where I accepted that I can't do it all, and I'm ok with that. Many DM's have to go unanswered but instead of feeling really stressed by that, I think and believe that my followers understand.
While every entrepreneur starts out by wearing every hat, in the last year we’ve been able to delegate by bringing in moms we’ve met in mom group, who reach out to say they love this community and want to be a part of it professionally. These women need a few hours a week of work while being a stay-at-home mom. It’s really helpful that now many of the pieces are being handled by other people.
I’m glad that the sort of 2-year mark for a startup is kind of behind us. This last year would have been impossible to manage everything, so I guess that’s a silver lining of the pandemic for me.
As for being a present wife, well Matt is just the most supportive human on the planet. This almost makes it harder for me to realize that I can’t take that for granted - so we make sure to unplug a few nights a week, dates with phones left at home, or even at home with phones left in another room. We also never forget to flirt and have fun.
You brought up how becoming a mom impacted your perspective on your insights and recommendations. How has your perspective or the work changed since being a mom of 2?
I realize how much play is important to me because that’s how I connect authentically with my girls. However, play isn’t what every parent needs to focus on in terms of how they connect with their child if that doesn’t feel natural to them or isn’t something they enjoy. There are so many ways to connect with your child, play happens to be something that I love to do in order to connect and learn about my children.
It’s always so interesting to understand how someone becomes an influencer. Did you see that coming? Was there a moment that you were like, oh wait, this is more than just my own USP community now?
No, I don't even consider myself an influencer haha. I feel like it was more about bringing moms together, and bringing them to me, because I need that support too! I will realize that I’m an influencer when I walk down the street and someone tells me how much they connect to what I share and I feel like I already know them, and then, as we walk away, I realize their child is wearing the water shoes I recently recommended!
Photos courtesy of Jennie Monness, Senjuti Kundu and Shirota Yuri via Unsplash