In a climate like ours – freezing half the year and insanely hot in the depths of summer – parents get to know the indoor play options pretty well. There are tumbling places and big, open rooms full of inflatables.
Then, there’s The Big Backyard, 2857 S. 160th St., in New Berlin, which celebrated its fifth anniversary last month.
In the L-shaped space, there’s a wide variety of things for kids of all ages to do.
There’s a space for toddlers with a playset with a slides, a crawl-through caterpillar tube and other age-appropriate toys. In the far corner, there’s a basketball hoop. Right in the middle is a giant playset with climbing walls, tube slides and more. Scattered about are trikes and other ride-ons that attract kids like honey draws bees.
Off to the side is a place for parents to hang and enjoy Stone Creek coffee and chat. The menu board at the snack counter lists applesauce, fruit cups, fruit snacks and multigrain bars, alongside popcorn, pretzels and chips, as well as sweets like pudding, cookies and candy bars. There’s also a small selection of organic items like milk and Clif Kidz bars.
On a recent visit, everyone – parents and children alike – appeared to be having a great time. The reason the place seems to strike such a chord with both demographics is that the owners designed a place they’d want to take their kids.
"As parents of two young children each, we can relate to the challenge of finding fun and affordable activities to do with your family," they wrote on their website. "Especially when taking our weather into consideration, there are never enough choices. We believe we have created a destination that will be enjoyable for children of multiple ages to visit time and time again. Too often what is fun for a 6-year-old is not fun or safe for a 2-year-old. You will find age appropriate activities for all of your young children with excellent visibility throughout the play area so you can comfortably supervise their safety."
I set my kids free to explore, grabbing a seat near the snack bar that affords view to all areas, and they had a blast, and played non-stop with nary a breather. Later, I asked if they liked it and they enthused that they liked it more than any other indoor play zone we’d visited. That’s saying a lot considering one of those other places had been a family favorite in our house.
The one thing they felt was lacking was "a bouncy house."
"We do not plan to add inflatables," Jahn says. "We have thought about getting one that we could bring out as an extra for parties but that gets us into a different type of government regulation that we would prefer to avoid. In addition, we have felt – and heard from customers – it is a differentiator for us to not have them. Less noise, more imaginary plan, and there are a lot of little kids that are afraid of them."
Like most such places, in addition to open play, The Big Backyard hosts parties, playgroups and field trips.
The Big Backyard is so well organized that it smacks of a national chain. But, says co-owner Christine Jahn, that’s not the case.
" The Big Backyard isn’t a franchise – it is the brainchild of myself and my business partner (Cindy Lofy)," she says.
"However, we are now offering it ourselves as a franchise opportunity. Over the years we have had so many people express an interest that we were inspired to do the work to be able to franchise. No takers yet but we’ll see what the future holds.
"We have put in long hours and lots hard work. There are great perks to owning a business but when someone calls in sick on a weekend and you have no other staff that can work, it is a bummer to give up family time. However, 5 years in we are feeling great about it. We now have a director of operations and two weekend managers so that the other owner and I don’t need to be in the building as much. It has been an adventure and I wouldn’t trade it."
The Big Backyard is open Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m.; Thursday-Friday, 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. It is open Mondays from January through mid-April, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. In summer, it’s open Tuesday-Friday, 9-3, with Saturdays and Sundays available for parties and special events.
All-day admission(readmission is allowed) is $8 for the first child and $7 for each sibling on weekdays. All kids are $9 each on Saturdays. Kids and adults are required to wear socks. No shoes are allowed in the play areas.
For more information call (262) 797-9117 or visit thebigbackyardwi.com/newberlin.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.