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‘I just want it to be a safe haven’: Once Upon A Playhouse provides play center for children coming out of the pandemic

Growing up, Brittany Harris and her brother would gather chairs together and throw a sheet over them, immediately turning the configuration into a what they considered a “choo-choo” train in the middle of their mom’s dining room.

“I think there’s just something so magical about children still being able to utilize imagination, and you know, having their creative space just run and still enjoy the essence of being a child,” Harris said.

This was not the first time Harris allowed her imagination to run wild as 20 years later she is the founder of South Loop’s Once Upon a Playhouse, an event center for hosting children’s everyday play, field trips and parties located at 2028 S. Michigan Ave. The event center which features a pink and purple ball pit, a candy-themed moving carousel and colorful jungle gyms opened up one year ago but has had a slow rollout Harris says.

Harris opened Once Upon a Playhouse more than a year ago in September 2021, as Chicago businesses were easing back into normal working routine. Harris says she knows many parents are still concerned about bringing their children into spaces that might expose them to COVID-19 especially when in close proximity to other children.

“I am a mom who wants their children to play somewhere where it’s safe, somewhere where it is clean,” said Harris, a mom of a 5 and 12 year old. “We would love to get our [children] back to be able to develop those social and emotional skills [by] being able to play with other children in such a close proximity.”

Once Upon a Playhouse is hoping to see more visitors in the coming months after coming out of summer when many visitors want to be outside, said Lashawnda Harris, Brittany’s mom or “assistant mom” as she calls herself who left her corporate job at Grub Hub to help Brittany at Once Upon A Playhouse.

“They always say the first two years of your business are the roughest,” Lashawnda Harris said. “So it’s been good and bad. Now that it’s getting colder, fall brings structure back in the house where everybody goes back to work and kids go back to school and they are looking for something to do post summer, so I believe this is her busy season — the fall and the winter.”

Brittany Harris hopes to see Once Upon a Playhouse not only as a fun place, but one that could eventually turn into a community center within the South Loop community that can help children navigate the many challenges presented to youth today.

“I just want it to be a safe haven,” Harris said. “I want it to be a fun place where they can be creative, where they can have fun, but also a place [where] we can provide resources for them and I’m just one person. And I’m just trying my best to juggle this great responsibility that I’ve taken on and just form this into much more than an indoor playground for children. I want it to be so much more.”

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