Article by Drew Kramer for Scarsdale Moms
On a warm October afternoon in Scarsdale, the “Meritage shopping center” on Weaver is buzzing. Above the hum of lunchers gossipping at Standing Room Only, a new community grows. Community of Play, founded by Scarsdale mom, play therapist and special educator Gabrielle Felman, is a new place for families to engage their children in supported, but child-led play experiences. As Felman puts it, “the kids own the space. The space doesn’t own the kids.” Executed in a palette of blonde wood and soft colors that won’t overstimulate, the flexibly designed location supports children’s natural inclination to engage in gross motor, sensory and pretend play. The space features an impressive gym replete with swings and multiple climbing zones, a massive art and sensory play studio stocked with every material parents love to avoid at home – and a coffee and snack bar built for co-working and connection. Whether you come to Community of Play for individual child therapy, free play, a class or a parent coaching event, families will grow from Felman’s unique vision for child development built through decades supporting children through play.
Felman’s story begins as a child in Westchester, gravitating to the children in her Chappaqua neighborhood. At Boston University, she majored in psychology and journalism, believing that the pairing of human development and investigative writing would be an excellent precursor to a career helping people grow. After graduation, Felman enrolled in Bank Street College of Education to get her teaching degree in early childhood and special education. Beginning her first placement in Bank Street’s Family Center in 2005 and continuing there until 2020, Bank Street’s philosophy of meeting students “where they are” became the ethos that Felman brings to everything she touches. This approach served Felman as a teacher, SEIT, Early Intervention diagnostician–and as she carved out her own therapeutic practice. After graduating with a masters degree in social work from Columbia University, she combined her work and personal experience with Columbia Prespyterian’s NICU to launch Bank Street’s program for infants and toddlers that are medically fragile – and the families often traumatized from this journey. To Felman, no matter the circumstances, “we use play to build skills. By curating materials that suit the child’s developmental place, we can observe, create challenges that meet them there, and then raise them to the next level.”
In the Summer of 2019, as she moved from Manhattan to Scarsdale, Felman added community building to her laundry list of accomplishments. At the dawn of the pandemic, with schools closed and parents suffering from 24/7 childcare, Felman emerged as a community leader. First, as an advisor to Lovevery, a children’s toy brand that inspires the kind of open-ended play for which Felman is a passionate advocate. At the same time, she began to support struggling young families through Zoom parenting groups. As the pandemic guidelines eased, she moved her groups to Westchester Reform Temple (WRT), bringing her brand of open ended play and real-time parent coaching to the real world. As Felman describes, “we sit on the floor, being present with our children, learning to deal with the challenges of the moment while in the moment.”
Observing the impact she made at WRT, Felman sought a space of her own to bring play-based learning to a wider Westchester audience. Community of Play will host developmentally appropriate, open-ended play groups to support children and their families from infancy through middle childhood (currently birth to 8 years old). At infancy, open play will focus on Tummy Time, offering babies and their caretakers the expertise of a physical therapist who can help children and their parents tolerate being on the floor. Infancy is a challenging time for caretakers. The class will also support womens’ mental health in the first 6 months after pregnancy.
For children of preschool and elementary age, Felman observes that “kids don’t have the opportunity to play because of their other obligations and commitments.” In open play, kids will learn executive functioning skills, taking turns in conversation, conflict resolution, and how to insert oneself in group play. During each session, Felman creates situations that create the skills we want them to build. She wants to prepare children for the unstructured play situations that create anxiety and insecurity on the playground. Says Felman, “recess can be the hardest for kids.” Particularly after years of disrupted socialization, children struggle to insert themselves into a game. Through open play and social programming like Social Skills Superheroes, children learn to accept each other’s ideas and to be kind.
In addition to her open play concept, Felman launches Community of Play as host to two independently operating children’s classes that share her commitment to open ended sensory experience. Abby Spivak’s process-focused art class, Happy Place Art, brings children back to the basics of making art for art’s sake. Her class gives children access to materials and the freedom to make something of their own, building self-regulation skills and confidence for kids regardless of whether they are naturally artistic. Likewise, Tara Sussman of Tara Sussman Yoga teaches self-regulation through mindfulness and body movement. Connecting the body and breath in a playful and age appropriate way, Sussman gives children the tools to help with conflict resolution and stress relief.
In this achievement-driven county, Community of Play hopes to be a landmark that meets you where you are today. Felman’s twenty plus years of experience enhances development by giving children the freedom to explore the world without the pressure of results. And I am here for that.
Community of Play, located at 1495 Weaver Street in Scarsdale, opens its doors in October of 2023 and will be rolling out weekend open play shortly thereafter, starting at 8AM. Click here for more information and to sign up for Fall semester classes. Missed the start date? Classes are prorated from the date of sign up.