In a playroom tucked off Palm Valley Road, sunlight filters through the east-facing windows, knocking colorful light off of snowflakes adorning the ceiling onto light wood floors.
The membership-based space, aptly dubbed “Pod,” is one of nostalgic whimsy. Notably absent are the battery-operated toys and bumper-framed computer tablets that parents, teachers and toy stores have opted for in recent times. In their place are specially fashioned, multi-purpose wood furnishings: a low-lying table and bench, a step stool that flips into a rocking boat and a miniature jungle gym dot the open area, encouraging simple play, organizational skills and discovery. The philosophy is what makes Pod, the brainchild of Ponte Vedra resident and owner Krystina Nelson, decidedly unique.
“Pod stands for ‘play, organize, discover,’” Nelson explained. “And that’s exactly what I want kids here to do – they organize their thoughts both physically and emotionally and discover wellness, new information and new ways to utilize their bodies in an environment of play.”
Nelson says the experience is one meant to allow caregivers to let go of distractions and have an experience with their children. First conceptualized after her own twins turned 2 years old, Pod was created to act as a community outreach as much as a playroom. Nelson realized it could also give parents and caregivers in similar circumstances to socialize. With her background in teaching, Nelson naturally gravitated toward a profession in the realm of childcare to fill a need in her community – a place for babies and young children to play as they engaged in preschool preparation.
“We haven’t really had anything quite like this here,” she said. “With the change in climate and the rapid building and development of the community, I started thinking of how many young families in this immediate region needed a place to build relationships with one another and encourage unstructured play. This is something convenient and close to home.”
That unstructured play component is arguably the most important, Nelson said, as it fosters the innate need for children to be creative. It also explains why her selection of finely made toy furnishings errs on the side of simple.
“Unstructured play is just such a vital aspect because as society shifts, we are so overscheduled,” Nelson said. “But kids have an inherent, intrinsic need to create and we must nurture that as parents and caregivers – so there’s no boundaries here, just open-ended activities and creative work, art and thinking and endless experiences to see what they’re capable of.”
Since opening in November of last year, Nelson’s vision of the center has continued to grow. More than just a play zone, Pod offers a variety of activities bolstered by the expertise of professionals. Among them are a dance class for baby-wearers, wherein new moms work with a master trainer on toning and strengthening; storytelling movement implementing the Reggio method of learning; and a ballet and tap dance for toddlers aged 2-4 years old. Nelson has also been working alongside local art teachers to launch a summer art camp and with Jacksonville Beach-based nonprofit Bach to Rock to cultivate a full curriculum music education program. In addition, Pod will house art classes in the spring, sign language classes taught by a certified educator from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind and workshops for parents and caregivers.
It’s Nelson’s hope that the services Pod offers to members will facilitate not only learning for children but also space for parents to have time to build bonds with their children. Implementing programs that will allow them time with one another as they build creative and verbal skills, develop problem-solving abilities and dexterity, the curriculum will be tailored as the community evolves to better fit more needs.
In doing so, Nelson is compelled to create a positive framework for children to confidently develop healthy learning patterns, even as Pod becomes a distant memory as they grow.
“It truly takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “When children grow up, they may not know where they learned how to feel confident or how to work through problems, but I want them to feel confident that somewhere they learned that there’s a place where they can feel safe and loved and be themselves.”