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Working in a SEN school, she was aware how many struggled to find places where they wouldn’t worry about feeling self-conscious or judged.
But just five days after TJ’s Play Ways began back in March, lockdown meant she was forced to close and put all her plans on hold.
Now with no date still for restrictions to be lifted for soft play, 31-year-old Natalie has completely reshaped her business, reopening as an internet gaming activity café for children of all ages.
“As a mum of three children with a wide age range – from 13 down to 7 months – I know how hard it can be to find somewhere to take them all, that they’ll all enjoy and won’t cost a fortune,” she says. “I also work in an SEN school, in Rowan Park, and I’ve got friends who’ve got children with autism and I noticed that whenever I was inviting them somewhere they’d say no because they couldn’t take one child.
“If, for instance, you have three kids and the oldest is autistic then you can’t take the youngest to most soft play centres because they’re just too big and too overwhelming so they often end up missing out.
“My original idea was to create somewhere smaller and SEN-friendly, with a sensory room, that had something for all children, where everyone was treated the same.”
After months of searching, Natalie found her ideal venue in the Stella Precinct and from the beginning of February she and her husband spent the next six weeks transforming it.
“We had all the soft play fitted and an amazing company called Greystone Coatings built our sensory room for free because Chris, the owner, liked what we were doing and said he wanted to help.
“We got everything done and ready for our opening on March 21 … then lockdown came in on March 26!”
Natalie admits the months of closure left her worrying that she might have lost her business before it had even really begun.
“I was such a new business that I had no idea how I was going to survive,” she says. “I was waiting for every government announcement, but soft play was never on the list to reopen. All the dates came and went and we weren’t included, so by the middle of July I knew I had to do something.
“I’d stayed in touch with the environmental health officer, and I took advice from Invest Sefton about how I could adapt.”
After coming up with the idea of an internet gaming activity café, Natalie spent the last of her government small business grant on a state-of-the-art Oculus Rift VR headset, TV and games consoles, and on changing all toys for younger children to Covid-safe ones. She took out the soft play equipment and soft furnishings, and refitted the kitchen to make everything Covid-compliant.
Now, having met all the standards at a Health & Safety inspection, and getting a five-star hygiene rating, Natalie has been able to reopen TJ’s Play Ways for private bookings, character breakfasts and a holiday club.
90-minute group bookings of up to six all have track and trace information taken, temperature checks on entry and there’s a Peppa Pig alarm which sounds every 15 minutes reminding children – and parents – to sanitise their hands.
The centre is cleaned in between each session and all hand-held contact plastic toys like Mega Bloks and train sets are rotated so they can be sterilised before every use.
Natalie says the response has already been really encouraging.
“It amazes me how well families are adapting to a new way of living and socialising,” she adds. “And I couldn’t have chosen a better place to do this because everyone, other businesses and parents, has been so supportive. Without them, this wouldn’t be possible.
“I’m proud to finally see what I worked so hard to create come to life. Opening a new business is hard work in general, and the added stress of Covid-19 only made me want to make my dream even more of a reality.”
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