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Giving District Kids a Place to Play

The scene at the Be With Me Playseum was chaos. 

A heat wave had struck Washington, and after only a week of operation, the Capitol Hill location was already receiving crowds.

Women in orange aprons ran up and down the stairs, shifting from the bakery to the pet shop to the children’s spa. An equipment deliveryman transported boxes down the stairs on a red trolley.

A mother at the front desk wanted enough Playseum dollars to buy a cupcake to decorate. Another mother with a baby on her hip asked to buy a monthlong pass.

But the various children roaming the place didn’t notice. One young girl couldn’t stop admiring her nails, which she had painted for one Playseum dollar in the spa. Another group stood enthralled in the pet shop, gingerly petting a rabbit that a worker had taken out of its cage, while a boy asked if he could buy a police officer’s outfit with Playseum dollars. 

In a city that can seem built only for adults, the Playseum at 545 Eighth St. SE is an oasis for children and their parents. The chaos and excitement of dozens of kids interacting with their parents and each other is just what owner Gina Seebachan once imagined.

The Playseum started years ago as an after-school club Seebachan hosted at her home. One day each week, she’d invite some of her daughters’ friends over to do simple crafts or science projects for a few hours. The club expanded to two days each week, and then one club for grade schoolers and one for middle schoolers. Seebachan said all she could think was, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could have more kids here?”

After her mother died of cancer, Seebachan was compelled to realize her dream.

“Three weeks after that, I was up one night and I didn’t stop writing, and I literally wrote out the entire layout of the Playseum,” she recalls. “And I wrote, ‘Be with me, Mom. The one wish I had is that you would’ve been with me more often.’”

Seebachan realized most child-recreation businesses in the city perpetuated a division between parents and kids by asking parents to drop their children off for the day. There wasn’t a place — aside from the occasional children’s museum — where parents could stay and play with their kids.

So she set off to check out every children’s museum within driving distance. She’d take her kids, then ranging in age from 2 to 11, and spend the day evaluating a museum. Afterward, Seebachan and her children would sit around the table at Starbucks and draw designs for a new type of children’s museum on napkins.

“I would let them engage in the process of creating their dream place,” she said.

And her kids would dream big. Her youngest daughter, now 9, always pushed to have a pet shop in the Playseum, and Seebachan said she tinkered with the plan dozens of times before it became a reality. 

“So when we finally got to the place where we had a building and where we could actually go buy pets and equipment, it was like my kids saw [their] dreams come true,” Seebachan said. That same daughter raised the pets in the pet shop at  the Bethesda, Md., Playseum location for three years before it opened, and she now loves to show them off whenever she’s there with her mother.

Seebachan said the best part of her venture is seeing her children believe in themselves. Her 11-year-old daughter recently went with a group of volunteers to help clean up after a hurricane in Alabama. Her eldest daughter, almost 15, is teaching English in China. That same daughter is also entrepreneurial and plans to build a cafe at her high school.

“She’ll do it in three years, and who am I to stop her? If she wants to do it, let’s do it,” Seebachan said. “And I was never like that.”

The entire process that brought the Bethesda Playseum, her original location, from idea to reality was a lesson in the entrepreneurial spirit for her kids. Seebachan and her family made the original Playseum happen without any financial backing — they held garage sales and bake sales and resold things they bought off Craigslist. Seebachan now offers room sponsorships to local businesses. In Bethesda, a local dentist sponsors a dentist room. In D.C., next-door restaurant Lavagna sponsors an Italian restaurant and pasta-making space. 

But even with sponsorships, she’s not sure how she manages to meet the bills each month with only a $6 admission fee for kids and adults. As a devout Christian, she said she prays a lot that she’ll make ends meet. 

But despite the fact that a kids’ museum might not be the most lucrative entrepreneurial endeavor, Seebachan said it always has been important to her to give to charity.

“Children here, their greatest need, as we saw it, is more quality time with Mom and Dad. The greatest need in children’s lives in other countries is the simple basics of clean food and water, shelter and knowing that they’re not going to get trafficked,” she said.

Part of the Playseum’s mission is to fulfill the needs of children near and far. A portion of the proceeds from the Bethesda location — $1,500 each month, as long as she can pay her bills, regardless of how much or little profit is left — is sent to a charity in India to support Christian orphanages. And a room in the Capitol Hill location will be themed around a Hamar village in Ethiopia to teach children about the lack of resources in that country. All proceeds from the crafts in this room will go to a nonprofit in Ethiopia that helps the Hamar people gain access to clean water and education.

But for the kids, it’s all about fun. The D.C. Playseum is themed around the District, offering an Eastern Market-themed room and a canoe sitting on a felt Potomac River in one downstairs area. Families can do free crafts in one room and can pay Playseum dollars to paint ceramics, birdhouses and tiles and to mold clay in another. There are dress-up activities, a pirate ship and even a DNA test and fingerprinting in the courtroom-cum-jail. The location even boasts a Chinatown.

“We like to say that we sell by attention span,” Seebachan said, noting that they try to have something for everyone. Even at the pasta-making and cupcake-decorating stations, Seebachan offers dairy-free options.

And in every room, on bookshelves lining the walls, sit new and used books that follow the room’s theme. Parents can pick up a book to read to their children or purchase ones that catch their eye.

“Reading has become a lost art,” Seebachan said. “Kids are doing stuff on the computer, they’re doing stuff on their iPods, their iPads, but they’re not picking up an old-fashioned book anymore. And kids are missing out on that.”

Part of the purpose of the Playseum, too, is to provide parents with a respite — a place where they can rest while they spend time with their kids or even meet other parents in D.C.

Seebachan said she doesn’t want to increase the price, a move that would raise more money and also make the Playseum a little more exclusive.

 “It’s not about money. It never was,” she said. “It’s about bringing love and value to every person that walks in the door. People are coming from all different racial backgrounds, economic backgrounds, physical backgrounds, spiritual. … Every person deserves to be valued, and they deserve respect.”

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