While there are many indoor play centers scattered throughout the area, the new Scramble facility that just opened in a new building built to its specs on E. Fairfax Dr. works to provide a unique experience with it’s “European-style” play. Owner Laurence Smallman opened a second location of the highly popular play center a few months ago here in Falls Church.
But what does “European-style” mean? According to Smallman, there are a few things that go into this. “It isn’t just that the equipment is made in Europe,” he said. “It’s more to do with the way in which the equipment and the play areas are laid out in the available space. That there’s a natural progression in order as to where children at different ages play. When you have an open play area with children at different ages, obviously you’re going to get a mixing of those different aged children. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but sometimes, you know, bigger kids run faster than little kids. And we’re cognizant of that. We’re aware of that. So we want to try and provide safety for those people with younger children. That’s why, for example, the sensory area has got a gate. There’s signage up there that older children can read saying about the age range.”
The age range for Scramble goes from five months to 12 years. When you walk into the play area, you can see the progression— from a sensory area for younger children with colorful changing lights and a ball pit, all the way to the four-story main frame for older children.
Additionally, the cafe is at the heart of the building. With reasonable prices and delicious, locally-sourced food, it’s clear that it isn’t an afterthought and is central to the overall experience. The pork used for the tacos comes from Maryland and the coffee is roasted in Annandale. Alcoholic drinks are also sold at the location in Alexandria, with beers from Port City Brewing Company and Smallman is currently working on obtaining an ABC license for the Falls Church location.
“So we’re selling local food, local drinks, and we’re also selling at very reasonable prices that aren’t like movie popcorn pricing,” said Smallman. “So the European style is the idea that the family and experience as a family, eating together, enjoying the food is central to the day out. It isn’t just a day out for the kids.”
Scramble puts an emphasis on both physical play, such as running and climbing, and cognitive play, which involves using your imagination and being creative. After many months spent at home and learning online, play is more important now than ever.
Smallman wanted to bring the concept back to the Northern Virginia area after visiting his brother and his family overseas. His children played for many hours and Smallman began to wonder why nothing like this existed in America.
After returning home, he began developing a business plan answering the question “why doesn’t this style of play center exist in the states?”
Scramble in Alexandria was the first play center of it’s kind in America and Scramble in Falls Church is the largest, with a building built from scratch with the purpose of becoming a play center in mind.
The Falls Church location opened in August in a new building built by the Young Group, which has a long-term lease on the land from the Falls Church Episcopal Church across the street, with the health and safety of guests as a top priority. Thirty percent of the air in the building is always fresh air from outside. An electrostatic sprayer is used to disinfect surfaces, the chemical used is CDC approved, killing Covid within 10 minutes of the initial spray and stays on surfaces for 72 hours. Masks are required for unvaccinated guests but are allowed to be removed when playing if allowed by the caretaker in accordance with local health regulations.
In addition to regular play hours each day of the week, Scramble also offers an after school camp program Monday through Friday until 6:30 p.m. including early release days and teacher professional days. Freshly made snacks are provided to each child and time is made both for play and homework, including a private room to complete work without distraction.
The theme of the play center is “water, land, air and space”, starting with water on the bottom level of the main frame and scenes of Hawaii in the sensory area. As you move up the main frame, the scenes around you change.
For older children, bits of educational information are scattered throughout the main frame with topics such as Christopher Columbus, westward expansion and climate change.
“I don’t know whether a child playing here will in any way absorb the idea that they’re even on sea, land, air or space,” said Smallman. “But they may get a sense of some of these things because the brain will file it away.”
An additional feature unique to Scramble is the inclusion of a bookstore. The bookstore is located right in the entrance of the building and is one of the largest suppliers of Usborne Books, a British publishing house, on the east coast. There are books available corresponding with the wide age range of children visiting the play center and are all educational while still being interactive and fun to read and look at.
Smallman believes that play is innate to humans and important for development. He is incredibly passionate about creating a unique play experience that both children and their caretakers will want to return to.
“Over time, if you were growing up with this system, I wouldn’t have to explain to you how valuable cognitive play is, you would notice,” says Smallman. “And I’ve had parents say to me ‘oh, my child is far more or he explores more on his own. You know, we, um, instead of now encouraging him, we just have to, we have to watch out and hold it back.’ And of course, some of that could be anecdotal. Some of it could be, that’s just how children develop at an age. And of course you can’t differentiate the two, except that there’s a huge amount of research that shows that the more we play and the better the quality of the play, the more we develop. And it is obvious if it plays developmental, it is then the more we play, the more development we’re going to do the better, the quality of the play, the better that, the nature of that development.”
Scramble is located at 130 E. Fairfax St. adjacent the Southgate Village Shoppes. To find out more about Scramble and book a visit, check out their website at https://goscramble.com/.