‘Here, your joyful noises are welcome’
Wendy Leigh’s son Tony is nonverbal, with multiple medical diagnoses. Autism is one.
Now 8, Tony was 6 when he used his iPad and YouTube Kids to show his mother the things he likes.
“He likes parks and swings and bouncy houses and jungle gyms,” Leigh said, “and I just felt bad because I couldn’t take him to these places, because he would go up and he would hide because he was scared with all the music and the super-high ceilings and all the kids, and it was just too much for him.”
Last October she opened Tony’s Place, an autism and special needs gym, at Northtown Mall in Blaine, where she lives with her three children. Leigh opened a second, larger location on Sept. 1 at Burnsville Center.
“We’re not apologizing for autistic behavior. Here, your joyful noises are welcome,” said Leigh, a human resources professional who has kept a consulting job on the side as she builds her businesses. “You don’t have to apologize to anybody for biting your shirt, or have to explain why someone is falling down on the floor and having a seizure. So what? We’re inclusive and welcoming of everybody with any ability. I think it’s time.”
Play places in malls and other settings are “wonderful for neurotypical kids,” but children like Tony run on an “unpredictable schedule” driven by their “inability to regulate,” Leigh said.
“So we had to plan our outings as a family around Tony’s behavior and how Tony was feeling, and it takes a big toll on a family,” she said. “You can’t go anywhere.”
Tony’s Place is filled with play equipment that supports gross motor activities for people of all abilities and is tactilely and visually stimulating, in a rainbow of primary colors.
The fee is $12 per user for up to two hours, Leigh said. Children must be supervised.
At least 1,500 families have visited the 4,200-square-foot Tony’s Place in Blaine, she said. Her new space is 13,000 square feet in a former shoe store on the top level of Burnsville Center.
CBL Properties, the center’s manager and part-owner, and other brokers visited her Northtown location to recruit Tony’s Place for their vacant retail spaces, Leigh said.
“I think they’re all looking for solutions to revive or increase foot traffic at the mall,” she said. “This is a destination.”
The centerpiece of Tony’s Place in Burnsville is the Kangaroo Jumper, an air-filled, orange and blue jumping pillow with room for many.
“It’s for adults, for kids, for everyone,” Leigh said.
The gym has a variety of swings, including one that will hold a wheelchair of up to 1,200 pounds, and a spinning “platform swing” of the kind often found in children’s therapy centers.
“What’s more joyful to a kid than a swing set? I can’t think of anything,” Leigh said.
There are foam blocks for building things, a wood-framed “fort builder” and plastic discs of various textures for children to stand on.
A “busyboard” is full of wheels, gears, puzzle pieces, a horn to honk and bells to be rung.
“It’s all about sensory and being able to feel the different textures,” Leigh said.
There are books, bean bags, peanut balls and bubble tubes that make a noise when you pull them apart.
“I had a bubble wrap wall at Tony’s Place up in Northtown, but I ran out of bubble wrap,” Leigh said,. “I’m always taking bubble wrap if people want to give it.”
The Burnsville location also has a chill-out zone. Children can rest on climbing equipment or bean bags and be calmed by watching jets of water in bubble tube walls with multicolored lighting or images projected onto screens.
Leigh assembles and sells “sensory rooms” through her business, called Inclusive Play Places. Tony’s Place includes a retail section with a variety of products.
Tony’s Place is the only business of its kind in Minnesota, she said.
“It’s like a huge, fun waiting room to go to therapy,” Leigh said. “But the kids don’t see it as additional therapy, they just see it as fun.”
Tony’s Place at Burnsville Center is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit inclusiveplayplaces.org or call 763-786-1988.