Rocking Cirencester With: Caroline Bevan

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Continuing our series of Rocking interviews we caught up with Caroline Bevan who is the owner and director of Rugrats and Half Pints play centre in Cirencester. Following a career in the service sector, Caroline established her first play centre in Banbury after becoming a mum relatively late in life. Caroline opens up about the difficulties of being a new mum and the importance to both children and parents of having somewhere to go to take some time for yourself.

What motivated you to set up your first Rugrats and Half Pints play centre in Banbury?

My motivation came very much from my own experience of motherhood, both the importance for my children to have a stimulating and fun play environment but also how important it is for parents or carers, for new mums in particular, to have that social contact and a place to relax.

When I first met my husband, I knew he didn’t want children and he and I were very career focussed. Then amazingly, over a decade later, he changed his mind and we agreed to leave it to fate to decide, fate decided quickly and I was pregnant with our son, 3 months later. As this was my opportunity to finally be a mum, I wanted to be the best mum ever! I promised myself that I would do everything in my power to stimulate my baby and ensure he had every opportunity available to make him a happy, healthy child.

When Aran arrived in April, I was a bit blown away by the reality of being responsible for such a tiny baby. As much as I loved my child, I felt pressure to be a new person with a sense of purpose in life and loads of coffee mornings to go to. All my friends were at work so who could I have coffee with? Every evening my husband would come home from work and ask that innocent question that I came to dread, “So how was your day?” The reality was that I had changed the baby 3 times as he had either thrown up or done one of those liquid poos which meant hosing him down – all before 11 am! He was lucky I managed to get dressed!

I wanted to go out and find new friends that I could talk to keep me sane, I felt guilty that I wasn’t really fulfilling the needs of my baby and sometimes all I wanted was 5 minutes of adult conversation that didn’t involve babies. I would drive for 40 minutes each way to a local soft play centre to seek out other “like minded” mums but I found these centres had nothing for the babies to do and most of the babies were toddlers or the second baby. These mums often didn’t remember what it was like as a first time mum and all the anxiety that entails and I rarely had the opportunity to meet anyone.

I went to toddler groups and made friends but these groups were only on for a couple of hours one day a week, all on a Monday morning! Wasn’t anyone co-ordinating these groups so we had somewhere to go every day of the week? The boredom of trying to do something active with my baby the other days was a killer and I walked for miles around every National Trust House I could find.

I am a naturally gregarious person, being Irish, I still found it hard difficult to meet people at these toddler groups. I found being a mum the hardest job in the world and a time when women need support but instead of rallying around each other, these groups were full of cliques and frankly hard to break into. I thought to myself, how difficult must it be to meet other mums if you’re shy!

I was lucky that there was an autistic centre near me that opened its doors once a month to mums and I would relish the opportunity to experience the sensory equipment but my baby always cried. Later he got an eye infection, which lead him to an overnight stay in hospital and they had a bubble tube. My son absolutely loved it. He sat there for hours watching it and I suddenly realised that the black environment at the sensory centre was too much stimulation for my child and he preferred a white background. The gem of my idea was born…

I wanted to create a venue where mums with young babies could meet, stimulate their babies and get that 5 minutes of adult time. There would be no cliques to experience and open 7 days a week so that you can get there, when you are able to! It had to be nicer than other soft play centres as I wanted it to be a place mums wanted to come to, to relax and get a decent cup of coffee and cake. And it had to be clean. No smell of chip fat! I put a lot of thought into the design and layout of the sensory area, so it encouraged mums to talk to each other, as they sat facing each other at the podiums.

I originally started wanting a café with some sensory equipment, but before I knew it, the idea grew as the amount of equipment I wanted needed more space to justify it. And then what if mum has two siblings – then I need to keep them entertained whilst mum was busy with the baby. So, after months and months of pushing my baby and buggy around industrial units, I finally found my site in Banbury. It had a large area which would fit the sensory equipment, a spacious café and play equipment for the older children. The end result, was what my accountant jokingly described as the “Waitrose” version of soft play.

And to open a second play centre in Cirencester?

Rugrats in Banbury had been a success and I now had a management team running the centre which was reducing my need to be on site. Over the years, I had had one staff disaster after another and lost my confidence to set up the chain of Rugrats centres that I had always dreamed of. I found I was doing the accounts at home and missing what I really enjoy – talking to my customers and “cooing” over the babies. I had developed the centre as much as I could and expanded the play area to its maximum, so there was no challenge left.

I went to work for a recruitment company as an Office Manager and was bored. I found myself doing the entire role in the first hour of the day! As luck would have it, I received details of a soft play centre that was up for sale in Carterton in my post. For a bit of fun, I decided to do a competitor analysis and came across the Magicland website. I viewed it for a good 20 minutes before I realised that it had gone into liquidation and contacted them immediately to ask if there was a business opportunity. Two days later, I got a response! It was 4:50 on Friday afternoon, informing me that if I wanted it, I had to make an offer by 10:00 am Monday.

It didn’t leave me a lot of time but I raced down to Cirencester on the Sunday to see the unit and saw how tired it was looking. I went to a local pub in Siddington for lunch and spoke to the barman about Magicland and how it was perceived in the community. He told me how important it was as a facility for the Cirencester children and how sorely it was missed. He pointed out some children in the pub and suddenly, I knew that I could not let this opportunity go and let down the children. I knew what the other local soft play centres were like, having taken my children to them years ago and thought, what I am offering is different to everyone else.

Parents were naturally disappointed when Magicland suddenly closed its doors, it’s great that Rugrats and Half Pints was able to open so quickly in its place. What changes have you made to the space since taking over?

We had three weeks to turn Magicland around so that we were able to open for the Easter holidays. In that time, we had to completely refurbish the centre.

In my mind, the layout of the centre was not correct and areas such as the toddler frame blocked the parents view of their children and restricted the amount of seating available. The party rooms were not private and felt like little pens containing the party guests in. The soccer area was badly damaged and was a health and safety risk. The cannon balls didn’t seem to work and were taking up a lot of space.

I redesigned the centre so that we could keep the babies and toddlers to one side of the unit and put the café seating in between so it would create a natural barrier to the older children and stop them invading the baby area.

We introduced a new baby sensory area including bubble tubes, infinity tunnels, activity boards and touch walls. We also introduced swings for the babies. For the toddlers, we built a brand new toddler frame and put in a lot of new features like ball jugglers and activity boards. Monday to Friday, we have Little Tyke Cars, DidiCars and Rollers for them to use on a track.

For the older children, we removed the soccer pitch and instead replaced it with 3 standard trampolines and 3 wall trampolines. These have however proved extremely popular with all age groups. We refurbished the frame and introduced some new features like tyre swings, a donut swing, disco area, perspex floors and lot of bash bags. At the weekends, we have Go Karts, which are very popular.

For parties, we have introduced private wooden chalets which are decorated with fairy lights. We have kept these plain so that parents can decorate the huts to the specific theme of their party. Outside we provide reserved seating so the parents can socialise whilst the children play.

And finally, for the parents, we have created a much nicer café area and put radiant gas heating over the café area to keep the parents warm. We have sofa areas and comfortable tub chairs. We also changed all the lighting to make the centre look much brighter and cleaner. We redecorated the bathrooms. Throughout, we have put in some nice touches like plants to break up the industrial look of the unit and even some funky grass in the reception area.

What change are you most proud of and why?

I am most proud of the sensory area for the babies and take huge delight when I see babies as young as 8 weeks kicking their legs in excitement at the equipment. People don’t realise that babies can enjoy these facilities and are amazed at how the babies react.

The equipment we have introduced teaches the babies different things like “response and reaction” – i.e. press on the touch wall and the lights come on creating different patterns depending on the programme chosen. The children love the latest addition to the area where they put wooden balls into the board and the balls cascade down.

We get a lot of special needs children using the area and its wonderful seeing their faces light up when they see the bubble tubes, in particular the tube with wooden fish in. It engages them and it provides a calming environment for them – especially the autistic children.

I also see the joy that this area brings to the new mums. This is an area where it forces the mums to sit quite close together as they use the equipment and its impossible for them not to strike up a conversation. Only today, I heard of one lady who has struck up a new friendship – and that makes me realise that I have been successful at achieving my objective – giving a mum 5 minutes of adult time, without guilt.

You have so many fantastic facilities for children but why do you think parents should come to Rugrats and Half Pints?

For the new mums, its an opportunity to meet another mum with a young baby and strike up a conversation that may lead to a long-lasting friendship. Plus, of course, their baby is being stimulated with all the lovely things we provide.

For the other parents and carers, we have created an area where their children can play safely and enjoy a wide range of play equipment including the trampolines. The adults can relax in the warm café area or on the sofas and catch up on some “me” time. We are working hard to make this unit a pleasing and pleasant place to be – rather than somewhere that you traditionally “endured”. We offer a great cup of coffee and cakes and are complimented on our food offering.

What plans to do you have going forwards?

I still want to improve the facilities that are there by expanding the frame even further and introducing some new slides to the centre. We also want to improve the week day offering by including a lot more classes for the children, like music, dance and movement.

I also need to improve the flow of the café area and are looking at new designs for the café serving area. If possible, I want to introduce more natural light into the centre by putting in windows, this will be subject to planning approval which is unfortunately not always straightforward.

How do you feel Rugrats and Half Pints adds value to Cirencester and the surrounding area?

Rugrats and Half Pints is offering a service that is not available anywhere else in the Cotswold area. Our soft play centre, unlike any other soft play centre, focusses heavily on babies and toddlers. It gives mums with young babies an outlet to go to, to meet other mums where there won’t be any cliques and no time pressures. They can interact with their babies on a much more meaningful level and watch their babies develop before their eyes.

We also aim to provide a quality service to the community and meet the needs of the local children for somewhere to play. We are working hard to improve the offering as much as possible so that the area can be proud of its soft play and this will also bring in visitors from other areas also seeking this unique offering.

What is your impression of Cirencester since owning a business here?

I think Cirencester is an amazing town and was surprised at how beautiful it is. I love the centre of town with the old church and the range of shops available, from small independents to larger chains. It has a feel of Henley or Marlow about it.

The people of Cirencester have been brilliant and very welcoming of my ideas. I love taking the time to chat with my customers and I find them to be engaging, informative and full of ideas to improve the centre further. I am amazed at how friendly everyone is and how supportive they are.

What does a typical day with your own children look like nowadays?

My children are now at secondary school so it always starts with the mad dash to get them to the bus stop in time. Now they are teenagers, that’s getting harder and harder as they need more sleep. Or so they tell me!

I am juggling afterschool classes like rowing and trampolining so my biggest role is as a taxi service and somehow fitting in the preparation of their evening meal.

Homework is now beyond me but I try hard – I mean, who uses algebra these days? I was never taught sciences at school, only domestic science, which is laughable as I can’t sew or cook properly and I can only follow a recipe. Now my children are learning Spanish and German at school where I was forced to learn Gaelic – that language that’s used everywhere!

My children’s needs are changing rapidly and it’s very different to my own childhood. Trying to support your children through the maze of social media and how it affects their mental health. Even dating is now much more demanding with expectations of their relationships resembling what I experienced in my late teens. It’s a whole new world where children don’t socialise in person, its all over a headphone. Now my greatest role is to just be here, to support them and talk to them as grown-ups.

Thank you so much Caroline for taking the time to speak to us and your openess and honesty about the difficulties of being a new parent.

Caroline Bevan is the Owner and Director of Rugrats and Half Pints Sensory and Soft Play centres in Banbury and Cirencester. You can find more details through their website or follow them on Facebook or Instagram. Caroline can also be found in Rugrats having a coffee and cooing over new babies when she has a free 5 minutes.