A mom of two young boys, Courtney Gault “lived many lives” before settling in Riverside with her family. This New York City transplant has master’s degrees in art and education, and she’s worked in e-commerce and marketing, including a stint with the Yankees. But her true passion is helping kids and families. Her many talents helped her to hatch a new business during the pandemic, a company that builds creative play spaces for kids. These custom-designed play areas are not only well organized and good looking but also smart, educational and developmentally on point. We caught up with Courtney to find out more about her business and her ingredients for setting up an amazing place for kids to play.
What were you doing before starting Greenwich Play?
I taught kindergarten and freelanced in early childhood special education, intervention and services for preschoolers who needed extra support in the classroom and at home. When we moved out of the city, I started seeing preschool age kids one-on-one and founded Greenwich Play Company, designing educational programs that were implemented by using play methods, helping with things like number and letter recognition. I was really busy but had to stop working while I was pregnant and on bed rest with my second son. The week I was getting back to seeing students, everything shut down. People still wanted my help, asking, ‘What can we do at home? What can we do to make it better?’ So, I was sending recommendations for materials, furniture, toy storage solutions, and it spiraled into a need.
Are most of your clients here in Greenwich?
During the pandemic I was doing a lot of virtual work, and now I do both virtual and in-home. I mastered the virtual formula, so I’ve been able to work everywhere from Florida to Texas to California.
When did you first see the need for a more educational play space?
It started with the families whose children I was working with one-on- one. For example, a five-year-old boy and his family lived in this beautiful house in Old Greenwich where the family room was connected to the kitchen and breakfast room, but the way that it was set up didn’t function for him. He couldn’t get the materials he wanted, open things up and explore and clean up after himself. It was an obstacle course. I created a space that works for him and also looks good and feels right for the rest of the family.
Describe how a good playroom works. What are the ingredients?
It depends on who your children are, what interests them, how they learn as well as what your family’s needs are. But the basic recipe is Safety, Accessibility, Organization and Materials. If it’s not safe, the space may as well not be there. It’s not about avoiding every accident under the sun. But you can address loose wires, things not affixed to the walls, stairs not having gates. As far as accessibility, the Human Rights Accessibility Act made it mandatory for handicapped bathrooms to be everywhere, and it’s sort of the same mentality for children. They need to be able to access their space or they are handicapped. One way I help is with custom labels for all my projects that show both the word and the picture. If I say to my son William, ‘Put the dinosaurs away,’ he knows where they go, because there’s a picture on the bin. I set him up for success; and I’m helping myself, because he will clean up. We are inundated with toys and materials, but it’s really about scaling back to the basics: pretend play, building, sensory, arts and crafts. You really only need these few things and ideas to make it all work.
Describe a favorite playroom you’ve designed.
A fully furnished basement in Old Greenwich in a newer construction home—it’s half-playroom for kids and half-billiards, darts and wet bar for the grown-ups, merged together by a sitting area with a television. It works so well for the whole family. The best part is that under the stairs, which had a closet with a light, we turned into a playhouse. We cut a little door and window, shingled it, created a roof, painted and put in a mailbox. The parents love it so much, maybe more than the kids. The dad who was originally against doing it is obsessed with it. Even the guys who helped me build it were playing with it.
How do you handle screens?
That’s one of my intake questions. Do you want a TV in the room? I have a four-and-a-half year old and a two-and-a-half-year-old, and they don’t use iPads. Other kids we know fall asleep holding them. I always say put the TV in a room for the grown-ups. The playroom should be a place for creativity and imagination. But some people use their family room as a playroom, and it’s a given that the screen is in there. In that case there’s got to be a set time for TV. My kids are very early risers, so they watch TV before breakfast. In our family room, I have drawers filled with books, sticker books and cars so my little ones can go in there and grab them. For families who hire me for really big projects, I wind up doing some behavior work, creating schedules and systems.
Tell us about the charity you’re supporting.
Welcome Baby is an organization that provides packages to low-income families welcoming newborns. In each box is everything the family needs for the first four weeks, like soap and onesies. We donated a board book to go in every box. My feeling is that literacy is a necessity. We donated the Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton and 1,100 copies of Good Night, Good Night Construction Site. We brought the program to Stamford Hospital and have a huge effort out here, making it more visible in Fairfield County.
How do families react after an install?
I have clients who say, “You cannot believe what has happened, what a difference it makes,” and I love hearing that.