If you have never been to New York, just know that the catchy pop jingles and glamorized television shows are lying to you. The subways are hard to navigate, everyone moves so quickly, and it is painfully cold in the wintertime. I recently visited the concrete jungle and decided to check out The Wonder, the trendy members-only playground in Tribeca. It took me over an hour to get there because I kept taking the wrong subway line, but as soon as I entered the space, my anxiety immediately melted away. When juxtaposed with the eruptive streets outside, The Wonder feels like being enveloped in a warm comforting hug. Think the Museum of Ice Cream meets Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
The 8,000-square-foot space was designed by a set designer and it is hard not to be blown away by the attention to detail and execution. The play space is currently designed to look like the inside of a comic book (it changes quarterly) complete with little superhero capes. The battle for good and evil continues in the foam pit which is far more hygienic than the plastic ball pits of my youth. Meanwhile, parents lounge in a parents-only room catching up on work.
Membership includes programming like neon yoga, drag-queen storytime, tarot card readings, lightsaber battles and field trips to Lincoln Center as part of a partnership with American Ballet Theatre. At $450 a month, membership does not come cheap, but the amenities are well worth it. A Dyson-powered stroller detailing station greets you when you walk in, and the bathrooms are stocked with Coterie organic diapers and beauty products from Beautycounter and Evereden. Each bathroom stall has its own kitschy wallpaper design of dinosaurs, unicorns and other animals.
I think back to my own childhood spent running around in various McDonald’s jungle gyms and wonder what I would have been like if I spent my time reading books curated by @thereadingninja. Would I have grown up to be the same person or would I have been someone far more cultured who drinks tea with her pinky up? I spend the next few hours bummed that life does not offer a reset button.
Founders Noria Morales and Sarah Robinson are nostalgic for the past: That uninterrupted family bingo night without screens. Playing outside after dinner, catching fireflies in jars, or drawing on the sidewalk with chalk. They noticed a gap in the market, so they set out to create The Wonder, whose philosophy revolves around bringing joy to families. I sat down with the two of them to discuss why they built the space, parenting tips, homework and life growing up in the suburbs.
Q: What has changed in the world since you were children?
Noria Morales: The world feels way more turbo. When I was a kid, life was way more unstructured. We both went to public school. I never even thought about extracurricular activities or what I had to do to prep for college until I was 18 and applying to college.
Sarah Robinson: Analog glory. The house I grew up in had one rotary dial telephone in the kitchen on the wall. No one was ever being interrupted at the family dinner table with a “Can I just send this quick text?”
Q: Considering your parents did not put in nearly as much thought into your development. How do you two think you turned out to be so successful?
NM: That is the age-old question. I think we underestimate the individual drive of a human being. I think no matter what we do for our kids if they don’t have drive or ambition nothing is going to happen no matter how much you set the path.
SM: Part of it is nature and part of it is nurture, but I think the biggest part is nurture. This is going to make me cry but when I worked at MAC cosmetics there was this wonderful woman in IT who would help me fix my computer and we would have these chats. One time she told me: “I could tell you were raised with a lot of love.” And we weren’t having these deep conversations or anything; it was just our interactions at work. I think that making sure your children feel loved gives them a greater chance at success — whatever success looks like to them — than any school you could buy their way into.
Q: What is something you do to “play” or let go?
NM: I will do dance parties on the weekends with my kids conveniently at cocktail hours. I make myself a martini (because I am a grown-up), turn up the music and we just dance for 20 minutes. It feels so good. You let go and experience the happiness that you don’t typically allow yourself to feel because you are so worried about “adult things.”
Q: What did you set out to do when creating The Wonder?
NM: The world can feel very scary and volatile and you are constantly overwhelmed. I remain convinced that, bar none, your kids just want to be with you. They just want to be loved and listened to and you have to create an environment that supports that. Your kids just want to play with you, so let’s make a place where people can play.
Q: Who comes up with the programming for The Wonder?
NM: Our team! 85 percent of our ideas are probably insane, and the other 15 percent are genius … or maybe it is the other way around. We try to think about audacious juxtaposition. It is why you can watch a Pixar film and enjoy it as an adult because they always have these little inside jokes. We try to make all programming so that the parents will dig it too.
Q: Can you tell us more about the kid-led classes?
SR: Our director of programming’s son taught one. He is ten and taught a class on Beyblades. Do you know what Beyblades are? They are these little spinning tops that you can collect. You are gladiators and you send tops spinning knocking into the other tops. It is a battle. Kids love to be treated as experts and to be spoken to like adults. Kids like to listen to other kids. That was a tremendous insight.
NM: I think it is just a great positive thing for kids to feel like a leader of something and be taken seriously in their area of expertise. I don’t know what a Beyblade is.
Q: What do you think schools could do better?
NM: One thing that bums me out is how early kids get homework. I feel like they should be able to play more. So, philosophically, I agree with my third grader when he complains about having homework. We believe that so much learning naturally comes through just doing art. If you want to play with popsicle sticks and glue for two hours, go after it! When we let our kids play, I continue to be amazed by what they create and the narratives they create. My boys will play for two hours with a stick, a random ball, a piece of Lego and we get an entire story about good versus evil. That’s learning to me.
SR: When we get together on weekends, Noria’s sons will take my little boy into the fold and the kids all run off to make a fort together and play. It is awesome because little kids get to see bigger kids and have someone to look up to.
NM: And likewise, bigger kids learn how to be empathetic and be leaders to little kids as well as take care of them. Plus, they get to do it on their own terms.
Q: How do you feel knowing you have created something that is so memorable for families?
NM: If happiness is what we are delivering on this earth that is something I can stand for.
SR: There is a quote: “You never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory” that we think about all the time. If at the end of raising your kids, you look back and The Wonder has become part of your memory bank and we have facilitated a stage for your family to have these incredible experiences, then we have done our job.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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