News & Politics  |  Parenting

DC-Area Play Spaces Are Offering a Solution for Parents Terrified About Months of Distance Learning.

Welcome to the "social learning club."

The Lane. Photography by Dominique Munoz.

The Lane, the minimalist-cool play space in Ivy City with parent-friendly perks such as wine and charcuterie, had barely been open a month when the pandemic hit. At first, owners Molly Nizhnikov and Rachel Lubin were cooking up ways to offer kid-friendly streaming programs and socially distanced picnics on the rooftop. But as it became clear that come fall, schools across the region would go all-virtual, the two toddler moms turned to a different business plan: the academic “pods” that parents across the city are scrambling to set up. (For those new to pod culture, it’s basically a small group of kids who gather each day for distance learning led by a teacher, tutor, or parent.)

The idea is that, with rigorous social-distance measures in place, a smaller group of children will face less Covid-19 risk than they would in a traditional classroom. The kids get a mental boost from social interaction while working parents get some time back. The drawbacks are obvious: Your child could get Covid anyway and contribute to community spread . Even as cases persist, that’s a gamble some two-income families are willing to take.

And so, for the time being, the Lane is branding itself as a “social learning club.” To pull it off, Nizhnikov and Lubin are teaming up with Flex Academies, a local company that provides before- and after-care programs and camps at schools along the East Coast. But from there, they’re taking a creative approach. Though a few pods will be based at the Lane, most will happen in out-of-use spaces such as closed restaurants—Old Town’s Columbia Firehouse, for example—or hotel conference rooms.

Pods will max out at nine children—parents can either join the program with an already formed pod or have the program put one together for them, taking neighborhood, age, and other factors into account. The full day program—9 to 4 Monday through Friday—costs $330 a week (there’s a half-day option, too), and a GoFundMe raises money for scholarships to the program.

In Rockville, there’s Badlands, one of the area’s most elaborate play spaces. It’s also offering a learning model, although here, kids will remain on-site. Its new “enrichment program” offers first-through-eighth-graders a socially distanced desk for distance learning—with six feet of space and acrylic partitions—plus art supplies and STEM activities. Its program runs Monday through Friday from 8 to 4 and costs $585 a week. 

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.