Brenda Amaya photography

Kids Play While You Work: Innovative Child Care

In the DMV’s competitive and pricey child care market, there’s a growing sect of teleworking, freelancing and business-owning parents who find that traditional full-time child care doesn’t suit their needs. It’s an issue Nicole Dash heard parents gripe about time and again when she ran a small daycare out of her home in Annandale, Virginia. Many of her teleworking clients needed just a few hours of care a couple of days a week. But she continuously denied their requests and explains, “unfortunately, that’s not how it works,” one slot means full-time care for one child. Eventually, she asked herself why the system couldn’t be more flexible. Enter Play, Work or Dash, a coworking space in Vienna, Virginia with in-house daycare.

Essentially, parents can work in peace, host meetings in the center’s conference rooms, or dash out for an errand, while professional caretakers supervise their kids at play nearby all for up to three hours per day. Kids as young as 9 months and as old as 8 years can come play at the facility.

Dash, a mother of four, had been managing her daycare, a parenting blog and a side job as a digital marketing consultant for a few years when in January 2015, she began to consider the prospect of owning a larger child care center.

“I feel like every step of my journey led me to open Play, Work or Dash,” she says.

Through daycare and her blog, she heard of the complications for parents whose changing work schedules meant they needed an alternative to the rigid child care system. She visited a coworking space tailored to young professionals without kids, and thought, “Wow, this is it. We need a place where parents can work uninterrupted while their children play in the next room.”

Marcia Sheehan, a longtime friend of Dash, supported the venture from the moment Dash pitched it to one of their networking groups. Sheehan owns and manages a small business and has two young boys. Before Play, Work or Dash opened, she worked on her business from home in the few hours between dropping off and picking up her kids from two different schools, but she always felt strapped for time.

“It is so hard,” she says. “You just feel so pulled. As a mom, I feel like it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, there’s going to be the mom guilt. It’s really difficult to have kids that are before school age and have a business.”

Play, Work or Dash is marketed to people just like Sheehan. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 3.7 million Americans – about 3 percent of the total workforce – worked from home at least part of the time in 2016. For those who have young kids, Play, Work or Dash is a game changer.

“When she opened her doors, I was there on the first day,” Sheehan says. “To support her, but also to support me. I was so excited about it.”

For the next few months, Sheehan picked her youngest son up from his half day preschool at noon and fed him lunch in the car as they headed to Play, Work or Dash for a few hours of uninterrupted work time for Sheehan.

Sheehan was so excited by the business concept that Dash soon hired her as the center’s community manager, which means she monitors the business’ social media presence and connects with other small businesses that host workshops for members of Play, Work or Dash.

Play, Work or Dash has supported over 300 families to date. Some clients drive up to two hours round trip just for three hours of work time, Dash says.

The center’s popularity highlights the lack of options for parents like Sheehan. In a city where it costs an average of $22,631 per year to send an infant to a child care center full time – the highest in the nation, according to the Economic Policy Institute – some parents may feel trapped, believes Kate Mereand-Sinha of the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development.

Mereand-Sinha’s department partnered with the public health program at American University this spring to conduct research on the numerous issues surrounding child care in D.C. Basically, Mereand-Sinha says, what’s happening is this: parents who work at home only need part time care for their children on dates that may change from week to week – the same issue many of Dash’s clients struggled with when she managed her home daycare. So, those parents can ensure their child’s slot by shelling out thousands of dollars for full-time care that they may not really need, or they can search for an alternative.

“What we presume is happening is that those who can’t afford it are going into unlicensed care and those who are at the high end of the market are choosing nannies,” Mereand-Sinha says. “So the marketplace of those who are choosing center-based or even home-based care is shrinking. When that market shrinks, the costs keep going up and up because you don’t have enough diversification.”

Play, Work or Dash fills the gap for those who lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. “The high cost of child care, the inflexibility, the struggle to find child care and our changing economy – all of those factors I think are why people are responding to Play, Work or Dash,” Dash says.

Dash’s oldest child will enter college in the fall while her youngest will start first grade. She makes breakfast for her kids every morning after catching up on her emails, then she packs their lunches and gets the younger ones on the bus before she heads to Play, Work or Dash.

Her husband, a teacher, manages homework in the afternoons before they all sit down together for a family dinner. Her life is hectic, but she doesn’t believe that a work-life balance is achievable. Instead, she believes in the Play, Work or Dash model of scheduling blocks of time in the day for specific tasks. When she’s with her kids, she puts business aside, she says.

“I want to be able to grow my business while also enjoying every moment with my children because they’re growing so fast,” she says.

She hopes to soon add private office spaces for people growing their own small businesses to Play, Work or Dash’s current location in Vienna. She also hopes to expand the business to more suburban locations in the DMV. Eventually, she’d like to franchise the model and open up spaces outside other metropolitan areas.

“I love what I’m trying to build,” she says.