Mississippi Monday | Essential Play
Holiday shopping season is upon us- time to think about the ones we love and the best gifts we can give to bring both joy and enrichment of life. We've been waiting to share this company and interview with you, and with the season in mind, we feel there's no better time.
Essential Play is an amazing company with a host of smart women behind it choosing and providing the best toys for development and engagement of children based on their age, as well as providing a service of convenience by bringing these straight to the door of the subscriber. We are so proud of all they are accomplishing and providing to our community and are so glad to call them fellow Mississippians!
Read on for our recent interview with Grace Gore Sturdivant, co-founder of Essential Play.
What exactly is Essential Play?
Essential play is a research-based professional service, created by and for busy parents and caregivers in order to promote child development and enrich the parent/child relationship with meaningful play. Our team of professionals selects quality toys catered to your child’s developmental age and delivers them to your door monthly. We include a Play Tips Card explaining how to easily use that toy to engage with your child and facilitate four areas of development – Cognitive, Physical, Communicative, and Social/Emotional. We simplify the toy chest and use fewer, quality toys to stimulate children without stifling creativity. Our motto says it well: Simplify. Engage. Play.
How did you all get started and what was the inspiration to take the small business leap?
All credit goes to my fearless and determined mom, Darlene. When my sister Meredith had twins (goodness, was that already 5 years ago?!), my mom, who is a Speech-Language Pathologist by trade, wanted to make sure that they didn’t lag behind in communicative development as is often the case with multiples. She loaded a bright yellow box with fun activities and would get down in the floor to play with them in ways that fostered speech and language. Though to the babies, it was just plain FUN with their Mimi! By the time they were 6 months old, when they saw that yellow box, they would flap their arms and squeal in excitement for the fun and interaction they knew was coming. Though they had more than enough toys in their room, it was the special delivery and one-on-one playtime with Mimi that they most enjoyed. They are now 5 years old and Never. Stop. Talking.
ABOVE (left to right): Meredith Warf, Darlene Gore and Grace Gore Sturdivant
As a new grandmother at that time, Mom started noticing more and more “developmentally appropriate” and “best” toys marketed on toy aisles; and she regularly saw moms, grandparents, aunts, and friends overwhelmed by so many options. She often found herself helping them select toys based on her 40 years of experience playing with and treating young children.
The bright yellow box and these shopping experiences served as Mom’s springboard for the idea of the BrightBox. Instead of only focusing on communication, she decided to make it more multidisciplinary to encompass the four primary areas of development. Essential Play was created as the company, with BrigthBox as its first product intended to make parenting and toy shopping EASY. We believed (and still do) that this is a unique and valuable offering for busy parents, for grandparents/relatives who want to give “good” gifts, for nannies/caregivers, and even for preschools and daycares. It was this belief that gave the push to take this idea and make it happen.
How does Mississippi play a role in your business?
Mississippi is family. Mississippi is hard-working. Mississippi is networks of people and “how’s your mama?” Essential Play encompasses and promotes these ideals. We want to bring families together. We want the precious moments hard-working parents get to spend with their kids to be easy and meaningful. We want grandma who lives too many hours away to have a presence each month when her gift arrives in the form of a BrightBox. We want to dig in and gain access to Mississippi’s underserved population and find ways to positively influence parenting and caregiver interaction where there may otherwise be minimal connection. We believe that we can offer both a convenience service and a means to improve literacy rates and develop more productive Mississippians for the future.
What are your goals for your brand?
We would like to see Essential Play become a regular wish list item on baby registries, for it to be the first thought as the baby shower hostess gift, and for families who would normally not have financial access to these toys or knowledge about the importance of meaningful play to receive the BrightBox each month through special funding. We would like to see HeadStart centers and preschools use our toys and train their caregivers with our Play Tips Cards.
We aim to keep our prices competitive. The toys alone are worth the cost of membership, but the Play Tips Cards and convenience of professional personal shopping and delivery significantly increases membership value. We believe that our membership can save valuable time and money as compared to that spent by the average toy shopping behavior of parents.
BELOW: Essential Play BRIGHT BOX Customer Feedback Examples
What is your background?
I’m an Audiologist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, wife to Micajah and mom to Eleanor (4 years) and Garnett (2 years). I received my Doctor of Audiology from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and my bachelor’s degree in Communicative Disorders from Ole Miss. (Because I define it often for people, an Audiologist is specially trained to diagnose and treat hearing loss and balance problems.)
Meredith Warf, my sister, is a Physical Therapist at Mississippi Sports Medicine, wife to Bruce and mom to Silas (5 years), Avery (5 years), and Samuel (2 years). There is nothing this smart cookie can’t do. She started out as an accountant, graduating with her masters from Ole Miss as Class Marshall and a Taylor Medalist. She earned her CPA and worked as an auditor for PriceWaterhouseCoopers before deciding to switch gears and go to Physical Therapy school. She received her doctoral degree in Physical Therapy from the University of Mississippi Medical Center and has since earned certification with ABTS.
Darlene Gore, my mom, is a Speech Language Pathologist, and has been married to my dad Jay for 38 years. She received her master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology from the University of Mississippi in 1976. In her 40 years as a speech pathologist, she has worked in a variety of settings – public schools, private practice, and nursing home and hospital administration. For over ten years, she worked as a Quality Monitor for occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech pathologists who were delivering Early Intervention services to children from birth to three years of age. She is the owner of Therapy Dynamics, LLC, which provides consulting services to Speech Pathologists and to groups involved with promoting pre-literacy skills for preschoolers. Her passion for communicative sciences motivated her to lead her state professional organization as President of the Mississippi Speech and Hearing Association in 2012. I couldn’t be more proud of my hard-working, difference-making mom.
Where do you all find inspiration for each new product?
The three of us spent a year before launching Essential Play researching toys from a variety of companies. We sampled countless “best” toys and narrowed the options down to the toys that truly work best to facilitate our four key developmental areas, that are safe for the designated age month, that promote pre-literacy, and that foster creativity. We tested them out with our own children and others to find quality toys that the children and parents approve and enjoy. We currently work with 19 toy manufacturers and have multiple options for each developmental month from birth to 48 months, just in case you already have the toy we send and would like to exchange. We are presented with new toy options regularly and steadily incorporate new options. Many of our toys are gender neutral, but some are specifically geared to girls or boys. With this much inventory, we likely intimidate Santa at the North Pole.
What do you all like to do when you aren't working in your fields or working on Essential Play?
Though the three of us all chose allied health professions, we have diverse interests. Meredith is our family piano virtuoso. She plays the piano with the orchestra and leads student choirs at First Baptist Church, plays in a band for parties and wedding receptions, and plays piano for special theater productions at Jackson Prep and Jackson Academy. She and my mom together wrote a book that was released last year about their journeys through cancer. Mom is a stage IV breast cancer survivor and Meredith is a stage III melanoma survivor. Their books is called I Have Cancer: I Want to Live and is available on Amazon with proceeds to St. Jude. Mom is actively involved in her home church and leads a women’s Bible study. I cannot imagine a more devoted grandmother, and she spends a lot of time with each of her grandkids.
As for me, I am a wannabe actor. You may have seen me in some local commercial spots or briefly on the ABC television series Nashville. Like Meredith, I LOVE music but only play the piano when nobody is listening. I sing at the occasional wedding and always in the shower (does that count?). I do love the stage (former Miss America contestant here) and enjoy hosting/emceeing for events. We all love books and I recently wrote one of the children’s variety called The Princess and the Crab which highlights our family vacation spot, The King and Prince on Saint Simons Island, Georgia. Micajah and I are actively involved with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Mississippi, the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, and First Presbyterian Church.
Our family spends a lot of time together. Recently, we have all been spending any free moments possible with Meredith’s newest family addition – two year old Samuel. He may have been born in China, but we know he was created to be in our family. This may sound like a lot. We all drink way more than the daily recommended allotment of coffee.
What are your favorite local places to shop and dine?
My favorite local shops and restaurants are mostly here in my Fondren neighborhood. I alternate between Cups and Sneaky Beans for coffee. I shop and consign clothes at Fondren Muse. My kids beg for Babalu and Brent’s milkshakes each time we drive by. My new favorite lunch is Surin sushi. My all time favorite meal is Redfish Anna at Walker’s. I could keep going, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t want me to name every single Fondren establishment.
What are some of the reasons you call Mississippi home?
I left Grenada and Mississippi in search of new adventures when I graduated from high school and never had plans to live here again. The two years I lived in Charleston, SC, I swore I’d never leave. I lived in Nashville for 4 years and thought I’d never leave, until I fell head over heels in love with Micajah who was committed to a family business based here in Jackson. I’m so thankful that God’s plans were better for me than my own. I love living back in Mississippi, specifically here in Jackson. If anybody thinks there isn’t enough to do here, just come talk to me. There are a ton of fun events, both for adults and children. We have great restaurants and awesome friends. Sure, Mississippi gets a bad rap and needs improvement, but what’s better than the reward of digging in to make more of Jackson and Mississippi better? No matter what state or community you live in, we should all be dedicated to improving our communities and helping those around us.
How do you think what you are doing is helping to shape your local community as well as the image of Mississippi?
Not to toot our own horns, but I think three post-graduate educated women in Mississippi starting an online company is something to be proud of. I hope that we can inspire other women to trust their ideas and put them into action. Life is too short not to go for it. We have customers all across the nation who report back that we have enabled them as busy parents to slow down and soak up precious moments with their children, trusting that they are making the most of their time and helping their children grow on an evidence-based, well researched foundation. We know that interactions with children during the first 48 months of life significantly influences the physical, mental and social capabilities needed by children to prepare them for school and productive adult lives. If we can be successful in getting more preschools, daycares, and Head Start centers on board to use our services, we can greatly influence the future of this great state.
Mr. Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” We say Play is Essential.
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