Mariah Bruehl, the owner of Playful Learning behind Main Street in Sag Harbor, was at odds with herself a few years ago. She had two young daughters and was also the associate director of the Ross Lower School, and felt that something had to give.
“I stopped working,” she said. “I loved my job, so the transition was tougher than I thought.” She stayed at home to raise her daughters, Marilyn and Ella, who are 18 months apart and are currently 8 and 6, respectively.
Her husband, Ed Bruehl, works in real estate, and is also one of the founders of the Sag Harbor Elementary School’s Eco-Walk project, which he helped to create with Sam Panton of Terra Design and Playful Gardens, an office that abuts Mrs. Bruehl’s store and offers landscape design geared toward the younger set.
To keep herself occupied and “keep my foot in the real world,” Mrs. Bruehl started a Web site and blog about parent-and-child activities.
The Web site developed a loyal following, as Mrs. Bruehl offered not only ideas for educational fun, but also ways of organizing what she calls “playful learning spaces” for children, and many other useful hints she had picked up in her years of teaching, both at Ross and at the Dalton School in New York City.
“Curriculum development was one of my true loves, and something I could do at home with the girls. I had almost every book written about it, so I just used what I knew to engage in interesting projects and share with other parents.”
“For the longest time, I felt like I was just writing to myself,” she said. But suddenly, three events happened almost simultaneously in the spring of 2010 that made it clear she wasn’t.
Mrs. Bruehl’s Web site, playfulearning.com, won a Parents’ Choice Gold Award, with a review that stated, “When first visiting Playful Learning, it appears to be a simple, homemade Web site with some ideas for doing things with your kids. However, it quickly becomes clear that this soft-spoken, beautifully designed site is a tantalizing resource loaded with truly fun ideas for teaching young children about math, science, writing, and more.”
Then she had a “scream-out-loud moment” when a visitor to her site turned out to be an editor for Shambhala Publications, which focuses on books about mindful awareness.
The resulting book, “Playful Learning,” was published last month. “Each activity in the book is something I have actually done with my girls. We’ve done them together and know that they’re fun.”
In June of 2010, Mrs. Bruehl opened the space in Sag Harbor. “I was feeling a little isolated,” she said. “I missed the classroom.” Almost immediately the store was a success, with loyal, “lovely customers,” said Mrs. Bruehl.
The cozy space is filled with educational toys and games, and also sports a back room where Mrs. Bruehl holds workshops. She offers a series of “learning experiences” — from making a birdhouse to painting a custom set of Russian dolls — which parents and children can do in a back room any time the shop is open.
Mrs. Bruehl’s online store features a botanist’s kit, sewing kit, a writing caddy, and other items kids, and parents, would enjoy, plus a big-ticket writing center, custom made and priced at $372, which includes everything to create an organized hub for a child of any age to write letters, stories, and essays. It also offers ideas on creating a birdwatching station, an art atelier, and other nooks and crannies designed to inspire.
This summer, Mrs. Bruehl offered an e-course for kids ages 6 to 12 called Through the Lens: Explorations in Photo Journaling, which lasted four weeks and had 60 participants. “Kids posted their work, and could record their voices and opinions on each other’s work,” she said.
Her new six-week e-course, Playful Learning Spaces, which begins Wednesday, is geared toward parents and teachers who want to design “thoughtful spaces for children,” an a propos subject as school begins and papers get strewn throughout the house. Those interested can find details on Mrs. Bruehl’s Web site. The cost of the course is $125.
“I’ve seen firsthand, in schools and at home, the power that a child has creating when the space is clear and organized,” she said.