SOUTH LOOP — Chicago Public School teacher Cynthia Valenciana was having a hard time finding a place for her two young sons to play.
Her first son, now six, was a difficult baby. She and her husband were desperate for a support network and communal play spaces near their South Loop home.
"We were constantly traveling back and forth to the North Side or out to the 'burbs," Valenciana said. "We had these friends that would meet at different play areas, or go to different groups, and we were so envious of that. Because here we are, in need of a support network, and we just weren't finding that at all."
When her second son was born three years ago, their need was that much greater.
"You have two people with two different minds and desires and interests, and they're going in two different directions," she said. "So we very much wanted a space that was big enough to spread out, but also small enough that a parent could feel at ease and just relax."
By the time her youngest son turned 2, Valenciana grew tired of waiting for an urban play space to appear. So she decided to build one.
In a few weeks, she'll open the Sod Room, a second-story indoor park inside the historic Buick building at 1454 S. Michigan Ave.
Eco-friendly from floor to ceiling, the small space has three parts: a reception area with cubbies made of milk crates and a recycled hardwood floor, a dining area with low tables, small chairs and a coffee pot for parents, and the Sod Room itself, packed with environmentally friendly toys, soft felt furniture and a treehouse jungle gym on soft cork floors.
Designer Jen Talbot helped carry the green theme further, constructing felt decorations including a low-hanging swing, a nature-inspired light fixture and a giant, soft "grassy knoll" with handmade grass tufts that resembles a bean bag chair.
Valenciana, a full-time teacher, and her husband, who works in finance, have been developing the space for about a year, collecting toys and building components that finally left her garage a few months ago.
"It's become a labor of love really. Every single thing that we've put in or had installed, we very much hand-picked everything, and truly tested it out with our own children," she said.
It's also been a community effort. Francesca's restaurant on Taylor Street donated wine corks so Valenciana could build a life-sized Lite Brite board. Friends and fellow teachers donated hundreds of used books to build a literary-themed reception desk.
She doesn't envision the space as a daycare center — her goal is to bring parents and kids together and create a community for South Loop parents like the north side hubs she used to travel to.
"We wanted to make it a place that's good for meet ups, good for groups, and good for individuals that are new to parenting and need a community," she said. "Hopefully they can see a familiar face and strike up a friendship."
By mid-year, Valenciana hopes to have a roster of activities and classes, both for children and their parents, and to host parties and other private events: she's already fielding rental requests, she said.
But most importantly, she says, free play will always be the cornerstone of Sod Room's programming.
"I see it as a place where parents and their children can get away from their home, and relax and hang out here," she said. "It's already serving that purpose for my family, and we couldn't be happier about sharing it."