Carrie Haight, our NJMOMpreneur of the week, has always welcomed a challenge: She has MS but that didn’t stop her from opening a successful therapy consulting firm. And when she learned she had almost zero chances of getting pregnant, she persevered to have her miracle daughter on her own. So when Carrie was approached with the idea of creating a play space for children with sensory processing disorders, she knew this was a challenge she could tackle—the result is Tagalongs Play Place, a unique play spot for all kids with calming rooms and sensory-specific equipment (think the anti-Chuck E. Cheese). We sat down with Carrie to talk about how the play space unknowingly helped her own daughter, her vision for the future and why the local police station is their favorite place to hang out.
Featured image via Stephanie Morena and Brittany Mims
Owner of Tagalongs Play Place & NJMOMpreneur, Carrie Haight
NJMOM: What did you do before you came up with the idea of Tagalongs Play Place?
Carrie: I’m a licensed therapist, so I do have a background in working with kids with different needs and issues. But things changed 12 years ago when I was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis). I wanted to work at my own pace, so I started my own counseling company—A Time for Change Counseling Services—which I still have today. During that time, my husband and I found out that I had a less than a 5% chance of having a baby. We went through in-vitro fertilization and had multiple fails, and after that, we got a divorce. But I was still determined to have a child, so I made the decision to do it on my own with IVF. I used a sperm donor with the one egg I had left, and I got pregnant with my miracle child—my daughter, Savannah, who’s 5.
NJMOM: Where is Tagalongs Play Place located, and where do you reside in New Jersey?
Carrie: Our first Tagalongs Play Place location is in Lake Hopatcong, and we just opened another location in Fairfield. My daughter and I live in Jefferson.
NJMOM: What inspired you to create and open your own children’s play place?
Carrie: I didn’t just wake up one day and decide that I wanted to own a play place. One of the therapy agencies I worked with contacted me about finding a space for kids on the autistic spectrum. One of the issues is that they have nowhere to go and play without being overstimulated (children with autism can experience sensory overload—being exposed to a lot of stimulation and information can cause stress, pain or anxiety). Through my research, I knew I wanted a place where children with sensory issues could go and calm down, but also feel like they’re not separated from those who don’t have them—that’s where the name “Tagalongs” comes from. It’s a great play place, but there is also a huge purpose for it: Savannah was born with Sensory Processing Disorder and though she was formally diagnosed at age 4, I had been treating her disorder all along through Tagalongs and never realized it.
NJMOM: Did your daughter help you create Tagalongs Play Place at all? Did she help pick out any of the toys or items?
Carrie: She was too young when the first space opened, but Savannah definitely helped with the Fairfield location. She picked out a lot of the climb-on items and helped design the space with me and it was fun to see her helping me with it—she likes to tell everyone she is the owner. She’s also become very good in the sensory room because she’ll go in with kids and show them how everything works.
NJMOM: Tagalongs Play Place also includes a Calming Sensory Room. What prompted you to include that?
Carrie: We have a specific calming sensory room for children who have problems learning, developing or dealing with their senses. This room has lights, colors and soft play objects to help those kids interact with their senses without feeling overwhelmed. The sensory room was the starting point—we knew that it had to include that first and foremost. After we designed the sensory room, it all exploded into, “What else can be sensory and educational for kids?”
NJMOM: What makes Tagalongs Play Place different from Chuck E. Cheese or other play places?
Carrie: Tagalongs Play Place is 100% sensory and education, which is a huge difference from other play places. so we can do field trips because of that. I’m also very OCD about cleanliness, and we strive to make sure that each location is always clean. And while we care about hosting birthday parties and field trips, I’m a therapist and this was designed to help children with sensory needs, so I make that the primary focus. We have rules so that children interact kindly—no bullying or hitting—because none of us know what each other is going through. Tagalongs is a play place that brings all kinds of kids together in a healthy setting and every single element has a purpose—the turf on the ground is there because the texture on children’s feet can help kids with processing that feeling. I also only hire people who are sensory-friendly, and those who are aware of what that means. For example, the “Santa” we use at Christmas time will join the kids in the sensory room and listen to the children explain what they want for Christmas, making the environment comfortable for all the kids.
NJMOM: You recently opened another Tagalongs Play Place location. What was that process like? Do you plan to open any more in NJ?
Carrie: When I opened the original location, it didn’t take off right away. I didn’t advertise, but after word of mouth, it became huge and customers asked me when I was going to make another one. About four years later, I decided it was time. We went a lot bigger with the second location in Fairfield—it’s about 9,000 square feet so older children can have more space to play. We created a 75-foot long jungle gym in our new location, and every single playhouse is custom made. My plan is to franchise Tagalongs Play Place, so we can help children all over receive the sensory care that they require.
NJMOM: What are your favorite spots where you and your daughter like to go?
Carrie: I know it sounds strange, but we visit the Jefferson Township Police Station a lot. We collect their trading cards, and Savannah loves to go on tours of the station, and it teaches her to not be afraid of the police. We also take trips to the playground right next to the Jefferson Police Station. We also like to stay home, and Savannah will sing and dance to her favorite movies, like The Sound of Music.
NJMOM: What is one thing that helps you get through a busy or stressful day of being a businesswoman and parent?
Carrie: Spending time with my daughter is what helps me. I’m either working or with her and that’s what keeps me going. She’s my everything.