Cowabunga’s to reopen as licensed child care ‘Learning Lab’ for kids in grades 1-8

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Jack Pearson tests out the new Learning Lab at Cowabunga’s. His parents, Matt and Kelly Pearson, are pivoting temporarily to a childcare model in time for back-to-school. Courtesy Photo

MANCHESTER, NHWhen Cowabunga’s opened its new 24,000-square-foot indoor playground in February of 2018 next to Chunky’s Cinema Pub, things were looking bright. They had a prime location and loyal following, having already earned a great reputation for their kid-friendly business model. With 20 employees and plans to expand, the sky seemed to be the limit. 

One month after celebrating their first anniversary at the state-of-the-art location on Huse Road, COVID-19 closed their doors.

Today, they’re preparing to reopen with something completely different: the launch of a small-scale “learning lab” licensed daycare that will provide full- and part-time services for 20 school-age kids in grade 1-8 (ages 6-14). 

“We’re sort of starting over,” said Kelly Pearson of the soon-to-open Drop-off Learning Lab at Cowabunga’s.  If things go well there would be room to grow. We have a huge space but we want to start with helping 20 kids and families, and refining the process. We’ll see how it goes.” 

With the hiring of Kayla Pettibon of Manchester as site director, who brings early childhood education experience and qualifications to the newly-created role, the idea of turning their play place into a learning place opens new doors of possibility. They will also employ about 10 of their existing staff, many of whom are college students who used to have limited work hours due to classes. Now that many of them have gone remote, there is more availability.

Kayla Pettibon of Manchester will serve as Learning Lab at Cowabunga’s site director. Courtesy Photo

“Everyone’s so super excited to have kids back in our space,” a day they weren’t sure when would come after closing March 15. Tuition for full-time weekday care (7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. is $225 for the week. Extended full-time care for the week is $250 (7:30-5 p.m.). Part-time care would be $60 per day from 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. or $65 per day for 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

She and husband Matt are a true mom-and-pop operation. They opened a smaller version of Cowabunga’s in Hooksett back in 2011 as entrepreneurial parents of young kids who thought there should be more fun options for indoor structured play. With that success, they decided to expand to a second location in North Reading, Mass., and then closed the Hooksett center when they opened their flagship playground in Manchester.

“We see in the news all the time businesses transitioning due to the pandemic. For small businesses, it’s such a hard thing to do. Matt and I have spent so much time building this up,” said Pearson. Although they have benefitted from state and federal programs designed to help prop-up businesses during the pandemic, the looming issue is repayment of the loans.

“The biggest thing we struggle with as a small business is that a lot of the assistance we’ve received were loans. And while it’s amazing and great that they are low-interest loans, they’re still loans; the struggle you face is whether you should spend the money – if we do, will we be able to afford loan payments? These are things all small businesses are struggling with right now. But we’re not some multi-million dollar company. This is our livelihood. It’s not like we have other businesses to rely on for income while we ride this out,” Pearson says. 


The idea to provide a small but comprehensive childcare service grew out of their own experience as parents of three young kids. They were fully aware of the challenges many parents are facing when it comes to childcare and remote learning. With most regional schools following a remote or hybrid model this fall, parents who have to work need options. The Learning Lab will allow parents to drop off their kids knowing they will have supervision for their online school work, plus built-in activities, relieving some of the pressure on parents for remote-at-home learning. 

“We’re late in the game getting started, and the only reason for that is we weren’t sure what schools were going to do – that’s because schools didn’t know either,” Pearson says. “Now that schools have made decisions we just saw the need for a program like this.”

And while it will allow the Pearsons to generate some income and pay the bills, Pearson says with only room for 20 kids, it’s not going to be enough to make a profit. 

“I don’t want to sugar-coat it. We’ll still be taking a loss. This is not a magic answer for us, but it does get us a step closer to being back in business,” she said. 

As Cowabunga’s eases into a temporary new normal they will also begin opening on weekends for private parties and walk-in playtime on a limited basis with COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

Owen Pearson in the zone at Cowabunga’s ready-to-open Learning Lab, owned and operated by his parents. Courtesy Photo

The learning lab is an experimental model that’s not possible at their Massachusetts location, says Pearson.

“New Hampshire is in a really great spot right now and we feel comfortable with all the safety precautions in place. We will start signing up people soon,” says Pearson. “We already have 30 families interested, but not all will sign up so I expect we’ll have some availability,” she said.

“The plan is for parents to let us know what the goals are for the day for their child, what live teaching they have, and we’ll oversee the learning. We’ll have a flexible schedule and lots of other activities including active playtime arts and crafts, and quiet-time activities, including reading,” Pearson says.  

So far the response has been positive. The Pearsons will be applying for state assistance for daycare scholarships to help families that are really struggling. Possibilities for expansion of the program might include an after-school program, says Pearson, but the real goal is getting back to business as usual, pre-pandemic.

“It’s a new type of daycare that’s never been needed, but we’re really excited about the possibilities,” she said.

Those interested in more information should email  learninglabnh@mycowabungas.com.

 

 

About this Author

carol-robidoux

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!