Written By: Jackie Hoermann for The Keller Citizen

When you stand just 3 feet small, the lobby of Children’s Learning Adventure swells up around you like an ocean floor, with waves of blue walls and eye-catching exotic fish.

Visitors check in at the ship-shaped front desk and journey toward their destinations — opting, per chance, for some time on the ocean floor, knocking down pins in the aquatic-themed bowling alley or joining other landlubbers who dig gardening in the Nature’s Nook classroom.

With its 33,000 square feet of brightly colored, highly interactive and technologically advanced nooks and crannies, it looks and feels like a cruise ship for kids.

Since opening in May, CLA has made a splash with local parents, adding 600 kids to its roster of regulars shortly after it opened its doors. Reportedly the biggest daycare facility in Texas, the new location opened in Keller with a philosophical approach that captures attention along with its abundance of colorful amenities.

CLA officials are quick to note that the giant kid-friendly zone is much more than just an oversized playpen, emphasizing a “Lifetime Adventures” curriculum and a mission of turning child-care classrooms into communities. Beyond the plethora of bold play stations and whimsical furnishings meant to entice young patrons and inspire creative play, Keller director Stephanie Retherford says, simple daycare comparisons don’t apply. Instead, she says CLA is all about early education.

A conversation with her echoes comments made by the Phoenix-based company’s CEO Rick Sodja, who noted earlier this year, “Our approach is much closer to that of a private school than your typical child-care center.”

Specialized programs and large, colorful rooms at the facility accommodate children as young as 6 weeks and as old as 12 years. Most of the building is decked out in jungle- or aquatic-themed interior designs. Children get to play in at least two of the classrooms every day, with options ranging from a computer lab, community garden and library to a bowling alley and gym, Imagination Island and television studio called Picture Paradise — all of which have merits that Retherford says delve deeper than their playful appearances.

Picture Paradise, for instance, is a mock-TV station that Retherford says kids love because they can record themselves, but, she adds, it also “helps them talk about other cultures in other areas of the world.”

Similarly, she notes that a curriculum attached to Imagination Island teaches principles of good citizenship and community. Some of the classrooms resemble “mini-towns,” where children learn by drawing from work, culture and travel experiences. When tots travel to Imagination Island, they play in a cruise ship-themed classroom where they learn what to expect when traveling by land and sea. And Retherford says that having children practice activities such as airport searches takes some of the anxiety out of those experiences when they play out in real life.

New client Kat Perry, a registered nurse for a pediatric surgery center nearby, enrolled her 1-year-old and 6-year-old sons, Cade and Corbin. “We decided to move our children to CLA from their previous daycare because CLA just has so much more to offer,” she says.

Cade seems to enjoy the Reading Reef best, where he watches fish swim in a large aquarium as he listens to stories. Meanwhile, Corbin is enrolled in a summer camp that lets him indulge his passion for the culinary arts.

“So far, he’s made oatmeal cookies, pumpkin scones, and a fruit salad,” Perry says. “I love that he’s so excited about cooking [and] that he’s tried a few foods that he never would have eaten for me.” Corbin has been telling his mother about his career aspirations of becoming a chef when he grows up, she says, and plans to serve a menu offering the finest macaroni, hamburgers and chicken nuggets in town.

Corbin’s lead teacher has a culinary degree and only child-safe kitchen knives and utensils are used under careful supervision. Retherford says all of the lead teachers at CLA hold bachelor’s degrees and have received special training in child development.

Individualized attention was a primary concern for Kalan Bobbitt, a local physician who wanted to be sure that her 22-month-old son wasn’t being overlooked in a sea of toddlers. What impressed her most about CLA were the small class sizes and that the front-desk staff came to know her son by name.

“He was previously at another preschool, but we chose to move him for several reasons, one of which was proximity to our home [in Keller],”she says. Bobbitt also mentions an emphasis on educational activities and costs as factors in her decision.

Prices, which vary by location, are discussed by appointment only. The CLA website reads, “Children’s Learning Adventure understands the need for value, and we arrange our pricing tiers for each of our facilities to be competitive with other quality programs in each respective area. In most cases, we are priced at, or below, other regional and national providers.”

The company, which has centers in five other states, plans to stay competitive by opening another center in Plano this month, and there are plans for another in the Coppell area, possibly by the end of this year.

“We really feel like we’re revolutionizing child care,” says Retherford, “and others are going to have to step up their programs as a result.”

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