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INK marks 7 years of imaginative play for local kids
Jackson Cole, 2, tests out the radio inside a Hall County Sheriff’s Department squad car Tuesday at the Interactive Neighborhood for Kids. INK is celebrating its seventh birthday this weekend. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
Celebrating Community Connections
What: INK’s seventh birthday party
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Interactive Neighborhood for Kids, 999 Chestnut St., Gainesville
How much: $2
More info: 770-536-1900 or 678-804-8472, ext. 1

Imagine being able to do some grocery shopping, check out the doctor’s office and take a turn performing on a stage in various costumes, all before you turn 5 years old.

That’s the reality at Interactive Neighborhood for Kids, the interactive play space that turns 7 years old this weekend.

INK’s exhibits let kids imagine they’re grown-ups, ordering food at a restaurant or serving on a jury. Plus, there’s a police car, a fire truck and an airplane to explore. A model railroad lets kids control cranes and lights around a moving train, and there’s also an indoor jungle gym for just bouncing around.

All this play — and more — will be celebrated from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at INK’s facility on Chestnut Street in Gainesville. INK is teaming up with North Georgia Kids’ Directory to expand the party to include a petting zoo, a magician, inflatable jumping toys and representatives from lots of local organizations that serve families.

“We are partnering with several community agencies,” said Sheri Hooper, INK’s founder and executive director, of the event that’s dubbed Celebrating Community Connections. “It’s just families coming together and having fun.”

Today, the space uses about 27,000 square feet in the Featherbone Communiversity building near Interstate 985. But not too long ago, INK was a collection of make-believe rooms set up in the second floor of The Arts Council Complex on Green Street (a former church building).

Hooper said a few of the current exhibits, such as the post office and the grocery store, were in INK’s original location, too. But as word spread about this magical land where kids can pretend to be all grown up, the need for more space became a priority.

“It is truly a mission that God gave me,” said Hooper, recounting the experience of finding a new, larger space for INK.

Four other possibilities fell through, she said, which was “a blessing in disguise.”

Finally, the opportunity came up to move INK to the Featherbone Communiversity building, which also houses business incubators for Lanier Tech and classes for Brenau University in different parts of the space. The space allowed Hooper to more than triple INK’s original size, with even more room to grow.

Since it opened in the Communiversity four years ago, Hooper said a few exhibits have been revamped — for example, Northeast Georgia Medical Center updated the clinic, and SunTrust replaced the old GB&T sign.

And there’s still more changes afoot.

For example, a Born Learning trail was erected lat weekend along INK’s sidewalk outside, urging parents to use everyday opportunities as teaching tools for their kids. The pottery studio is getting moved up to the front of the building to accommodate after-hours private parties for all ages. The Junior League is working with INK to install a commercial kitchen just inside the exhibit hall’s doors, which will provide a space to teach kids about healthy eating and provide entertainment for parents, too.

“Maybe we can have a special chef come in and do an adults-only event,” Hooper said.

Another new addition to INK’s attractions is a toy-lending library, a donation from Child Care Resource and Referral Agency. The agency, which was housed at Gainesville State College and provided information on child care options, lost its grant funding and had to shut its doors.

Now, parents and teachers can access the toys through INK instead. For $20 a year, visitors can check out a toy from the library and try it out for two weeks at a time.

But of course, much of the playing at INK is done among the imaginary world created by the kids and their interactive neighborhood.

On a recent afternoon, Jessie Marksberry was visiting with her two children, Hunter, 3 and Cole, 7 months. She said it was her second visit, and Cole is a big fan of playing in the grocery store and climbing the fire truck.

“All the interactive play and make believe, I have a 3-year-old and he’s in heaven,” she said of Cole’s play in the miniature J&J Foods and on the fire engine. “I had four friends who came with me and they were so excited. We had such a good time, we’ll be back for sure.”

Her friend Jessica Cole, visiting for the first time, said her son Jackson, 2, enjoyed the grocery store and the police car, too.

“This was so much fun; it’s so realistic,” she said. “The police car, the grocery store.”

Last year, close to 50,000 visitors passed through INK’s doors. Hooper said this year is on track to surpass that amount, with 4,900 visitors in July alone.

She expects at least 500 will be using their imaginations on Saturday when they gather for the birthday party.

“Their imagination is incredible,” said Hooper. “They’re our next inventors, and they’re already proving that. They go back (to the exhibits) and say, ‘wow.’ But they amaze me; I go back and say ‘wow’ on a daily basis.”