One thing is evident as soon as you enter Olly Olly Play Café: It's all about imagination. The first element you notice is the massive medieval castle where kids can perch on a throne, hide in the dungeon, or fly down an ultra-slippery slide.
Owner Emi Kelsey designed the whole place around the theme of fairytales because she thinks it is a topic that appeals equally to girls and boys. So it's fitting that the next thing you spot is a boy-friendly pirate ship, the type of climbing structure you might expect to see in a backyard.
Kids get the chance to steer the wheel, try out spyglasses and binoculars, or hunker down in the hull of the ship. And they're just as likely to try on a pirate hat or hook to make believe as they are a pink princess gown (although there is quite a collection of those in the dress-up closet).
My 2-year-old nephew mostly alternated between pretend cooking and peeking out of the pirate ship's porthole, giving his mom and me a chance for a grown-up chat.
The castle and pirate ship are the centerpieces of the storefront play space, but they're far from the only things. A few smaller areas in the back contain more typical elements, like a kitchen area, arts and crafts table, puppet stage and baby toy room, but most still fit with the fairytale theme. Where else can you find a stick horse that's actually a stick unicorn?
The shoe-free facility (slippers are available to borrow, or socks to buy) is clean and bright, with antibacterial wipes available in several places, as well as bins for toys that end up in little mouths. When tummies start to growl, the café offers a variety of baked goods and free coffee, and salads, sandwiches and omelets from Meg's Café down the street.
Kelsey says the facility also has princess and pirate-themed birthday parties in the second floor space, as well as weekend classes.
And as for our excursion, I'll say this: my nephew didn't stop talking about that pirate ship for the rest of the day. That's an endorsement as far as I'm concerned.
Elizabeth Diffin is the associate editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.