Saying extended days and sessions at nursery schools, increased competition on the children’s party scene and cultural shifts away from free play and toward programming all have affected her business, the owner of Let’s Dress Up on Cherry Street is closing at the end of the month.
Since Judy Famigletti opened the princess-themed creative play space in November 2009, scores of 3- to 6-year-old New Canaan girls have donned dresses, tiaras and slippers, sipped tea, outfitted dolls, climbed into tents, learned table manners and played with all kinds of toys in this bright, colorful shop, inventing and sharing their stories.
At the end of this month, Famigletti said, she will retire from the New Canaan business—one of the few that remains in town that operates on principles that include “no technology/gadgets allowed”—while an original shop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan continues to operate.
“I have had a wonderful time,” the spry 70-year-old, a Danbury native and New York City resident who graduated from Danbury State Teachers College and earned a master’s degree in education from Queens College prior to launching a career in early childhood education, said on a recent morning, standing by a stack of well-used pink and white dishes at Let’s Dress Up.
“I have loved the town. Loved the children.”
Yet the traditional business model couldn’t sustain, Famigletti said, amid expanding nursery school programs as well as changes to the way parents steer their kids through the pre-kindergarten years. Specifically, structured programs such as youth sports are starting far earlier in children’s lives than in the past, and in general the practice of free, open and creative playtime has given way to programming, Famigletti said.
“I think the community has changed. The needs have changed,” she said.
“When I came here six years ago, I used to be packed in the afternoon with ‘Open Play’ and what has happened is the nursery schools have extended their time to 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon. And at 3 o’clock they pick up their kids and involve their children in sports.”
In addition, Famigletti said, parents now have an option to extend nursery school programs through June whereas they used to end at Memorial Day.
As a result, she said, “My business turned into days off from school, summer camp and birthday parties, which started cutting way back this spring. I had not done the volume of birthday parties I had been doing.”
Asked why she thought the birthday party business appeared to be declining, Famigletti noted that convenient “big open play spaces” such as Pump It Up in Norwalk “where you can put a lot of children in at once” have gained market share.
Even so, Let’s Dress Up has seen strong retention amid loyal fans of its summer camp. Even with parents turning toward a model where they choose specific “classes” for young children, the kids have helped the camp business grow.
I think the children have sold my camp—they beg to come back,” Famigletti said.
She launched the New Canaan location six years ago when she began spending more time in town after the birth of her second granddaughter. Famigletti would bring the older girl, then two, with her to the shop (her son and daughter-in-law still live in New Canaan and they now have three kids).
“I had her here every day until she went to full-time kindergarten,” Famigletti recalled. “This was even before she was in nursery school. I watched my granddaughter play.”
The following year, the girl started what then were regular nursery school hours (at the Y)—9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays as a 3-year-old, then Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon the following year. Within a few years, all of the nursery schools offered extended days, to 2 p.m., she said.
Asked what she felt was major attraction for parents in that type of program, Famigletti said that they have more freedom and more time.
“But it is a totally structured program, whereas this is play,” she said.