Sunnyside Swap Shop closed on August 31, 2013.

We have re-opened as Southside Swap & Play in the Woodstock neighborhood and are accepting new member families! Please visit our new website for information about membership!

Start Your Own


If you are reading this from across town, across the country or across the planet and are wanting to know . . . what would it take to start a swap and play environment in my own neighborhood? Those of us who have worked hard to start the first few swap and play spaces are eager to see this great way of living grow and prosper.

If you would like more information than you can gather from reading this page and looking through our web sites, please consider becoming a supportive member of one of the existing swap and play communities so that we can help you as we help all our members to better understand how this supportive form of community works.

Suggested steps:

1) Keep it simple. All it takes is 6 mammas and a garage. Really, we are serious about this. All you need is a group of families and a spare space – a place where you can collect the things you want to share with each other that is also big enough for kids to run around in all kinds of weather. Plenty of fancy places exist with rides and slides and big operating costs. That does not have to be you.

2) Let the culture of your community dictate what makes the most sense for your co-operative. You can start by assessing the financial resources of your families. What amount of monthly financial donation is realistic for the majority of families in your area? None of us figured out how much it was going to cost to run our organizations and then based the monthly fee on that figure. We evaluated what was affordable for local families and figured out how to run our spaces on that amount. We also matched the look of our spaces to the natural comfort zone of our families. In the suburbs, things are more brightly colored and placed in neat rows. In the more “earthy” areas of inner city Portland, Oregon muted colors and a more casual display of items for swap and play is more acceptable. Visiting a few popular local preschools will give you an idea of what families in your area need to see and feel so that they are reassured that a play space is safe and well run.

3) Look at what already exists for free or for a low cost and build from there. The original co-operative, the Sunnyside Swap Shop Co-op, was started with equipment from three main sources: 1) The furniture and toys that already existed in the nursery and Sunday school area of the Sunnyside Methodist Church. 2) Toys and equipment held in storage from a grant funded indoor playground that had closed down a few years before. 3) All the preschool toys from the main organizer’s family since her youngest daughter was entering kindergarten. Easily $25,000 worth of furniture and equipment were put in place before any money was spent just from gathering things that already existed and were being underused.

When looking for a space to gather in, you can look for spaces already built with children in mind that are unused most of the week. Many churches have nurseries and play rooms that, if they haven’t already been rented out to preschools, make great swap and play gathering spaces. The things that you may not be able to get for free or be willing to do without and will want to budget for:

a. Building use fee/utilities
b. Liability Insurance
c. Custodial costs
d. Arts and crafts supplies
e. Cleaning supplies
f. Marketing materials/Advertising fees
g. First aid supplies
h. Legal and business fees

4) Find the easiest business structure to begin with and grow from there.

FISCAL SPONSORSHIP: In America, many non-profit organizations will “fiscally sponsor” new community projects, lending their non-profit status while you form and grow. To do this, all the money you collect and spend flows through the sponsoring organization and often a percentage is charged (5-15%) to cover the administrative costs of this service. When the Sunnyside Swap Shop Co-op started, every new member wrote their joining fee and monthly checks to Southeast Uplift – a local non-profit whose stated mission is assisting the citizens and neighborhood associations of Southeast Portland to create communities that are livable, socially diverse, safe and vital. We kept this relationship for our first year.

SOLE PROPRIETOR LLC: The next easiest business structure at the time the first three swap and play organizations were formed in Oregon is a sole proprietor LLC. The director or main facilitator/coordinator lists herself or himself as the owner and the costs are very minimal in comparison with the costs of creating a new non-profit. Check with your state or country or country to see what options you have for starting a basic business. You can browse the web and email or call your local city hall or Capital building to get information on the exact county, city and federal departments you need to register with.

Sole Proprietor LLC will work well as an ongoing model if you are renting space in a commercial building.  It becomes problematic if you are hoping to use part of a building held by a non-profit such as space in a church.  The non-profit renting to you will need to be aware of how it affects their property tax exempt status to be renting to a for profit.

Also, there are more restrictions on marketing your program in libraries and schools and other public places if you are set up as a for profit business.

CO-OP: If you see value in using the word co-op or co-operative in your name, familiarize yourself with the guidelines for this word in your state or country. The swap and play organizational model is most closely associated with the organizational model used by co-op preschools who often use the word co-op or co-operative in their name but not structured like a food or housing co-op that follow certain structural practices about voting and ownership. If you are not structured as a co-op for business purposes as most co-op preschools are not, there are restrictions on the use of the word co-op and co-operative to be aware of.

NON-PROFIT: Either right at the beginning or at some point, becoming part of a non-profit or a non-profit in your own right has its advantages especially for expanding the options of where you can rent space and for getting the word out about your organization inside of public schools and public libraries. Becoming part of an existing non-profit is often an easier (and less costly) route if you can find a non-profit whose goals and mission are similar to yours. The Sunnyside Swap Shop Co-op is currently a sustainability project of The Windward Center. St. Johns SwapNPlay is applying for non-profit status and is finding that there are more steps involved in switching to non-profit from for-profit than their would have been to have just started out as a non-profit.

DECISION STRUCTURE: Whether or not your business structure requires a board or votes from a board or members to function, it is still a good idea to have a handful of the members that are most interested in how the project is run and organized serve with you on an advisory board that meets with regularly – monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly – to discuss ideas on how to best run the organization.

5) What kind of insurance do I need and what will it cost: Because we are not supervising children, parents do that themselves, our insurance is a basic liability policy. These type of policies are available for under $1,000 per year from various insurers.

6) How many hours and what programs to offer: While most people don’t like a noisy, packed crowd when they are trying to relax and play, families like company – friends for their children to play with and other adults to talk to. Having enough hours of play so that everyone fits in comfortably but no one is lonely is the art of it all. Special meet up activities help people make plans to come in at certain times and also helps reassure them that other families will likely be there too. Some popular meet ups that you might want to try:

a. Music Time: a circle of children with an instructor leading songs and hand clapping games.
b. Arts and Crafts class: Your crafting area can be open all the time for parent managed crafting but not all parents are equally crafty and having an instructor once or twice a week that provides project ideas and patient guidance around scissors, glue and paint is a real plus.
c. Live Music: This is as much for the parents as the kids. Live music is soothing and enlivens the spirit. It doesn’t take a 5 piece band to have good music for families. Acoustic guitar or a few instruments together are usually well received.
d. Puppet Shows: Always a big hit. If the kids can make puppets and help with the show, all the better.
e. Health Talks: Everything from managing allergies to early potty training is of interest to new parents and a group gathering allows families to share stories and advice with each other.
f. Shared Meals: Eating out at restaurants is often stressful with small children. Whether it’s a potluck or a served meal with a fee charged, parents appreciate a place to come to where food is healthy and affordable.
g. Language Classes: A second language is a great skill to have at any age. Singing and playing games in one of the most common second languages for your area is a great place to start.
h. Yoga Classes: Family style, just for kids or just for adults – this is an accessible physical activity for all ages and skill levels.

And where do you find the resources for these programs? Member fees can be used to compensate some instructors, some families will volunteer as their co-op job to take these roles, some families can take these roles in lieu of paying member fees.

7) Who does what: Which brings us to the question, how does everything get done in a co-operative swap and play space? Families with young children are, by their nature, busy and challenged to make specific commitments. Illnesses and the ever changing nap schedules of small children make it hard for parents to keep a consistent schedule. You may want to consider contracting out for certain jobs, such as custodial work and accounting that need to be done consistently. With that said, the more families you have in your co-operative, the more people there are to divide tasks between and the more things that can get done by members. Tasks that have been successfully taken on by families include:
a. Cleaning: Wiping down areas of play.
b. Organizing: Keeping like toys, books, craft supplies and clothing together and well labeled in bins and on shelves.
c. Maintenance: Minor repairs of the building and equipment.
d. Bookkeeping: A nice job to do at night when the kids are in bed.
e. Graphic design: We get some great brochure and poster designs from our member families.
f. Marketing: Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. Families helping with booths at street fairs and speaking up at library gatherings helps get the word out about who you are and where you are and how to join.

8) How young and how old are the kids in a swap and play? While parents love gathering and swapping clothing and equipment even before children are born, the way our co-operatives have been set up around play, families tend to wait until their child is at least 6 months to join and the most common ages are one year old to three years old. Preschoolers and elementary kids still enjoy the space and the trading of toys, books and clothes but also have other activities in the community (school, sports, art and music classes) that they are involved in. The Sunnyside Swap Shop Co-op started a branch of its program, called The Roost, for middle school students and though using this teen space on Friday nights for all ages was able to encouraged families to keep their memberships active as children grow out of the toddler/preschool years. Your program can be as targeted to one age group or as broad as you have the energy and space to provide good services.

9) How to “police” the swapping of items? This all depends on the cultural norms of the community you live in. All our swapping relies on the honor system, asking families to manage their own giving and taking and this has worked well. Items come and go steadily from our spaces. We mark some things “not-for-swap” so they stay around for all to enjoy and make some swapping like-for-like (as in: only take a wooden train car if you have brought a wooden train car). Because there is some effort involved in joining the co-op (paying a joining fee, taking a tour, picking a co-op job to do that helps out everyone) we tend to attract the families that are willing to do their share and are good natured about the give and take of life.

10) What is it like to be the director of a swap and play? We will all be honest and tell you that it is a labor of love – a time intensive project with many rewards. You can structure the organization so that there is enough funding to pay yourself for your time (in the area of hundreds of dollars per month but not necessarily thousands of dollars per month and you my spend periods of time with no income at all). There are certainly easier ways to make money.

We do save a lot of money for our families in reducing the cost of clothes and books and toys and not spending as much money to be out and about entertaining our children. We get to see our own children grow up as we are working. We feel good about what we are doing to better use the planet’s resources and stave off the loneliness and isolation that can sometime come with parenting small children. In some ways it is similar to running a day care in your home, except it is not right in your own home and you can more easily take vacations and flex your time to suit your family’s schedule.

We recommend picking a title for yourself that suits how you want to be treated. Director carries a level of authority that can be helpful. Facilitator/coordinator (while it takes longer to type) can be used to show that you are facilitating and coordinating the collective work of all the families participating and not wishing to be treated as an ultimate authority or the person to blame for how things are going.

11) How do I know if I have what it takes to be the leader/organizer of a swap and play space? Here are some questions to ask yourself to help determine if this is a good path for you . . .

a. Are you a self starter? Even with this nice list and a handful of co-operatives already up and running, this is hardly an established practice. There are not seminars and how to books and lots of guidance to get you through the first year.
b. Are you organized and at the same time easy going? If you are too loose about things, nothing will get off the ground. If you are too strict, people won’t as easily develop a co-operative spirit. If you can get along with all kinds of people and give firm answers that are well received, you will probably do quite well. People will be looking to you to lead but, at the same time, not to be too bossy or easily offended.
c. Are you a good sales person by nature? No matter what price is set for your joining fee and ongoing member fees there will be people telling you you are charging too little or too much (usually the later). Can you believe in what you are doing and know that what is being offered is well worth what is being charged?
d. Do you really, really, really like kids? Not just your own and not just the ones that are smiling and happy and well raised and well behaved. Do you have a special place in your heart for all kids and all parents as they are just getting through their day best as they know how?
e. Can you be a good parent and a good business person at the same time? Some of us are better parents when we are also well engaged in community and some of us find the pull between the two worlds to be too much. If you can teach a class or give a presentation with your own children in the room and everyone is happier for it, then you will probably do fine. If you children fall apart if you are holding a conversation with another adult or interacting with another child, this could be a tough road.

12) The importance of patience and persistence. It’s easy to get excited about creating a place to swap books, toys and clothing while gathering to play. Those of us who now have several years of experience pulling this all together can tell you that it doesn’t all magically happen overnight. Here are some things we have learned along the way that may help you out:
a. Too small of a space makes it hard to gain momentum. Waiting for a space that is big enough for at least a dozen families to spread out in and that is open enough hours for working families and stay-at-home families to use will make it easier to establish yourself.
b. Churches (and other charitable organizations) can sometimes take a long time to make decisions. Make yourself available and easy to get to know so you aren’t an outsider or a stranger as decisions are being made.
c. Open while there is still work to be done. Nothing bonds a community like working together. Leave a few things unpainted and unfinished so families can put their own touches on their new second home.

OK, so there you have it, a shareware version how to start your own Swap and Play space.

If you feel like you are ready to go and this is all you need to know, our best wishes go with you as you set out to shape the type of gathering space that makes the most sense for who you are and for the community you live in.

If we can be of more help on your journey, please contact one or more of us to become a supporting member of an existing co-operative as you learn and grow. As a member, you will receive regular member emails – a great way to learn the ins and outs of how a swap and play runs – including access to budgetary reports and useful forms. Also you’ll have someone to talk with by phone or connect with by email, and, if you live close enough, access to come visit and spend time with active swap and play members.

Words of wisdom from the women who have come before you on this journey . . .

“If I truly knew the challenges that lay ahead of me, I would have walked more slowly but if I knew the joys and rewards I would have walked much faster or even run. When I look back, I realize that I walked at the pace I could handle . . . one step at a time.” – Karen Hery – founder of the original swap and play space.

“As I was dreaming the concept of this resource sharing opportunity for families, Karen Hery was creating it in her neighborhood. I was fortunate to be made aware of the Sunnyside Swap Shop Co-op and immediately became a member even though I lived a ½ hour drive from the location. I spent a year coming to understand the model and being mentored under Karen Hery as I was an active, contributing member. I highly recommend this process even if you don’t live close enough to visit often or at all. Just the weekly member emails alone will give you guidance.

I am grateful to be in contact with the collective of swap and play spaces and delighted to now be mentoring others.

I can’t speak highly enough about how important it is to honor the work that came before you. Please be in touch with us and join one of our organizations if you are starting your own.” – Andrea Davey – founder of the second swap and play space.