Snapology classes and discovery centers use Lego® bricks, K’NEX®, and Mega Bloks® to teach children about math, science, technology, engineering, and literacy—all in a fun, nonjudgmental environment. Building “gives kids who are not going to be a star quarterback a way to be a star, learn skills that will help them the rest of their lives. Not all kids are athletes. I was a mathlete. I loved Legos® when I was a kid—when I buy my son a new Lego kit, I’m as excited as he is to build it!” says Laura Coe, Snapology founder.
Before the Coe sisters became business partners, they were best friends and neighbors. Eventually, Laura wanted to create a business that could involve her children. More importantly, Laura wanted that business to be educational. When she started researching robotics classes in 2009, there wasn’t much available. She found one franchise that offered kids’ building classes, but it was a franchise—every cup, paper plate, and napkin had to be purchased from the franchisor. She wasn’t interested in entering into that strict business relationship, but teaching kids about robotics and engineering sounded exciting.
To get started, Laura and her sister Lisa piloted their robotics classes in local schools for children between the ages of six and twelve. These classes were so popular that the Coe sisters quickly formed wait lists and hired educators to teach and consult. “You do one school, then other schools in that district want you to bring your programming to their school. It just kept building, like a snowball,” Laura explains. Their growth was natural, but fast.
As for the catchy name? “My sister and I and my boys were in the family room brainstorming with terms like brick, click, and snap, and the six year old says ‘Snapology!’” The name stuck. In Pennsylvania, their competition in children’s programming focused solely on robotics, animation, or birthday parties. Laura knew they needed to go farther. “We had the name, classes, supplies in the garage—we at least had to have an office…and…if we’re going to have an office, we should at least have a discovery center. Birthday parties, classes. In two months we were booked solid for birthday parties! By the winter we were booked solid for two years.” The Coe sisters developed curriculum and Scout programs, and looked for a place to rent. Their first Discovery Center offered open play with a plethora of building blocks that no single family could afford—all for a reasonable hourly rate.
After the first three to four months they realized that they needed to develop a better business model. “Early on we started talking about franchising. I had owned a franchise, but didn’t like the ‘dictatorship’ model. Then mom said, ‘Why not do licensing like dad and I did?’ That sounded good! We started documenting everything: business model, name, logo, curriculum, forms— employee application, parent waiver; class packet—methods, procedures,” Laura reports. Other licensed Snapology businesses soon sprouted across the country. Because the businesses are licensed—the Coes don’t take ten cents on every dollar or require a specific attention to detail—the programs are affordable. Licensees email each other.
The sisters’ business model is flexible. Laura calls it modular. “You don’t need a discovery center. Most start just offering classes—and that’s ok. We talk through goals and challenges and help them develop their own plans. We work in ways like a partnership. One licensee developed a class called ‘Monster Mania’ and now we are all using it. Our first annual convention for all licensees is on the horizon.” The business branched out geographically, and currently has thirteen regional licensees.
photos by Angela Todd
The original Snapology recently expanded into a new 5,000-square-foot Discovery Center around the corner from the first wee space (1,500 square feet). They offer birthday parties, free play, homeschool classes, and thirty programs including stop-gap animation; themed camps and classes that revolve around amusement parks; mosaic techniques; castles, wizards and princesses; Angry Birds®; Minecraft®; and Star Wars®. Their programs are used in forty to fifty different schools, recreational centers, and libraries. They even have a new trading area where students can trade their Lego minifigures!
As a mom, I appreciate the insider info that two moms bring to the business. On an unexpected snow day, there they are in my Facebook feed reminding me that they’re open. Snapology offers special programs for your child on almost every obscure holiday. The Coe sisters even use the restrooms as an opportunity to provide superior customer service. There are different-height stools for reaching the sinks, and a padded, clean potty adapter for small bottoms.
I asked the delicate question I’d wondered about: what’s the story on girls and Legos? “We do Girl Scout programs. Girls like Legos. Girls don’t want to play with pink bricks—they just want to build and play. Period. In the animation classes you see a difference. Girls usually have plots in their movies, while boys usually have crashing.” After years of watching her brother head off to Snapology, my daughter went to a week-long camp this summer. She had a great time and made friends with other girls at the camp, too!
I also wanted to know what The Lego Group thought about their business. “I contacted them and said ‘I want to make sure you’re OK with this,’ and followed the Play Well rules. Lego doesn’t want us to compete with LegoLand,” Laura laughs. “Basically, as long as you’re not strictly Lego, you’re OK. We use their product and follow their rules.”
I ask Laura about special needs kids. Laura estimates that 20–30% of their clientele falls under the term “special needs,” but as we talk, the real diversity of that term reveals itself.
“Most kids like playing with Lego bricks, but for some children, that play takes on a greater importance: It helps them learn how to get along with other kids.” Parents and therapists love Snapology, and Laura shares that “some programs are paid by insurance, especially for our summer programs.”
There is increasing documentation of building’s therapeutic impact. According to John Baichtal and Joe Meno in The Cult of LEGO:
Autistic children suffer from a limited ability to interact with other children; it’s a handicap that can’t be overcome by forcing the child into social situations. Autistic kids must be coaxed into these critical interactions, lured into building the social skills most kids learn automatically. And what better way to challenge a kid’s critical weakness than to involve them in an activity that appeals to their strongest suit?….The surprising effectiveness of LEGO therapy has not gone unnoticed in more traditional settings. At the Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health (CNNH) in Voorhees, New Jersey, an organization devoted to helping patients conquer brain disorders, doctors and therapists have been offering LEGO therapy for autistic children for more than 15 years.
Kids with sensory processing disorder also learn well with Legos, exerting control over the colors and sounds of their own play. Eventually most kids join in and build those skills. Legos are leveling the playing field. “We had a class of 18-year-old non-verbal special needs men who came to do a hand-over-hand project building pinwheels. They were delighted! Laughing and grinning and taking the pinwheels over to the fans,” Laura says.
Snapology has also worked with Reading is Fundamental, which brings books to “underserved children from birth to age eight.” Some of those kids have never seen Lego bricks. So that whole exposure to building is new. I also recently learned that Snapology is in dialogue with Beverly’s Birthdays, a service organization that throws birthday parties for kids in homeless shelters. Miss Megs, founder of Beverly’s Birthdays – Spreading Birthday Cheer for At-Risk Youth, says that while homeless kids may not have the luxury of collecting Legos, they absolutely lose themselves in the process of creative building.
Snapology works so well because it is flexible, and because the goal is to keep kids happy and engaged. “Kids do not need to be partnered off. Put on a team or right there beside each other, kids who build in proximity are also learning. Kids with autism are presenting their work to the class—kids get a chance to break out of their issues,” Laura says.