Kids, adults + free playing at Boulder’s Junkyard Social Club

The playground, coffee shop and children’s museum where kids and adults learn and create together in Boulder.

By Jess Mordacq Oct 8 2021

Part children’s museum, part playground, part coffee shop, Junkyard Social Club, which softly opened this summer in east Boulder at 2525 Frontier Ave.’s Unit A, offers an unconventional playground made of “junk” that encourages free playing and a space for both adults and their kids to enjoy.

Free playing defines a type of play not limited by a space or toy’s design, where the possibilities for creativity and interaction increase with each choice a child makes.

The Junkyard Social Club, where volunteers constructed the 6,000-square-foot playground from recycled materials, offers that in spades.

Junkyard Social Club play structure. Credit: Jessica Mordacq

Though the outdoor area, mainly for elementary-aged children, housed after-school programs and its first summer camp this year, designers also paid special attention to making room for grownups too, since most spaces don’t actively integrate both groups.

While kids use the playground made out of repurposed materials, parents can finish work inside the café, separated from their children only by a wall lined with windows and garage doors. Junkyard Social Club will also host adult educational activities during the day, where skilled community craftspeople teach a creative, but realistic skill, like how to rewire a lamp.

Starting this fall, adult programming will run 8-11 p.m. and include movies, concerts, open-mic and board game nights, sip-and-paint classes, and a handful of cocktails and draft beers.

Jill Katzenberger. Credit: Junkyard Social Club

In designing the space, executive director and one of the organization’s leading founders Jill Katzenberger wanted to create a place similar to one she’d only seen while visiting Amsterdam, where street cafes open up to parks and plazas with playing children. Back in Boulder, she noticed establishments clearly designed either for 21-year old partiers, yuppies or families, but rarely ones that simultaneously satisfied these demographics.

Jill hopes to build a staircase up to this donated WWII model plane and a railing around the shipping container next to the to-use inventory. Credit: Jessica Mordacq

To create Junkyard Social Club, volunteers gathered every Sunday throughout the pandemic to build the playground from gathered materials.

At a salvage yard, Jill bought a Volkswagen bus and several car hoods that artists welded together to create umbrellas. The treehouse was once a sculpture at Burning Man, now repurposed with countless nooks to play hide-and-seek or make a fort in.

Chief Experience Officer Ryan Madson and his dad built the outdoor stage, complete with tunnels, a climbable arch and aerial rig. Jill and Ryan are both circus performers and have put on several of such shows with other organizations.

The playground’s back corner holds a to-use inventory, including license plates and donut pans that will line the indoor coffee bar, as well as pallets and spare wood that will complete an indoor play structure.

Jill expects to add to the playground and to hold art junk days where the community can come help artists craft pieces like crocheted bike rack covers or mosaic garden pavers.

Free playing

Credit: Jessica Mordacq

Free play is especially common in children’s science museum exhibits like Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Discovery Zone, which Jill used to manage. There, she saw kids build freely in the Construction Corner or taste test in the Science Kitchen, leaving her wondering why play has to end after childhood.

Free play doesn’t happen so much at playgrounds, where slides and monkey bars are often just that. At Junkyard Social Club, children can remove and reposition loose clamps, pipes and ropes, exercising creative agency over their toys.

Jill points out a sink attached to the treehouse. During an after-school program that week, one child asked Jill how he might transfer water from the tub into the sink. Together, they experimented with pulleys, tubes and the physics of play, just some of which are integrated throughout the playground.

The junkyard journey

While pregnant with her first child, Jill wrote her business plan for Kinetic Playground, which would eventually become Junkyard Social Club. Soon after, she and Boulder-based scientist and one of the creative forces behind an effort to bring a science discovery space in Boulder Kristin Lawrence came together to attempt to establish what they called The Hopper in 2016.

The organization’s participating Boulder locals and parents tested concepts for a new type of play, organized STEM events and even planned for a 14,000-square-foot innovative playground like the Junkyard Social Club.

Though they dreamed of a next-level Boulder science museum, and even received seed funding from Kristin, The Hopper couldn’t find an investor during the pandemic and dissolved into the Junkyard Social Club, which retains some of The Hopper’s staff.

Tired of unexecuted playground plans at a previous endeavor, The Hopper, Jill visited scrap yards and antique collectors to find items that started informing the playground’s layout.

Kristin remains an advisor and financial supporter who owns Junkyard Social Club’s building, helping develop the organization from The Hopper into a community-driven nonprofit.

Instead of continuing a fruitless investor search, Junkyard Social Club started a $40,000 crowdfunding campaign goal to build the cafe. The organization exceeded the goal and will use the remaining funds for the indoor play structure’s building permits, which will allow for a stage in the seating area’s back corner.