Sonja Janjic wants kids to have time to be kids.
“I think there are so many expectations and pressures on them,” she said. “I wanted to create an art space where they are in charge and lead the way and the play is self-guided.”
Last January, Janjic created that space when she opened Owl Feet, which she describes as a place for “encouraging kids to find inspiration from ‘junk’, nature and each other.”
Located at Janjic’s home in Charlotte, Owl Feet hosts a Monday after-school program for children between the ages of 5 and 10 and a Friday morning toddler group for those ranging from 18 months to 4-years-old.
In the warmer months, it is also the site of a summer camp. Janjic creates a structure for the older kids but allows them to work loosely within it. She described an incident when one of her charges became frustrated with the papier-mâché pig he was creating. The next step should have been for him to start painting the pig but he wanted to destroy it. Although she was initially hesitant, Janjic allowed him to do so and the rest of the class gathered around and studied how the inside of the construction looked very different from the outside.
“It was a very neat exploration,” she said, “and we wouldn’t have had that if I had said no.”
The word no is also one that Janjic tries to avoid for the toddler group. “It’s not a free for all,” she said “but it’s a chance for them to flex their autonomy and use their fine and gross motor skills. I wanted a space that is about saying yes.”
Janjic noted that there is a loose structure to the day which always includes a song, Playdough and a sensory bin.
“The children are the ones who choose how they move through the space,” she said. “It’s too easy to get in the habit of saying ‘no’ to toddlers who are testing their limits. I try to be very deliberate with my ‘nos.’ I wanted a space for parents to relax and kids to feel safe moving around.”
Janjic spent some time living on an Australian farm which was off the grid. “It was an eye-opening experience,” she said. “Everything the farmer did was deliberate and thoughtful.”
As a result, she tries hard to limit her own waste and encourages her young charges to make art out of things that might otherwise be thrown away. She has been pleased that some of the kids have taken her lessons to heart and tell her about projects they’ve done at home using recyclables and other found objects.
The 28-year-old Janjic has always been an artist, working mostly with acrylics, watercolors and mixed media, but these days the new business and her toddler son Sawyer have reduced the time she has for art.
“I make homemade presents and birthday cards,” she said “but I’m spending less time on my own projects.”
Janjic and her partner Alex Lalli moved to Charlotte four years ago and she is happy to be raising their son Sawyer in a rural environment. She takes care of three other area children at their home. In addition to her work with kids, Janjic is teaching adult workshops in shibori which is a Japanese fabric technique.
“I’ve discovered I enjoy working with adults,” she said, “but early childhood development really lights me up. It’s been hard balancing being a mom, finding time for myself and starting a business but I really love what I do.”