Devin Pirko and Ashley Gibbs with one of their sensory play kits

Ashland University grad student and best friend start business of sensory play kits for children

Published on May 04, 2023
College of Education

Ashley Gibbs decided to start taking graduate classes at Ashland University in 2021 for a lot of the same reasons she started a business of sensory play kits for children last fall with her best friend.

“I liked that it was all online, as I have two little ones at home and am constantly on the go,” said the Canfield High School biology teacher, who added that she also chose AU because its Master of Education program was highly rated by several of her colleagues.

The business started when she needed something to keep her 2-year-old son busy while she was pregnant with her second child. That’s when her friend, Devin Pirko, a dental hygienist in North Jackson, introduced her to the concept of a sensory bin.

Pirko created her first sensory bin for her son when he was 2 years old because she needed a way to keep him busy while they were locked down during COVID.

“I threw some dry black beans in a bin with some construction vehicles, and it kept him busy for hours,” PIrko said. “I saw the benefits with my son, and so I began creating them as gifts for friends of mine, including Ashley and her son, Greyson.

“We used beans, sand, corn and the kids always loved it, played for long periods of time and their imaginations soared while they played,” Pirko added.

Then they started a social media site for local parents that included things like “Sensory Sundays.” Soon, people began asking them for their play kits.

“Next thing you know, we were signing up to attend a local fall market, where we were able to bring an oversized corn-based sensory table, as well as ready-made sensory bins that were available for purchase,” Gibbs said. “One event led to another and here we are today … more local events and now on Etsy as well.”

They are constantly working on creating new items while still keeping fan favorites in stock, such as their “On the Farm” corn kit and lavender-infused rice kit with all-natural, toxin-free essential oils and taste-safe dyes.

Taking her master’s classes at AU, which Gibbs plans to complete in spring 2024, has solidified with her that all students learn differently. That’s why they create a variety of play kits, which they have discovered can be beneficial for people of all ages.

“In addition to toddlers who learn best through experimentation and imaginative play, other benefits can be found for individuals who benefit from occupational therapy, arthritic individuals suffering from stiffness, as well as individuals who deal with anxiousness and stress,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs has enjoyed watching her students constantly coming up to “play” with the sensory kit she keeps on her desk in her classroom before class starts or when they’re feeling anxious about exams.

When the two friends started the business, they didn’t even consider a target audience would have been individuals on the autism spectrum who often deal with anxiousness, Gibbs said.

They couldn’t be happier about becoming increasingly involved in the special-needs community because of their calming sensory play kits, Pirko said.

In its March-April edition, Parenting Special Needs Magazine featured their business, Who_isYoMama.

While trying to come up with a name for their social media page and business, Pirko said they wanted something catchy, fun and geared toward parents.

“We are both from Youngstown and love our local roots,” Pirko said. “Youngstown is such a supportive community and is lovingly referred to as ‘The Yo.’ We had a few ideas we were throwing around and I came up with Who_isYoMama."

Probably the most fun part of starting Who_isYoMama for both women is working together when they have spare time, which is often weekends.  

“Obviously doing this with someone I love, trust and respect so much has made this third job of mine so easy to take on,” said Pirko, who also works for Waterpik as a professional educator in the Youngstown area. “Ashley and I have very similar views on children, family and work values.”

When one of the women has a busier week at work or a sick child, the other picks up the slack. Because they are good at different parts of the business, they work seamlessly together, the two agree.

“I couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone else,” Pirko said. “Ashley and I have always wanted to work together in some way. Years ago, we began brainstorming ideas and nothing ever felt right, until this. It was something we already loved and felt so passionate about and we are so happy others see that and feel the same.”

For more information about Who_isYoMama, visit Facebook and Instagram (who_isyomama).