For parents to feel truly comfortable shopping for long periods of time, their children must be entertained. And ideally, the activity should free the parents to do what they want without worrying about whether their kids are having fun.

Hourly childcare has not caught on in shopping centers. Maybe it's because leasing agents don't see immediate dollars or understand the potential for higher overall center sales - at least not yet.

Sue Dunkley, president of Minneapolis-based New Horizon Kids Quest Inc., expects it won't be long before retail leasing agents and shopping center managers realize the benefits a childcare operation can bring to a center. Currently, there are two Kids Quest locations in retail settings: one that opened in 1991 at Eden Prairie Center in Eden Prairie, Minn., and another that opened in April 1998 at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

"Kids Quest is a cross between a children's museum, a Discovery Zone and the finest childcare you can get," Dunkley says. The company has been in the childcare business since 1971 and operates 65 traditional centers, 18 Kids Quest locations and four arcade operations known as Cyber Quest, featuring non-violent games.

The Kids Quest environment, suitable for children age 6 weeks to 12 years, combines fun with physical activity and learning. Each location features The Quest, a floor-to-ceiling climbing maze and play structure. Other activities include a construction quarry utilizing Duplos and Legos; an interactive karaoke stage; a theater equipped with a large-screen TV and child-size accessories; and Sega, Nintendo and interactive CD-ROMs.

The edutainment-type center aims to provide a positive environment and boost children's self-esteem. "The goal is for the child to walk away and say, 'Look what I did,' " Dunkley says.

Of course, that wouldn't happen with just the play equipment and the activities. The staff interacts with the children, climbing in the tubes, playing games and coaching them.

"The staff make the difference, along with the passion we have here for what we do," Dunkley says. Extensive training is part of the operation. Teachers are experienced in child development, and everyone working on the floor is certified in CPR and first-aid training.

"Kids Quest teachers have the same qualifications as do those in our traditional New Horizon childcare centers," Dunkley says. And success in traditional care is what led to the founding of Kids Quest.

First opened in 1991 at Eden Prairie Center, the concept has evolved considerably. Kids Quest as it is known today was founded in the early 1990s, when a casino operator in Minnesota approached New Horizon to develop a concept that would entertain children in his facility while allowing parents the freedom to enjoy the casino.

Today, Kids Quest is making its mark in the casino business, with 16 locations already open and several more planned. The company and the casino operate as a partnership, sharing in the profit that Kids Quest generates. The casino provides the space, pays a management fee and is in charge of marketing, while Kids Quest operates the facility and purchases the equipment, which alone can range from $400,000 to $1.2 million. A similar arrangement would be made in a retail setting.

Marketed properly as an amenity, Kids Quest can extend shopping time, increase repeat business and build customer loyalty. Troy Dunkley, vice president of the company, says, "It becomes a relationship where our primary goal is to enhance the experience of the people who visit the property, instead of maximizing our own profit."

Opportunities also exist to combine Kids Quest with a traditional, New Horizons center that could provide childcare options for mall employees.

"That's the future of our product," Sue Dunkley says, adding that both retail sites feature the combination.

As for expansion, Kids Quest plans to continue working with the casinos and is poised to open more units in retail environments. "We aren't really pursuing it," says Troy Dunkley. "Now people are coming to us."

Retail outlet: Kids Quest

Headquarters: New Horizon Kids Quest Inc., 13705 First Avenue North, Minneapolis, MN 55441; (612) 557-1111

Real estate contact: Troy Dunkley, vice president, (612) 383-6230

Number of units: 2 (retail); 15 (casinos)

Average size: 6,000 sq. ft. to 24,000 sq. ft.

Niche: hourly childcare operation

Expansion plans: continued casino growth; poised to expand in retail