The following article is scheduled for publication in the June 2001 issue of PlayRights, the official quarterly journal of the International Play Association.

A Children's Play Center in Arabia

By Randy White and Vicki L. Stoecklin

© 2001 White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

Our company was fortunate to have had the opportunity to design and produce a 2,300 m2, indoor, children's play and discovery center in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The center, named LouLou Al Dugong's opened May 2000. LouLou means 'Pearl' in Arabic for the Pearl City of Dubai and 'Al Dugong' means 'of the dugongs." Dugongs are an endangered sea mammal in the Arabia Gulf. Also sometimes referred to as a children's edutainment center in the US, the center was based upon developmentally appropriate play practice and targeted to children from infant to age 9 accompanied by their parents or nannies. The project presented many cultural design and operational challenges, not only from the parents' and children's perspective, but also with management and staff.

Dubai is a unique city in the Middle East. It is extremely modern, featuring the world's first 7* hotel, Burj al Arab, and modern shopping malls. Unlike many Muslim cities, the city is quite liberal. It is hard to realize that as late as 1958, the only means of transportation in that part of the world was by camel or boat. Dubai has a very high expatriate population. Only 20% of the population are Arab citizens, referred to as Locals. About 55% are expatriate Indian and 25% expatriate Westerners, mostly European. There are also a large number of tourists, both Arab and Westerners. Arabic and English are the two languages used in retail and leisure facilities. Although there is great cultural diversity in the population, the three main cultural groups live as parallel societies, shopping in the same stores and malls, eating in the same restaurants, but rarely if ever interacting on a social level.

We quickly realized that for the center to be successful, it needed to attract all three cultural groups. Since the children would be playing together, this would mean we needed to create an environment where the different cultures would be comfortable together. As our observations confirmed after the center opened, this is far less of a challenge when it comes to children than to the adults.

Culture comes in layers like an onion. You need to peal away and look beyond the outward appearance, such as language, dress and foods, to get at the values and norms, which lie hidden, deeper in the onion.

Since woman are the primary decision makers to where the family goes for leisure and play, (studies have show mothers make the decisions about 80% of the time, and when it comes to commercial play facilities, children contribute to the decision-making only 1/3 of the time) we focused our research on mothers of the three cultures, and primarily Locals and Indians. We first studied everything we could find written about their cultures, both in print and on the internet. Then we conducted focus group research with mothers and children. Our previous work had taught us to only use a woman focus group moderator and to make sure the translator is a woman. Especially in patriarchal societies, such as the Gulf and India, men interpreters tend to tell you what they want you to hear rather than give literal translations. Our female staff researcher also learned a lot by observations in public areas and by talking one-on-one with mothers.

We identified a number of issues that needed to be addressed. Arab women wanted privacy in the form of ladies only days, where no men would be present and they could remove their veils and abbayha coverings, not constantly being to be on guard to stay covered. This would not only allow them to relax; it would also facilitate their ability to play with their children. It is very difficult to play with children when you are constantly trying to keep your veil and abbayha coverings on. We also believed that in a mixed cultural setting, unveiled women would be more approachable by the expatriates. Interestingly, since the café's in Dubai tended to be dominated by younger Arab men during the day, both the Indian and European mothers expressed an interest in a daytime women's only meeting place.

We used a traditional Arab zigzag entry for the center and covered the windows with a translucent plastic to so on women's only days, no one could see into the center. The central café also have private booths with curtains to give Arab families and women privacy at other times.

The design of the restrooms presented many challenges. They needed to accommodate the customs and practices of traditional Arabs, Westerners and Asians. Toilet customs is definitely a sensitive research topic and not one for focus groups. Rather, we researched it with one-on-one discussion and studying the Quran and volumes of the Hadith taken from the Islamic Tahdhib and Akhlaq. All the water closet stalls had wands and individual hand washing sinks. Children-sized water closets were also provided. Diaper changing rooms were designed in both male and female rooms to permit the bathing of babies, a Muslim custom versus wet wipes as used in the West. We also incorporated a women's ablution (prayer washing) and prayer room in the center for mothers.

Our research with mothers also proved consistent with research we have done all over the world. Their primary concerns are cleanliness and sanitation, safety and security, and fun for their children.

The center incorporates sixteen different play events for children. Children are free to use all of them at anytime.

  • A separate play space for children under the age of 2 and their caregivers
  • Water tables
  • Blocks and construction
  • Dinosaur dig and sand play
  • Pretend fishing
  • Pretend dress-up
  • Pretend house
  • Pretend supermarket
  • Pretend pizza restaurant
  • Do-it-yourself face painting
  • Art studios (one for children ages 2-5 and one for children ages 6-10)
  • Computers with educational games
  • Miniature play
  • Indoor climbing structure
  • Do-it-yourself mendhi or henna
  • Reading room with books of many languages

There is also a small intimate performance area for storytelling, puppet shows, etc.

Wherever possible, we incorporated cultural elements in the play. The pretend fishing is done from a replica of a traditional Gulf dhow boat. The exterior of the pretend house and dress-up area incorporates elements of both Indian and Arab architecture styles. The pretend dress-up used child-scaled clothing and jewelry from all three cultural groups. The pretend mendhi or henna is a centuries old tradition of both Arabs and Indians.

Parental education was an important mission of the center. Each play area has prominent signs in both Arabic and English explaining the developmental value of the play. There are also educational handouts for parents.

The center is staffed by Play Facilitators supervised by a Western educated Education Director with extensive experience in early childhood education and cultural tolerance. About 90% of the staff are women so that the center could be staffed by women only on women-only days. Many had degrees in education or work experience in child care facilities. All staff were given several weeks of training, including over three days training in play facilitation. The staff was hired from Morocco, India and Thailand on three-year contracts. They were all housed in a giant villa. The staff not only had to become familiar with the culture of Dubai, but also with each other and the cultural diversity of customers. Some adapted well while others didn't and went back home early.

The center also offers school field trips to preschools and early grade schools. Field trip curriculum was developed for both age groups on preservation of dugongs and other sea creatures. A pre-trip and post-trip guide was developed for teachers so they can support the field trip's subject in their classrooms.

We designed a central café area were parents could sit and relax, enjoy coffee, cappuccino, other coffee drinks, fresh fruit juices and a wide variety of foods appealing to all three cultural groups. This gives children the freedom to play on their own without interference from adults. Too often, play facilities are not designed with parents' needs in mind. Many just want to relax while the children play on their own. If parents are forced to stay with children while they play, they often direct or truncate the children's play.

In our research, some parents voiced concerns about the unhealthy effect of Coca-Cola or Pepsi and soda drinks on their children's development, so only milk and fruit drinks are available for children. We didn't want to set parents up in the difficult situation of saying no to their children if soda drinks were offered.

During or post-opening observations, we have observed many positive outcomes for the center, including:

  • Women are using the center during women's only times and we see many Arab women interacting and playing with their children.
  • Both Western and Arab fathers are frequently playing with their children, especially in the block play area.
  • Parents are giving their children the freedom to choose their own play activities rather than controlling and supervising what they do.
  • Children of all cultures are playing together, even when they don't speak each other's languages. Play is definitely a universal language for children.
  • Nannies are using the center as a gathering place to socialize. Most nannies have no other opportunities in Dubai to socialize with other nannies.
  • We have observed teachers studying and taking notes on some of the activities, such as the children's cooking. Perhaps the center is exposing them to a new paradigm of children's development and learning versus the teacher directed approach of most schools in the area.

Working in other cultures has it challenges. It also has its rewards when children have new opportunities to have fun playing, cultures can come together and parents and teachers can be exposed to the value of developmentally appropriate children's play.


Vicki L. Stoecklin is the Education & Child Development Director and Randy White is an IPA member and CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group based in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. They can be reached at +1.816.931-1040 or via e-mail. Additional information about LouLou Al Dugong's, including photographs, can be found at /leisure/loulou.shtml.