This is an unedited version of the article published in the March/April 1999 issue of MWR Today.

Adding Children's Play & Entertainment to MWR Fitness and Recreation Facilities

by Randy White

© 1998, White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

Just as private sector fitness and recreation centers are increasingly adding separate children's play areas, many MWR facilities can also broaden their facilities' appeal, increase value to existing customers, attract new customers and increase their revenues by adopting similar concepts.

One reason adding children's play can be beneficial, is that many military installations have a large component of military families with children. Many of these families are dual-income, so many parents find it difficult to use recreational facilities unless their children can accompany them. That's why more and more private sector fitness and recreation centers are offering supervised child-care facilities. Child-care facilities allow the centers to attract a broader market of many adults who would not otherwise attend. These child-care facilities are not usually treated as separate attractions or revenue centers, but rather as amenities for the adult users.

Unlike child-care, children's entertainment areas can be significant revenue producers and are designed to attract an entirely new customer base. They are called children's entertainment, edutainment or pay-for-play centers, here collectively referred to as children's entertainment centers or CECs .

CECs are typically designed to attract children between the ages of 2 and about 9 or 10 years old. Most CECs charge an admission fee, although sometimes they are membership based. They range in size from about 4,000 square feet to as large as 25,000 square feet. CECs sometimes also include outdoor play areas. Not only are CECs destination attractions for the children of the recreational center's regular adult users, but they also attract a whole new group of families whose parents do not use the balance of the center.

CECs are not unique to the fitness and recreation center industry. They are a segment of an entire new industry called the family entertainment center industry that started about 1989. Examples include Discovery Zone, Jeepers and Explorations. For-profit CECs generate annual attendance from 50,000 to 200,000 children and annual revenues from $500,000 to $4 million.

CECs are now commonly found in casinos. Most casinos outside Las Vegas now have them. Many bowling centers have expanded to include CECs. Some retailers such as the new Toys R Us mega-stores and IKEA have added CECs. Many fast-food restaurants are adding separate indoor CEC-type areas such as McDonald's Playplaces. These free play areas significantly increase the restaurants' sales.

Free standing CECs originally started exclusively with soft-contained-play equipment (the maze of plastic tubes, slides and ball pits), a restaurant area and birthday party rooms. However, admission-based CECs that rely on a formula of soft-contained-play as the sole anchor attraction have not proven successful. Discovery Zone, which recently emerged from Chapter XI Bankruptcy reorganization, followed that formula. Although soft-contained-play is an excellent safe indoor component for children's physical play, younger children require a more diverse variety of play options including manipulative, imaginative and pretend play. Also, the soft-contained-play equipment does not work well in a mixed-age setting, since older children often intimidate and bully the younger children. Another problem with relying exclusively on soft-contained-play is that since many fast food restaurants now offer free indoor soft-contained-play, parents are less willing to pay for it.

One example of the current generation of CECs is Bamboola, a CEC our company recently designed and produced for the owners of the Almaden Valley Athletic Club in San Jose, California. The edutainment center includes 23 different types of activities for children of which soft-contained-play is only one. Activities include face painting, a pretend supermarket and house, interactive water play, age-appropriate boulder climbing, a maze, library, interactive cooking, construction activities, five art studios and pretend dress-up. Outdoors there is an adventure play garden with sand play areas and a dinosaur dig set in a jungle setting.

CECs can generate many types of new business in addition to the walk-in entertainment customer or supervised child-care for adults while they use the main facility. The second largest source of attendance and revenue is from birthday parties. Many CECs host 60 to 120 birthday parties a week. Parties can generate up to 25 percent of total revenue for the centers. Edutainment components can also be used for regularly scheduled instructional classes and workshops. Other types of potential revenue include play groups with homemakers, after school care, group parties, sleep-overs and holiday and summer camps.

Designing a successful CEC means more than just filling a large room with attractions and play events. Childhood is a complicated part of life. Proper design requires an understanding of how children develop, how they interact with the environment and how their relationships with their parents change as they grow.

Children are best defined by their developmental skills and needs, which evolve as they grow. Although these changes are gradual and vary from child to child, there are five basic developmental stages that children pass through before they reach early adolescence.

  • non-mobile infant,
  • older infant to early toddler (we affectionately calls them belly babies and wobblers),
  • older toddlers/2's,
  • preschoolers, and
  • early grade school (6-9 years old).

CECs should be designed to meet the needs and abilities of the last four developmental stages of children along with the needs and expectations of their parents. For children, this requires offering a variety of attractions and events that will appeal to each and all stages. With variety, the CEC will engage delighted children; without it, bored kids that don't want to return.

The mistake many CECs have made is focusing on children in grade school or older, while overlooking the needs of younger children and their parents. Doing this cuts out a large segment of families from their market. Market studies our company has performed for facilities consistently find that about 50 percent of all families with children have at least one child younger than 6, and about 25 percent of all families with children only have children younger than 6 years old.

Other general considerations for the design and operation of a successful CEC addition to a recreational facility or fitness center include:

Infants and Toddlers Infants and toddlers require tons of gear and a lot of work by parents. CECs need to make this as easy as possible by providing appropriate places for child paraphernalia like car seats, strollers and diaper bags; restrooms that include quality designed diaper changing areas; areas where a mother can nurse in private and plenty of high chairs and booster seats. For safety reasons, infants and toddlers need a segregated play area designed to meet their unique developmental needs.

Restrooms Include child-sized fixtures and specially designed private family restrooms that one parent can use with children of different gender.

Cleanliness McDonald's learned early that parents won't take their children anywhere that isn't clean and sanitary. The CEC needs to be designed to make it easy to keep clean, which means materials that are easily cleaned, sanitized and very durable.

Duality of Design Although children's play areas must be designed for children's needs and preferences, their parents have needs of their own that must also be considered. After all, both parent and child decide whether to come back. Adults see the environment as background for the activities and judge it on its aesthetics. Children perceive the environment as part of their experience and try to interact with it in every possible way. Children's idea of beauty is informal and wild rather than the formal and ordered design preference of adults. This duality of often-conflicting needs, wants and aesthetics requires creative design solutions that work for both of the two different perspectives.

Ambiguity Children's imaginations are virtual reality machines if you give them the right environment and materials. Play equipment and areas should not be too defined, structured and themed. Except for the youngest of children, the play should be as open-ended and simple as possible so children can use self-initiated discovery and their incredibly active imaginations.

Parental Visibility Parents need clear visibility of their older children without having to interfere with the children's play. Younger children must be able to see and hear their parents during play, and parents feel more secure if they are nearby.

Accessibility The entire center and play activities need to be accessible to children of all abilities. In 1998, new rules where issued under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) that govern the design of children's environments and play areas.

Way Finding Children, especially toddlers and pre-school children, need a way to 'understand' the environment without reading words. They must be able to easily find their way, figure out what the area or event is for, how to use it, any rules that apply, the location of exits and entrances and the boundaries of each play area.

Child-centered Design The environment's design has a huge impact on children's behavior. Children read environments completely differently than do adults. Children are dwarfed by adult-sized environments, where they feel intimidated, incompetent, and unable to master the environment. Children prefer child-scaled environments where they feel competent, so play areas should provide some sense of enclosure and intimacy. Children play longer with greater attention spans and less behavior problems in small-scale environments, and they have more fun.

Outdoor Areas Research clearly shows that people, and especially children, consistently prefer natural landscapes to constructed environments. Landscaped outdoor environments reduce stress and are pleasing to adults. Children's play outdoors is higher quality than indoor play-the sensory experiences are different, and different standards of play apply. Children can do things outdoors that would be frowned on indoors. They can run, shout, be messy and also experience, interact with and manipulate the environment. Naturalized outdoor play areas, unlike typically sterile playgrounds, are the ideal environment for children's play, and they cost less to build than indoor areas. Our company has been designing such areas for most of our clients' CECs, which we call children's adventure play gardens.

Child Care Standards If the CEC is going to be used for child-care by children unchaperoned by their parents, the facility may need to be designed and operated in compliance with child-care laws and regulations.

Safety While designing for safe play is essential, there is a difference between hazards and risk. Safety concerns should not compromise play value. The play environment needs to offer children both challenges and safe risks. Play environments that are too safe are not just boring, but children will often find ways to take risks and find challenges, often in ways that are hazardous. A quality play environment is both safe and challenging. There are a number of safety standards that need to be followed including those adopted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).

The commitment to providing high-quality entertainment and play for children is the strength of CECs. That commitment, when connected with an understanding of how to design and operate a CEC that will delight children and their parents, can make the addition of a CEC to a MWR fitness or recreation facility an asset for existing customers and users, an attraction to broaden the facility's market and an additional source of revenue.


Randy White is the CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, Missouri, U.S. firm that specializes in market feasibility, consulting and design of FECs and family and children's venues. The firm has won many awards for the design of its domestic and international FECs. Mr. White can be reach at voice: +1.816.931.1040, fax: +1.816.756.5058, or via e-mail