The following article is scheduled for publication in Entertainment Management magazine.

A Spoonful of Sugar Makes an Existing LBL a Smart Destination

By Randy White

© 2001 White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

It's your favorite 6-year old nephew's birthday. All of his little friends are there, covered in chocolate frosting. They've pinned the tail on just about everything, and now it's time for presents. The little fella opens up all sorts of consumerist garbage, but, finally, there it is. Your present. He looks at you, beaming, as he rips off the paper and pries open the box to reveal.the most beautiful globe ever. There's the long, low sigh of the air leaving every kid in the room as your nephew, barely making eye contact, says, "Gee. Thanks." His mom hoists the globe closer to the light and with one sentence consigns it forever to the back of the closet: "Well isn't this educational!"


Funny thing is, like the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down, children are learning all the time these days. It just looks different than it used to. Education has been combined with entertainment to create activities called edutainment.

The term edutainment worked its way into the lexicon of the location-based leisure (LBL) industry in 1995 with the first children's edutainment centers, and now there are a growing number of children's edutainment centers worldwide. These are for-profit, leisure destination facilities catering to younger children accompanied by their parents.

But that's not the only option. While our company, White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, is a leading developer of dedicated edutainment facilities, we've also found effective ways to incorporate edutainment into existing location-based leisure facilities - even retail.

What is Edutainment?

Edutainment means an experience that is both educational and entertaining - no big surprise there. The term was first used in the computer industry to describe CD-ROM programs for children designed to teach in an entertaining way. Its current application with LBLs has shifted from education as the primary focus to entertainment as the primary draw with learning as the by-product.

For children, edutainment at its most basic level is developmentally appropriate play. Through play, children learn about themselves, the world they live in and how to become a part of society, and edutainment provides children with the environment and props they need to construct their own knowledge. Children's edutainment for LBLs has the following characteristics:

  • Pleasurable
  • Hands-on/participatory
  • Self-directed
  • Imaginative
  • Non-goal directed
  • Spontaneous
  • Open-ended
  • Free of imposed tasks or adult-imposed rules.

Children are biologically-wired to seek out play or edutainment opportunities which meet these characteristics. Just like adults, however, children have different skills and interests, so edutainment offerings must appeal to diverse interests, developmental skills and multiple intelligences (such as musical, linguistic, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, etc.).

Children's development runs a predictable course, and edutainment should be designed to meet their needs progressively as they develop-a continuum of challenge that allows their skills to match the task at hand. If not? You got yourself some bored little buckeroos.

Children's interests will change with time - sometimes just a day - and as they grow, they master new skills and seek out new challenges. At the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, we decipher these moving and multiple targets in the design of children's edutainment by looking at children along two dimensions.

First, although every child develops at a different rate with often distinctive differences between the genders, we have identified what we call generalized "developmental stages" or "ages of play." Secondly, within each age of play, children must be offered graduated challenges that appeal to as many of the multiple intelligences and offer as much variety as possible.

Our company has identified eight distinctive ages of play. Their boundaries overlap because the rates at which children develop vary. Within each age group, however, children generally enjoy the same activities.

  • Infants: up to 10± months old
  • Older infants & toddlers: 10± months to 23± months
  • Two-year-olds: 24± to 35± months
  • Preschoolers: 3± years to 5/6 years
  • Primary grade schoolers: 6/7 years to 8/9 years
  • Tweens: 9/10 years to 11/12 years
  • Young adolescents: 12/13 years to 15± years
  • Older teens: 15± years to 17 years

Many of these ages of play cannot be mixed. Generally, in Western cultures, 2-to-8s are compatible and activities can be designed to offer graduated challenges to them. Once children reach 9, there is a significant change in their attitudes and interests, and they no longer want to be associated with younger children; there is another major change at about age 12. Generally, it is difficult to design true edutainment events for children much older than 12 years.

Edutainment events includes physical (fine and gross motor), pretend or fantasy play, creative, social, manipulative, and construction activities. Examples of children's edutainment events and activities include dinosaur digs, sand or water play, face painting, pretend fishing, dress-up, block play, mazes, and open-ended art projects.

A Shift in Values Makes Edutainment Appealing

It used to be that people thought leisure was the reward for hard work. Work was associated with self-improvement and leisure with relaxation that had no other practical use. Today, people are using their scarce leisure time differently. They see leisure time as an opportunity to improve themselves and their children and do worthwhile things, rather than as purposeless relaxation.

Much of this transformation in values has to do with major shifts Western societies have undergone in the past several decades. We have moved from a manufacturing-based to a technological society. Most people now work with their brains rather than their bodies. A knowledge society places a high value on education and enrichment, and lifelong education has become an important priority for many adults. The 1999 National Adult Education Participation Report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 23 percent of adults (32 percent with college degrees) took one or more college courses strictly for personal enrichment that year.

Parents are increasingly choosing to spend their limited time with their children in activities that they see as developmentally and educationally enriching. Parents have heard about new research showing that children through age eight learn best by self-directed play, so they want to provide these kinds of opportunities even though many - perhaps most - neighborhoods are no longer considered safe environments for children's unsupervised play.

The Powerful Advantages of Children's Edutainment

Because children's edutainment meets the needs of children, it naturally - and we do mean naturally - appeals to them in ways that no other form of entertainment or education can hope to appeal.

High repeat appeal. Children's edutainment is based upon what children are biologically motivated to want, so it has high repeat appeal. With a wide variety of events offering a continuum of challenges, children never get tired of edutainment-they'll do it every day.

Appeals to younger children. When it comes to LBLs of any sort, entertaining children younger from about age 6 and younger is not easy. Yet this is a very important demographic. Over 50% of all families with children have at least one child 6 years or younger, and 25% of all families with children only have children 6 years or younger.

A step up the progression of economic value. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore describe the progression of economic value in their book, The Experience Economy. The higher you are, the greater the price people will pay. At the bottom are commodities, then goods, then services, then experiences. They use coffee as one illustration. Companies that grow or trade coffee only get a dollar or two a pound (commodity). Packaged and sold in a grocery store, the price rises to a nickel to 25 per cup (goods). Brewed in McDonalds, it may be 75 to a dollar per cup (service). However, when sold in Starbucks, where the production and purchase takes on a sense of theatre, the price rises to anywhere from $1.50 to $4 per cup (experience).

There is a 5th level of economic value-transformational experiences. Pine and Gilmore explain that "when you customize an experience to make it just right for an individual-providing exactly what he or she needs right now, . . . you automatically turn it into a transformation." Transformational experiences change people, offering them more than just the memory of an experience that may fade in time. Their studies show that transformations are the sector of the US economy that is growing and growing in price faster than any other sector, including experiences.

Children's edutainment, done right, is a transformational experience. Parents will understand this, especially if the value is marketed to them through parental educational materials and signage. That means a facility can charge a higher price (for-profits), the facility will have a higher perceived value (not-for-profits), and edutainment can drive higher attendance.

Adding Edutainment to Existing Facilities

So now you know what makes children's edutainment special and what it has to offer. What if you already have an LBL in operation? Is it too late to benefit from children's edutainment? Absolutely not. Both botanical gardens and zoos have added edutainment areas. Many botanical gardens have added children's discovery play gardens. Zoos are adding children's edutainment areas. Our company have worked with many other clients to incorporate edutainment into existing LBLs.

The White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group of Kansas City is currently designing a children's edutainment center for the new Covington, Kentucky, location of Johnny's Toys, a chain with four 35,000-square-foot toy stores in the greater Cincinnati area. Tom Martin, one of the owners, says the demographics of children's edutainment are a perfect match for their store's demographics. He believes it will not only increase store traffic, but will also help attract a higher percentage of white-collar families. The 9,000 SF indoor edutainment center will open August 2001.

Vicki Stoecklin, White Hutchinson's Education and Child development Director, says, "The center will have most of the edutainment components of the larger free-standing centers we produce for clients." How is that possible? Stoecklin says that, where possible, everything has been scaled down and simplified to minimize staffing. Still, that allows for 15 different edutainment activities for children from toddler to 8 years old.

White Hutchinson is also designing an addition to the Sana'a Trade Center (Mall) in Sana'a, Yemen, which will include a small children's edutainment center with an outdoor play garden. Stoecklin has crisscrossed the globe to work with White Hutchinson clients, and she says, "No matter where we work in the world, our clients are interested in attracting families to their facilities. That means you have to offer something for younger children that they find attractive and that their parents perceive as having value."

Closer to home for White Hutchinson is Putter's Paradise, a nine-year-old family fun center in Lee's Summit, MO, which recently retained our company to design an expansion that incorporates a children's edutainment center and adventure play garden. Jon Ellis, one of the owners, says edutainment was the perfect solution to round out the mix for the suburban families the center attracts. Although miniature golf and go-karts are classic events for fun centers, they don't really work for younger children, who lack the attention spans or skills. The outdoor adventure play garden should also make the edutainment center as attractive in the summer as in the winter.

Special considerations of edutainment design

Designing children's edutainment is very different than designing other types of entertainment. You can't order edutainment events out of a catalog. Designing edutainment requires taking a comprehensive and coordinated approach to the design of the activities and their environment. The environment can literally shape children's behavior, as children read the environment for cues of how to behave.

Anthropometrics are very important. Everything needs to match the size, physical range and abilities of young children-and this varies greatly as children grow. This requires activities and events to be designed to work for a wide range of ages. For example, the average height variation between a 3-year-old and an 8-year-old is 14", or almost 40%. For example, if a water table is too low, a 2-year old will try to climb in it, and if it is too tall, the child can't use it. Research shows that scaling the environment to the children not only improves the quality of children's play, but also extends the length of the play.

Other important considerations in the design of edutainment include:

  • Cleanliness, with materials that can be easily cleaned and sanitized;
  • Ambiguity, with events and areas that are not too defined, structured and themed. Instead, they need to be as open-ended as possible to allow children to use their imaginations;
  • Visibility, so children can be monitored by parents and staff;
  • Wayfinding, so children understand the environment without reading words.
  • Accessibility, so the environment meets ADA regulations, and universal design so that children with disabilities feel like they fit in;
  • Safety, which means offering developmentally appropriate challenges and safe risks.

Edutainment also requires a staff trained in facilitating play and interacting with young children. Stoecklin says, "Owners often assume that any staff member with baby-sitting experience and a positive attitude is skilled at working with children. This is a risky attitude, as it actually takes special skills and training. Treating them like small adults simply won't work."

According to Stoecklin, staff members in edutainment facilities need a comprehensive understanding of four key areas:

  • children's growth and development,
  • adapting to a child's individual needs,
  • how the surrounding environment affects the behavior of children, and
  • how to interact with children and positively facilitate their play and transactions.

It's not automatic, but with thought and experience, children's edutainment can open up a whole new target market for existing LBLs and other destinations and, at the same time, provide children with truly transformational experiences.


Randy White is the CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, Missouri, USA firm that specializes in the production and design of family and children's leisure venues worldwide. Randy can be reached at voice: +1.816.931-1040, fax: 816-756-5058, by e-mail or on the web: