This article was published in the May 1998 issue of Athletic Business

Not Mere Child's Play

by Randy White

Many recreation and fitness centers are adding separate children's play areas to broaden their facilities' appeal, increase value to existing customers, attract new customers and increase their revenues. Facilities that can benefit from adding children's areas include community centers; fitness, health and wellness centers; recreational centers and athletic clubs.

One of the primary reasons recreation centers are adding children's areas is that about 60% of US households are families with children living at home. With many of these families having both parents working and with the increase in the number of single parent families, many parents find it difficult to use recreational facilities unless their children can accompany them and be cared for while the parent uses the facilities. It is increasingly common for all types of recreation, athletic, fitness, health and wellness centers and clubs to offer supervised child-care facilities. Child-care facilities allow the centers and clubs to attract a broader market of many adults who could not or would not otherwise attend. These child-care facilities are not usually treated as separate attractions or profit centers, but rather as amenities for the adult users.

Another type of children's facility is appearing in many centers and clubs. Unlike the child-care, these children's facilities are considered significant revenue producers and are designed to attract an entirely new customer base. They are called children's entertainment or pay-for-play centers. Sometimes they are marketed as children's edutainment centers when they are predominately based on children learning through play. Both types will be collectively referred to as CECs (Children's Entertainment Centers).

CECs are typically designed to attract children between the ages of 2 and about 10 years old. Most CECs charge an admission fee from $4 to $8, although sometimes they are membership based. They range in size from about 8,000 square feet to as large as 25,000 square feet. CECs sometimes also include outdoor play areas called adventure play gardens. Not only are CECs destination attractions for the children of the facility's regular adult users, but they also attract a whole new group of families whose parents do not use the balance of the center or club.

CECs are not unique to the recreation and fitness center industry. They are a segment of an entire new industry called the family entertainment center (FEC) industry that started about 1989. In the FEC industry, CECs are facilities targeted to children accompanied by their parents. Examples include Discovery Zone, Jungle Jim's Playland and Explorations. More CECs are independently owned than are part of a chain. For-profit CECs generate annual attendance from 50,000 to 200,000 children and annual revenues from $600,000 to $4,000,000.

CECs are commonly found in casinos. Most casinos that are not in Las Vegas now include a large CEC. Some retailers are even adding CECs. The new Toys R Us mega-store in New Jersey has a separate CEC. Many fast-food restaurants are adding CEC-type areas. McDonald's is adding large enclosed 'glass box' play areas called Playplaces in the front of many of their restaurants. Other fast foods such as Burger King are following suit. 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 are not successful. Discovery Zone, which is currently in Chapter XI Bankruptcy, 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 construction, 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 as the draw for a for-profit CEC is that parents no longer perceive it as having a high enough price value since many fast food restaurants now offer free indoor soft-contained-play.

One example of the current generation of CECs is Bamboola, a 28,000 square foot CEC our company, the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, 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.

Even children's gymnastic and sports facilities are adding admission-based CECs. Our company is currently working on the design of an indoor-outdoor CEC that will be part of the new 70,000 square foot Kids First children's gymnastics and sports center in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is scheduled to open in early 1998.

Existing recreation centers have a competitive advantage when adding a revenue-producing CEC. Recreation centers already have relationships with their adult members. With those relationships comes trust, which is a very important consideration when it comes to where parents will take their children. The CEC can be quickly marketed to existing members. The existing loyalty of those members rapidly results in word-of-mouth marketing to new families in the area.

CECs can generate many types of new business in addition to the walk-in entertainment customer or supervised child-care for members while they use the main recreational facility. The second largest source of attendance and revenue is from birthday parties. Many CECs host 80 to 120 birthday parties a week. Parties can generate up to 25% of total revenue and creates what our company calls exponential marketing - one child invites nine other children who enjoy the CEC, want to return on their own, as well as hold their next birthday party there.

If the CEC has edutainment or learning components, pre-school, kindergarten and early grade school field trips can generate substantial weekday day-care business as well as introduce many new children to the CEC. Edutainment components can also be used for regularly scheduled instructional programs and workshops. Other types of potential revenue include play groups with homemakers, after school care, corporate and institutional picnics, 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 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 six basic developmental stages that children pass through before they reach their teens.

  • infant,
  • older infant to early toddler (our company affectionately calls them belly babies and wobblers),
  • older toddlers,
  • preschoolers,
  • early grade school (6-9 years old), and
  • young adolescence (10-12 years old).

CECs should be designed to meet the needs and abilities of all six developmental stages of children (or the first five if the CEC targets a younger age group), 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 45% of all families with children 0-17 have at least one child younger than 6, and about 25% 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 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 for both sexes that include quality designed diaper changing areas (not just fold down tables); 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.


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


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 perceptives.


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. Learning through play comes into focus at this point.

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.

Sense of Place

A holistic and integrated design that is relevant to both children and adults will provide a strong sense of place and identity. This is partially achieved through good space planning and appropriate theming that is relevant to both children and adults.

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, "understand", 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 event.

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 built environments. Natural 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 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.


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 the state's child-care laws and regulations. These standards, if they apply, are only minimum standards, and compliance does not necessarily mean that the CEC will be a quality facility.


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.

The commitment to providing high-quality entertainment and learning through 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 recreation facility an asset for existing customers and users, an attraction to broaden the facility's market and an additional source of revenue.

The following sidebar was published as part of the "Not Mere Child's Play" article

Designing Safe Play Environments for Children

Designing safe play environments for children entails four different types of safety - personal injury, sanitation, security and toxicity.

Personal Injury

While designing for safe children's 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.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, nearly 200,000 playground-related injuries require emergency room visits each year. The safety issues that relate to outdoor playgrounds are just as relevant for indoor children's play areas. Factors that affect safety from physical injury include:

Equipment Design

There are two national standards for the design of play equipment:

  1. "Playground Equipment Safety Guidelines" by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC),
  2. "Consumer Safety Performance Specifications for Playground Equipment for Public Use" by the American Society For Testing And Materials (ASTM).

ASTM is currently in the process of finalizing special safety and accessibility standards for soft contained play equipment.

Fall Zone Surfacing

The leading and most serious injuries are caused by falls to the surface. Shock absorbing surfaces can help cushion falls and prevent serious injury. The CPSC guidelines include standards for safety surfacing and fall zones.

Age Appropriate Equipment

Children are developmentally different. Equipment needs to be designed for the age of the child. What is appropriate for an 8 year old is too big and could be dangerous for a 3 year old. The converse is also true. Most injuries related to age inappropriateness involve children four and younger playing on equipment designed for older children. Often, the solution is to design separate areas for infants and toddlers, 3-5/6's and 6-10's.


Children's play areas and equipment needs to be designed based upon the amount of adult supervision there will be. Activities that are safe when supervised can be extremely hazardous if unsupervised.


Wherever children gather, diseases, lice and other medical problems can be quickly spread. All play areas need to be designed for easy cleaning and sanitation. Just as important, there need to be procedures to assure the cleaning occurs on a scheduled basis.

Areas for infants and toddlers are especially prone to the spread of diseases. At that age, the child will place everything in their mouth. These areas need to be designed to be cleaned with bleach solution daily at a minimum. Play objects need to be sanitized after use by each child.


In today's society, parents are especially afraid that their children may be kidnapped or abused by a stranger. This "Boogie Man" syndrome makes parents were wary and anxious about taking their children to public places. To have parents feel comfortable requires, at a minimum, that the play area be enclosed with good visibility throughout. Many facilities go further and use a wrist-banded entry system to assure that children only leave with the adults they came with.


Toxicity, health risks and other standards for art, craft and other creative supplies have been established by The Art & Creative Materials Institute, Inc. (ACMI) and labeling standards for the materials established by the chronic hazard labeling standard, ASTM D 4236 and the U.S. Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA). Only materials that bear the ACMI Non-Toxic Seals should be purchased for use by children. ACMI has certified over 60,000 art, craft and other creative materials.