Too much edu and not enough tainment: back to the future

In his recent monthly column in Park World magazine, Dr. Jack Samuels, a consultant in the location-based entertainment (LBE) industry, lamented how some LBL operators are complaining about seeing "little revenue or activity in their so-called 'edutainment' facilities. Is it because when the little ones are not in the classroom they want entertainment first and not education? In fact, kids are probably even more sensitive to this issue since they spend a lot of time in school."

Jack, we totally agree with you. Many LBEs don't really understand what the children's edutainment concept is all about and how to successfully execute it. They either go overboard on the education part and don't have the sizzle of the fun to attract kids, or they are serving up only entertainment with no real educational concept, exploiting the edutainment label for strictly marketing purposes.

What is happening in the LBE industry with children's edutainment venues somewhat parallels what occurred during the initial years of computer software. Back in the early 1980s, the fledgling days of computers - the Commodore 64, Apple II and early IBM PC - companies producing children's software for the consumer market came out with educational software, only to see dismal sales. It wasn't until Human Engineered Software came along in 1981, guided by its founder, Jay Balakrishnan, sometimes called the Wernher von Braun of educational, science-oriented software for home computers. The company managed to achieve a lift-off into what was essentially the first mass market for software in the category of "edutainment." Software was designed to be both educational and entertaining, incorporating educational content into children's computer games. One early example was the company's Cell Defense game, in which you were in charge of your body's immunological system, and viruses attack you. There are various levels that affect how fast your cells reproduce and whether you are a sick or healthy organism, so children learned a lot about the body as they played the game. 1981 probably marks the first use of the term edutainment, and it has continued to be used in the computer game industry ever since.

The first use of edutainment in the location-based edutainment industry was when our company started to use the term children's edutainment center to describe the discovery play center model we evolved for children from infancy to age 8, accompanied by their parents. Our first pure edutainment center was Bamboola, which opened in 1997 in San Jose, California. We had incorporated children's edutainment areas in earlier centers, including Wol-Ha in Cancun, Mexico, and Dinotropolis in Caracas, Venezuela; however, those centers also incorporated entertainment and amusement areas.

Over the years we have evolved the concept, including the mix and design of the edutainment events in the centers. Our most recently opened children's edutainment center is located in Paradise Park in Lee's Summit, Missouri. We recently developed a smaller model that is targeted solely at the weekday market of stay-at-home moms with preschool children.

The problem in much of the LBL industry is that operators don't understand that true children's edutainment is based upon the principle of developmentally appropriate play. They typically try to pass off entertainment as edutainment by adding some obvious educational lesson. Or they try to take education and make it fun. Kids are no dummies. They know education when they see it, and it is not what they want to do when they are out of school. If you can tell there is an educational element, it isn't edutainment. True edutainment is just plain fun for children, and they have absolutely no comprehension they are learning while they enjoy the activities.

Edutainment requires a completely new way of thinking, design and operation. Many people who have worked in the entertainment and amusement industry can't make the paradigm shift to edutainment, as they try to modify entertainment to become edutainment, and that just doesn't work.

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