The following article is being published in the January/February 2000 issue of Entertainment Management, the official publication of the International Association of Family Entertainment Centers (IAFEC).

Child's Play: More Complicated Than It Looks

By Randy White

©1999 White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

Talk about your Catch-22. The goal of most location-based leisure [LBL] is to attract families, which they define as kids with their parents. But children younger than 10 typically are bored with most LBLs since they are unable to enjoy most anchor attractions which are designed for older kids. And older children prefer to be with their peers rather than with their parents. And parents-mothers especially-avoid places where teens hang out. So by targeting families without exploring what that really means, LBLs have, in effect, driven away the majority of their market as effectively as if that had been the plan all along.


There's a way around this Catch-22, but it takes work and thought. To get around it, you must understand families and children-how they develop, how they interact, and how they play.

Most LBLs know how to target the grown-up end of the family. After all, the designers and owners are adults themselves, and for darn sure we know what we like. They even think that that's the point, because it's the parents and grandparents who carry the cash. Big, big mistake. The grown-ups are there only because it's where the kids want to be. Remove the kids from the equation, as many LBLs have, and you got bupkus.

Simplistic View of Children Hamstrings LBL Profitability

Most LBLs miss their mark when it comes to children, who are remarkably complex individually and as a group. Most LBLs think of them as either young children (2 to 12) or teenagers (13 to 17), with little or no knowledge of the stages of child development. It is this simplistic approach that drives children and their parents away.

Children are not small adults. They are born into the world as infants and grow along a predictable course of development. The challenge is to meet their needs progressively as they develop.

It's like childhood is a ladder that children must climb each day. What interests them changes with time - in a day, a month, a year - as they master the skills at each rung. The skills aren't simple, either. Besides physical growth, they include mastery of their bodies (fine and gross motor skills), intellectual and emotional growth, and social skills.

As If This Weren't Complicated Enough Already

Are you bookish? Hooked on sports? Transported by music or art? Like us adults, kids are smart in different ways. In his 1983 book Frames of Mind, Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner challenged the traditional view that intelligence is a single, fixed commodity. He contends that we all possess seven distinct and somewhat autonomous intelligences and that each is of equal value. (Since identifying the seven intelligences, Gardner's continuing research has led him to increase the number to eight with a possible ninth.

  1. Linguistic: Mastery and love of language and words.
  2. Logical-Mathematical: Confronting and assessing objects and discerning their relationships and underlying principles.
  3. Musical: Composing and performing as well as listening and discerning.
  4. Spatial: Perceiving the visual world accurately.
  5. Bodily-Kinesthetic: Orchestrating body motions and handling objects skillfully.
  6. Intrapersonal: Understanding oneself and using the knowledge to make effective life decisions.
  7. Interpersonal: Determining moods, feelings and other mental states in others.
  8. Naturalist: Recognizing and categorizing natural objects.
  9. Existential (possible intelligence): Capturing and pondering the fundamental questions of existence.

Each of us possesses all the intelligences to varying degrees. Just how much talent we have in each area depends on a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Not surprisingly, there is usually a direct correlation between a person's strengths in the different intelligences and their interests. For example, a person high in music and bodily-kinesthetic might be a dancer, whereas a person high in naturalist and bodily-kinesthetic might like to climb mountains.

As a child, I was basically a motor-moron, but I loved gardening and science experiments. I had one friend who read constantly and another who was always testing his motor skills, sometimes by climbing stuff better left unclimbed. A root cause of Discovery Zone's demise was that it relied solely on soft-contained-play and offered nothing for children with different interests. I'd have been bored silly there as a child.

Mommy, I'm b-o-o-o-r-e-d!

And, boy, do children get bored easily. Their attention spans are often short, with the youngest children having the shortest. An LBL with few events will fail the test of repeat business.

What these developmental changes and multiple intelligences mean is that no one form of leisure will fit all children. And then, due to short attention spans, what works for any particular child at any one time may not work for more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychologist, has researched boredom in children. He says that boredom is caused by a mismatch between what children have the ability to do and what they are expected to do. They enjoy themselves when their skills match the task at hand. If they're challenged beyond their capability, they become anxious and often claim boredom as a defense. If not challenged enough, they're bored. Since a child's skill levels change constantly as they develop, that point where boredom sets in is a moving target.

Linda Caldwell, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has identified another factor in boredom. She says children become bored when they don't think they have control over their lives and what they are doing. This conclusion is supported by Csikszentmihalyi, who points out that when an individual's capabilities are balanced with the challenges of a particular activity, the result is a sensation of confidence, or being in control.

"Ages of Play" Helps Make Sense of All This

Our company, the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, has worked hard to decipher these moving and multiple targets. Based upon our education and continuing research in child development, our analysis of many types of children's leisure venues, and our focus group research with children, we approach LBL design for children along two dimensions:

  1. 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," and
  2. Within each age of play, children must be offered graduated challenges that appeal to as many of the 8 or 9 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 (see insert #2). However, within each age group, 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

Imagining how to delight each of these group should help you understand the difficulty of developing an LBL that works for children and families - even if without infants, there are seven distinct ages of play.

Fortunately, some of these groups enjoy similar events and activities, like the preschooler and primary grade schooler groups, for example. But many LBLs mistakenly assume that tweens are also compatible with these two younger ages of play. They aren't. At age nine, children's brains undergo a significant change. With this comes a dramatic change in their attitudes and interests. They no longer want to be associated with younger children, and they increasingly want less to do with their families and more to do with their peers. If tweens fit in with any group, it is with the young adolescents and older teens - two ages of play that are also fairly compatible.

Most LBLs do a pretty decent job of attracting young adolescents and teens, and to a lesser extent the tweens. In fact, most of the classic LBL anchors, such as miniature golf, go-karts, batting cages, laser tag and roller skating were developed for these age groups.

But what about children between 2 and 9 years old? Most don't have the motor skills or patience for miniature golf. The 58" height limit eliminates them from go-karts. The kiddie go-karts don't work either, as young children don't have the coordination to simultaneously steer and accelerate. It's no fun to fail; children, like adults, want to feel competent.

Pleasing the Younger Ones Can - No, Make That MUST Be Done

Children who are bored fidget. They squirm. They whine. They poke their siblings and torment their parents. But can you blame them? Here they are, all ready for some fun, and dangit, they're b-o-o-o-red. That child's family won't be back soon.

Many LBLs don't even try to meet the needs of younger children. Oh, they'll toss in a piece of soft-contained-play equipment, which the kids can get for free at the nearest fast-food restaurant, but that's hardly what we'd call trying. Their neglect - wake up! pay attention! - costs them the largest segment of the family market.

You heard us. The. Largest. Segment. Our company has performed more than 100 market studies for new LBLs, as well as existing ones having difficulty or planning to expand. We consistently found that in typical residential LBL market areas, more than 50% of families with children have at least one child 6 years or younger. And half of those families (25% of all families) only have children 6 or younger.

If you're thinking that LBLs could be missing half the family market, it's even worse than that. Remember, older children generally don't want to go places with their parents. And most adults, especially moms with younger children, don't want to be around lots of teenagers. So the majority of the family market - parents accompanying children - is really concentrated with parents with children 9 and younger. That portion composes more like two-thirds of the family market.

If you're thinking it might be a good idea to capture some of that two-thirds of the market, pay attention. Children 9 and younger enjoy three types of leisure attractions and activities:

  1. Amusements. This includes rides and games, a component of just about LBL concept.
  2. Passive entertainment, such as animatronics, movies and shows, and
  3. Interactive play.

The thrill of rides has always captivated children. Several manufacturers, such as Wisdom Rides, produce a variety of rides for younger children, and many children's FEC concepts, such as Jeeper's, have developed around a selection of rides they use as anchors. The one drawback of only using rides is that these centers are often thought of as special-occasion, birthday-party-only destinations, which means they don't generate much repeat business. And rides tend to appeal less to college-educated parents.

As for passive entertainment, it has found its niche in the family market with such concepts as Chuck E. Cheese's animatronic shows.

The last form of children's leisure is interactive play, which by and large has not been tapped by the LBL industry. In interactive play, children are in charge. They're empowered. They can vary their experiences from moment to moment and visit to visit. Play is also how younger children naturally learn about themselves, their world, and society. From birth, children are wired to play.

Interactive play not only includes the usual soft-contained-play equipment, but dozens of other activities from art studios to water play to all forms of pretend. Centers anchored by play that is developmentally appropriate are called edutainment centers. Developmentally appropriate play has the advantage of offering graduated challenges to children; if the variety is wide enough, it can appeal to all the multiple intelligences.

When I was a kid, I had a sandbox in my backyard where I could spend hours every day. And every day was different, because I created my own play schemes based on my interests and stage of development. That's the beauty of developmentally appropriate play. It creates length of stay, repeat appeal, and is valued by both children and parents.

While changing the type of attractions is important, providing an LBL experience for parents with small children also requires revising the facility's design and operations.

Child-Friendly Design Transforms an LBL

Children are different from you and me. They're smaller, for one thing, and they take their parents everywhere. Designing and operating an LBL to appeal to children and their parents means taking several considerations into account:

  • Gear for Infants and Toddlers. Parents of infants and toddlers haul around a lot of stuff. LBLs should provide appropriate places for car seats, strollers and diaper bags; restrooms for both sexes that include diaper changing areas (not just fold-down tables); areas where a mother can nurse in private; and plenty of high chairs and booster seats.
  • Restroom. Include child-sized fixtures and private family restrooms.
  • Cleanliness. Parents demand areas that are clean and sanitary. Design the LBL to be easy to clean, with durable materials.
  • Duality of Design. Adults see the environment as background and judge it on aesthetics; children see the environment as part of the experience and want to interact with it. Children's idea of beauty is informal and wild; adults prefer the formal and ordered. This duality requires creative design solutions that work for both.
  • Ambiguity. Children have incredible imaginations. Play equipment and areas should not be too defined, structured and themed. Instead, they should be open-ended so children can use their imaginations to create their own play schemes.
  • Visibility. Parents need to be able to see their children without having to interfere with the children's play. Younger children need to see their parents to feel secure.
  • Sense of Place. A holistic and integrated design will provide a strong sense of place and identity.
  • Way Finding. Children need a way to understand the environment without reading words.
  • Child-centered Design. Children read environments differently than do adults. Often, when adults think a child is misbehaving, the child is responding exactly the way the environment "told" them to behave. Also, children need child-scaled equipment, furniture and environments where they feel competent. Play areas should provide intimacy and enclosure.
  • Accessibility. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has published rules and guidelines for the accessibility of children's play areas, including soft-contained-play equipment. Truly accessible design, however, means designing for all children by providing equal and equitable access.
  • Outdoor areas. People, especially children and women, consistently prefer natural to built environments. Naturalized outdoor play areas are ideal for children, and they cost less to build than indoor areas. Our company has designed children's adventure play gardens for most of our clients' LBLs.
  • Regulations. If the LBL will be used for child-care or after-school care by children unchaperoned by their parents, the facility may need to be designed and operated in compliance with the state's child-care regulations.
  • Supervision. Typical staff customer service training deals only with adults. Interacting with children requires a unique set of skills.
  • Safety. While designing for safe play is essential, there is a difference between hazards and risk. The play environment should offer children both challenges and safe risks.

Taking ages of play, multiple intelligences, and design and operations into account, an LBL can profit from the two-thirds of the market it hasn't even begun to tap.

Additional Information on Children's Safety

Designing safe play environments for children entails four types of safety: physical injury, sanitation, security, and toxicity.

Physical Injury: According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, nearly 200,000 playground-related injuries require emergency room visits each year. Statistics have not been reported for indoor facilities, but the same safety issues apply. Factors that affect safety from physical injury include:

  • Play equipment design. Two national standards regulate design of play equipment, the "Handbook for Public Playground Safety" by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and "Consumer Safety Performance Specifications for Playground Equipment for Public Use" by the American Society for Testing and Materials. They now include safety and accessibility standards for soft-contained-play equipment.
  • Fall zone surfacing. The most and most-serious injuries are calls by falls. Shock-absorbing surfaces can cushion falls and help prevent serious injury.
  • Age-appropriate equipment. Most of these injuries involve children four and younger playing on equipment designed for older children. The best solution is often to design separate areas for children of different ages of play.
  • Architectural and interior design that takes into consideration child safety factors.
  • Supervision. Activities that are safe when supervised can be very hazardous when not. Design play areas with the level of supervision in mind.

Sanitation: All play areas should be designed for easy cleaning and sanitation, especially in areas for children under two years, who put everything in their mouths. Be sure that sanitation happens regularly. For example, play objects in the toddler areas should be sanitized after use by each child, and other objects should be cleaned with a bleach solution at least once a day. Discovery Zone failed in basic sanitation. That is why many parents nicknamed DZ "disease zone."

Security: Parents are wary and anxious about taking their children to public places. For them to feel comfortable, the play area must 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 who brought them.

The Art & Creative Materials Institute, Inc. (ACMI) has established toxicity, health risks and other standards for art, craft and other creative supplies, and ACMI has certified more than 60,000 of these materials as nontoxic. Only materials that bear the ACMU Non-Toxic Seals should be purchased for use by children.


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