The following article is scheduled for publication in the International Play Association's new book entitled The Child's Right to Play: A Global Approach

Multi-Cultural Dimensions of a Children's Play & Discovery Center In Arabia

By Vicki L. Stoecklin and Randy White

© 2001 White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

One's culture can have a tremendous influence over how the world is perceived. This paper looks at how culture affected the development and operation of an indoor, 25,000 square foot children's play and discovery center in the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai is a very unusual Middle Eastern city on the east side of Arabian Gulf-unusual in the sense that only about 20% of the population is Arab, 55% is Indian and about 25% is expatriate Westerners. These three main cultural groups live almost as parallel societies, although they shop in the same modern stores and malls and eat in the same restaurants. Our client wanted to create a for-profit center where children and families of all cultures could come together in a leisure setting.

This unusual multi-cultural mix posed a great challenge for our design team, as each culture has its own unique tastes and preferences. In order to understand how society operated in this country, our firm did extensive cultural research. We started by readying and studying about each of the cultures. Information was found on the internet, in books and by speaking with the US Embassy. We also spent many hours participating in the daily life of each of these cultures by visiting and observing families and children in museums, shopping malls, parks, souks (marketplaces) and restaurants.

Focus group research was conducted by interviewing children and mothers from all three cultures. Focus group research confirmed that families of all three cultures were looking for places to play with their children in an environment that was both educational and fun. Additional preferences that were discovered as commonalties among mothers from all three cultures was a concern about cleanliness, safety, fun and a preference for a facility where only women and children can be in the center at appointed times. Women's days are a preference in this part of the world where many women still veil in the presence of males, except for the closest family members. By creating a women's day when no males would be present in the center, we would create a situation where the Arab women might feel comfortable to unveil and really play with their children since playing is a challenge when they have to be continually concerned about keeping their veils on. It would also remove the mystery of the veil and the unapproachability the veil creates for other cultures, helping to facilitate interactions and understanding between the Arab and the expatriate women.

Since the play and discovery center would be used as destination for school field trips, visits were made to both public and private schools attended by each cultural group. Appointments were also made with the Ministry of Education regarding the educational potential of the center. All of this research posed challenges, as language and interpretation of concepts is difficult in countries where some of the ideas about children's rights to play are still developing.

It was decided, after completing the research, that the center should be based on developmentally appropriate play for children under the age of ten. We chose a variety of activities to appeal to the multiple intelligences of the children. Play activities that can be enjoyed in the play & discovery center include:

A separate play space for children under the age of 2 and their caregivers

  • A giant water table
  • Blocks and construction
  • Dinosaur dig and sand play
  • Pretend fishing
  • Pretend dress-up
  • Pretend house
  • Pretend supermarket
  • Pretend pizza restaurant
  • Do-it-yourself face painting
  • Art studios (one for children ages 2-5 and one for children ages 6-10)
  • Computers with educational games
  • Miniature play
  • Indoor climbing structure
  • Do-it-yourself mendhi or henna
  • Reading room with books of many languages.

While many of these children's play events seem right out of Western culture, we incorporated cultural elements into many. For example, the pretend fishing is done from a replica of a traditional Gulf dhow boat and the exterior of the pretend house was designed incorporating Arab, Indian and Western architectural styles. The pretend dress-up features clothing and traditional jewelry from the three cultural groups and the pretend mendhi or henna is a tradition practiced by both Arabs and Indians.

In addition, other parts of the center were adapted to meet cultural needs. We had privacy issues that had to be handled not only in the layout of the center, but in the central café area. The center was designed using a traditional zigzag entry, so during ladies only times, no one can see in from the outside. In the café, we put private booths with curtains that draw over the outside of the booth for Arab families with veiled women. We also designed an ablution room for Muslim women to wash before prayer, since they requested their own prayer room.

The center included many signs in both English and Arabic, which explained to parents the value of the play events for children's development. We followed the American's with Disability Act in designing the center to make it accessible to both adults and children with disabilities. This is unheard of in their country where there are no guidelines for designing for the disabled and the proportion of disabled is higher than the disabled population in the United States or Europe.

Research with schools and local children pointed to a theme for the center to give it a local identity. Conservation was the theme that drew the strongest response from children and teachers. The mascot and theme we chose is based on the dugong, which is endangered in the Gulf of Arabia and a cousin of the Florida manatee. Because dugongs are matriarchal, we created a fictional female dugong mascot named LouLou ("pearl" in Arabic, for the "Pearl City of Dubai") Al Dugong ("of the dugongs"), which also provided the center's name.

Staffing the center posed another set of complex issues. A highly qualified staff is essential to the success of any center serving children and families. Positions in this center require extensive knowledge of children and how they play and staff must be able to interact with people from different cultures, while adjusting themselves to living outside of their country in a very foreign land.

Our company was charged with interviewing and screening staff, a job that took us to India, Thailand and Morocco. Women were chosen from these countries based on their education and experience, tolerance for religious diversity, the role of women in their own countries, bilingual skills, attitudes toward play, and their understanding of the concept of hospitality (a very important concept in Arabia). Our company also provided an intensive one month training program in topics including child development, cultural diversity, play leadership, ecology, emergency management, safety and customer service for families and children. Women were provided with a three-year work contract, housing, food and transportation costs. Many were being paid significantly more than they could even attain in their own countries, in addition to receiving valuable training, which could enhance their career paths later in life.

Many issues have proven to be challenges in staffing and operating such a complex center. Much of the complexity of this project was really foreign to most of the staff who come from countries where efficiency and complexity are not known concepts. It was equally challenging to continue team building training as cross-cultural issues between staff arose more frequently since they lived communally in a large villa. Also, for many of the women, this was their first journey outside their own country and they were surprised by how they were treated by the local populations, especially the men in this male-dominated society. Some staff also struggled to understand the relationship between free play and children's healthy development.

During our returning visits to Dubai, we took countless hours of videos and observational notes. Below are listed a few of the positive outcomes that we have observed in the center:

  • Women are coming more frequently during the ladies only days and local women are playing more with their children during these times.
  • Fathers are involved in their children's play, especially Arab and western fathers.
  • Parents are feeling free to let their children choose play activities rather than controlling what they do, for example, letting the children paint their own faces rather than decorating their faces for them.
  • Schools in the area are using the field trip curriculums that have been developed and are visiting the center on a regular basis.
  • Children of all ethnic backgrounds are playing and having fun together. Children don't need a common language to participate if they have plenty of loose parts to communicate and play with.
  • Local children are being exposed to the written language in many formats including Arabic. Some local families struggle to understand the importance of the written word since their own culture is predominantly oral.
  • Children and families have become more aware of the need to conserve the local dugong and its importance to local ecology.
  • Nannies who work for local families have used the center as a gathering place. Many of the nannies are from foreign countries and have little to no interaction with women of their own culture.
  • Local schools have requested information on how to do play based activities more frequently in their classroom. Some schools have even expressed an interest in training.

LouLou Al Dugong's offered a unique view of children, families and staff of many cultures learning to respect, work with and have fun with others who are not from their own culture. It is an ongoing learning process as each group learns more about the other. The more we are different the more we are all the same.


Vicki L. Stoecklin is the Education & Child Development Director and Randy White is the Chief Executive Officer of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, Missouri, USA firm that specializes in the design and development of family and children's leisure and learning venues worldwide. Vicki holds a M.S. in Education from Southern Illinois University and has 28 years experience in the early childhood education and play. Randy grew up in a sandbox and holds a B.S. from New York University. Vicki and Randy have authored over 50 published articles on all aspects of family and children's leisure and play. They can be contacted at +1.816.931-1040 or via e-mail. Additional information about LouLou Al Dugong's, including photographs, can be found at /leisure/loulou.shtml.