Unedited version of article that was published by IAAPA in the March/April 1996 issue of their Family Entertainment Center magazine.

Children's Edutainment Centers: Learning Through Play

By Randy White

Remember the childhood trill of field trips? Instead of spending the day glued to your chair, trying real hard to stay awake and not fidget, your whole class was led like a row of ducklings onto a bright yellow bus that took you to go camping or to a farm or historical site. You got to look and touch and hear about something you didn't already know, maybe pretend you were an artist or a pioneer or an astronaut. You didn't fall asleep, and you didn't once fidget. In fact, you felt excited about learning. It was even, well, sorta fun.

That, in a nutshell, is edutainment.

The word edutainment comes from the computer industry. It was first coined several years ago to describe CD-ROM programs, mainly for children, that were designed for education or teaching and that had an entertainment component to increase their appeal. The term was adopted by the family entertainment industry about a year ago.

Although the term is new, the concept of edutainment is not. Like all those places you or your children visited on field trips -- zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, science and children's museums, and tourist and ecotourist attractions -- location-based entertainment facilities [LBEs] have long used the educational aspects as the draw, while adding entertainment or amusement.

What is new is the idea of designing facilities specifically for edutainment. One of the reasons for this is the changing role of leisure in our society.

Learning Through Leisure

The FEC industry is paying special attention to edutainment as a means to attract guests because there is a fundamental change occurring in American and many other societies. Work has shifted from being predominately labor-based to being knowledge-based. Today, 39% of the U.S. work force is composed of pure knowledge workers, most in the higher socio-economic sector. And the population is becoming more and more educated, with a greater percentage graduating from college or receiving advanced degrees, and more adults returning to college to learn new skills.

People used to consider leisure their reward for hard work. Work required self-improvement, while leisure provided relaxation with absolutely no practical purpose other than recuperation from the physical and mental stresses of work. But learning is beginning to be viewed differently than in the past. People with the least leisure time, like educated knowledge workers, are using their limited leisure hours to improve themselves and do worthwhile things rather than vegetate. And parents, who want to see their children excel in a knowledge-based world, are applying this value for learning to what their children do in their leisure time.

Un-learning the Early Definition of Edutainment

The FEC industry has the chance to find exciting new ways for kids to learn and have fun at the same time. To make the most of that opportunity, we need to forget the origins of the term edutainment and create a definition that works in the real world.

The computer and technological origins of the word, along with its derivation from the word education, have created a false perception among much of the FEC and LBE industries that edutainment components, events or attractions need to be computer- or technology-based and presented in an educational or teaching mode. You can see this misconception in action especially in events designed for toddlers through grade-school children in FECs or CECs [children's entertainment centers, sometimes also referred to as pay-for-play].

Grown-ups forget what it was like to be a kid. Adults, especially middle-age males, who dominate the management levels of FECs, as well as their suppliers and designers, operate under the mistaken notion that kids like what adults think kids like. Or, more to the point, that kids like what adults think kids should like. [Remember Garbage Pail Kids?] The world of childhood is a foreign culture to adults. What appeals to children, what benefits children, is completely different from the shortsighted notions of most adults, especially, in our society, men.

Let's Not Make This So Complicated

At its most basic, edutainment is play. Since the birth of the species, children have understood edutainment. Their genes have programmed them/us to almost exclusively use edutainment to learn about themselves, the world they live in and how to become part of society. Kids, who don't need two-dollar words, just called it play. And for children up until pre-adolescence, that learning needs to be based on "actual reality" -- physical interaction with the tangible real world and people, rather than the mediated reality and abstract concepts on a computer screen. In fact, research is now showing that children who learn via the limited environment of the computer monitor grow up to be creatively stunted.

Young children's perception of the difference between work and play changes as they move from preschool to elementary school. Preschool children call what they are told to do "work" and what they choose to do "play." But by 4th or 5th grade, children will call a teacher-directed activity "play" if they consider it to be fun. And children of any age consider outside recess to be playtime.

Giving Kids the Freedom to Learn through Play

Research in early childhood development has clearly established that preschool children learn best through self-directed play rather than in structured learning or academic-type settings.

Most day care and kindergarten providers recognize that open-ended play is nature's process for children to learn and develop cognitively, emotionally, physically and socially. There also is considerable debate in the field of early childhood education about what is called "developmentally appropriate practices" in the primary grades. Many are calling for a return to a child-sensitive and whole child approach to teaching and learning that incorporates play, rather than the traditional model of teacher-assigned and structural academic learning.

Young children are biologically programmed to explore and manipulate their surrounding world and to make their own discoveries. Their play is heavily based upon pretend or imaginary play with other children, as well as by themselves.

The Culture of Childhood Is Changing

While biological imperatives remain the same, changes in the physical and social environment in which children live has altered the culture of childhood. Factors like working parents, a concern for safety based on perceptions and reality, and a stronger emphasis on education, has resulted in children's lives becoming more controlled, structured, and physically restricted.

Today's children spend much less time away from the direct supervision of adults. Many no longer even have the freedom to play in their own yards or to have free run of their neighborhoods. Perhaps saddest of all, parenting is often by convenience rather than by commitment, with overworked or disengaged parents seeking canned, pre-packaged opportunities to meet their child-rearing responsibilities.

The lack of opportunity for free-form interaction with nature and other kids, for natural experiences, and for unsupervised open-ended play invisible to adults, has become a serious concern for child development specialists. Mark Francis, of the University of California-Davis, characterizes childhood today as "The Childhood of Imprisonment," in his forthcoming book of the same name.

FECs Have A Chance to Improve Lot of Children

The public sector has not addressed the new restrictions on children, which creates an opportunity for private enterprise to create the destination playgrounds of tomorrow. FEC operators, armed with information about the real needs of children, can provide learning opportunities, accessible to children, that allows children to learn in the way most natural to them, through play.

The edutainment center offers all of these elements. It is marketed to parents as education ["It's nutritious!"] and attracts the kids as a chance for fun play ["Tastes great!"]. And these centers allow us to go back in time, to offer children the learning and discovery experiences, including those with nature, that earlier generations took for granted. It's like the days when mothers told their children to be home by dinner, and kids had the whole day to explore the neighborhood and hang out with other kids and make their own fun.

Putting the Needs of Children First

Edutainment centers, to be effective, must value children as more than economic consumers. The play itself must be the core value that is the foundation for the center's mission. Community-based LBEs, unlike tourist attractions or regional LBEs like theme parks, depend upon a high level of repeat visits from a loyal guest base. Educated parents know a marketing gimmick when they see one, and that goes double for kids. Children will try anything once or twice, but if an activity doesn't meet their standards, they'll get bored and move on, as some pay-for-play providers are painfully learning.

Edutainment centers must be designed with the long-term in mind. The novelty and curiosity will fill almost any new LBE in the first few months. Successful edutainment centers, though, must be based on prevailing values and cultures, with a bonding to their neighborhoods and guests. Offering children a broad menu of play in a playscape environment they can make their special world is an essential element of success. Only if the center is developed based on the value of giving children the worlds of play that their "imprisonment" denies them, and helping their parents fulfill their role as parents, will the center succeed. Shortcuts won't work. The center must be developed and operated from a holistically consistent perspective and stand for something valuable from its guests' perspective.

If the center owner considers edutainment just a computer or game with edutainment programming or the latest whiz-bang piece of equipment or technology, guests will think of the center as a place of amusement. A true edutainment or play center must reach beyond its for-profit structure, which makes parents suspicious that they're being manipulated or exploited anyway, and stand for something greater than profit. It must be seen by parents and children alike as an institution that exists to bring value to their lives.

Moving Beyond Habitrails for Kids to New Kinds of Edutainment

Soft modular play centers, operated on a pay-for-play basis, were the first incarnation of edutainment centers. They were based upon the mistaken idea that indoor, safe, physical play met the play needs of young children. Later centers were bigger and included rides, games, and passive entertainment including animatronics, which was basically more of the same. Some center operators looked to the early childhood education and children's museum industries, and incorporated what our company refers to as "hands-on/discovery" events. At the same time, aesthetics and theming, acoustics, quality operations, parents' needs and strategic adjacency issues, including child and parent interaction, were recognized as essential components for success.

The true children's edutainment center is the next generation and will be a permanent development branch of this new, for-profit industry. There are no rides, no technological gimmicks or virtual reality. This generation is based wholly on "actual" reality and high touch. It offers children a place with the tools they need to create their own magical worlds, where their imaginations rule and they can develop their minds, souls and bodies. It's like what happens at Christmas when the kid discards the latest toy and spends the afternoon playing inside the box it came in, where the only special effects needed are a child's imagination.

This new kind of edutainment center recognizes that what's good for adults isn't necessarily good for children, and that kids need a place where they can just be kids. It is free from school rules and the adult-imposed programmed structure of most of children's lives outside of school, where children learn by discovering for themselves.

The new edutainment center recognizes that all children are not alike, that kids come in different ages and levels of development, and represent distinct genders and cultures and experiences and with different degrees of the eight intelligences. It is designed to avoid the interaction with parents that often innocently manipulates and stifles children's play, with a staff that is skilled in professional play leadership and knows when to leave kids alone.

It is not slick, manufactured, high-tech, or designer. The only silicon you'll find there is in sand. There is water, and animals and critters of all types, and chances to manipulate and create, to wonder and experiment, to pretend, to interact with nature and with other children, to celebrate the joy of childhood. The edutainment center is a place where children experience the magic that is their biological birthright -- the ability to learn through exploration, discovery and the power of their own imaginations.