Child's Play & The Family; Complexities and Opportunities

by Randy White

Talk about Catch-22. The goal of most location-based leisure [LBL] facilities is to attract families, which some LBL owners and operators tend to define as "kids with parents." But typically, children younger than 10 years old are bored with most LBLs, since they are unable to enjoy most anchor attractions, which are designed for older kids. Also, 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 "family" really means, some 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 know what they like. They even think that that's the point, because it's the parents and grandparents who carry the cash. This is a 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 have bupkus.

Simplistic View of Children Hamstrings LBL Profitability

Some LBLs miss their mark when it comes to children, who are remarkably complex as individuals or in a group. Most LBLs think of children as young (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 skills on 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 adults, kids are smart in different ways. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has identified eight distinctive and somewhat autonomous intelligences that each of us has. Just how much talent we have in different areas depends on a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The eight multiple intelligences are:

  1. Linguistic
  2. Logical-Mathematical
  3. Musical
  4. Spatial
  5. Bodily-Kinesthetic
  6. Intrapersonal
  7. Interpersonal
  8. Naturalist

Not surprisingly, there is usually a direct correlation between a person's strengths in each intelligence 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, children do 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 length-of-stay.

What these developmental changes 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 children'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 in 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

The best way to decipher these moving and multiple targets is to approach LBL design for children along two dimensions:

  1. Although every child develops at a different rate, often with distinctive differences between the genders, there are 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 intelligences and offer as much variety as possible.

Boundaries of the ages of play overlap because the rates at which children develop vary. 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 groups should help you understand the difficulty of developing an LBL that works for children and families.

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 Accomplished

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 designing for the youngster. Such neglect costs facilities the largest segment of the family market. That's right. It is the largest segment.

In typical residential LBL market areas, more than 50 percent of families with children have at least one child 6 years old or younger. And half of those families (25 percent of all families) only have children 6 years old 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 years old and younger. That portion composes about two-thirds of the family market.

If you're thinking that it might be a good idea to capture some of that two-thirds of the market, then take note of the fact that children 9 years old and younger enjoy three types of leisure attractions and activities:

  • Amusements. This includes rides and games, a component of just about every LBL concept.
  • Passive entertainment, such as animatronics, movies and shows.
  • 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, which is developmentally appropriate, are called "edutainment" centers. Developmentally appropriate play has the advantage of offering graduated challenges to children and 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.

Family-Friendly Design Transforms an LBL

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.
  • Restrooms. 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.
  • 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.
  • Supervision. Frequently 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.