White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group white paper

That's Edutainment

by Randy White

© 2003 White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group


Table of Contents

The lights go down. The music swells. Tapping their way onstage are the Historical Re-enactor, the Zoo Docent, the Play Facilitator, and the Museum Director, who bears a strange resemblance to Fred Astaire. They break into song...

Everything that you want to learn
We can help you to know.
We can make you laugh
We can make you think
It won't pain you, pain you to go.

The guns that blazed at Bull Run,
The mouse in Walt Disney's house,
Or the snake from an African lake
The world is a stage
The stage of a world of ed-u-taaaiiiinnn-ment!? *

* With apologies to Howard Dietz, lyricist.

The idea that learning can be fun, and fun can promote learning, is transforming attractions that once saw themselves as primarily either education- or entertainment-oriented. It's even spawned a new word: edutainment.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines edutainment as "the act of learning through a medium that both educates and entertains." In that definition, learning is the key element. We'd suggest that when applied to the location-based entertainment (LBE) industry, the emphasis is switched. We define LBE edutainment as "events, programs and attractions where the entertainment qualities are the primary draw, with the learning or education being a byproduct." We see edutainment as any entertainment that also delivers educational content in an entertainment format. It consists of two equally important parts: the format (entertainment) and the message/content (education).

Our research indicates the first use of the word edutainment was for educationally oriented CD-ROM games used to teach children in an entertaining way. As best we can determine, our company was the first to apply the word in the LBE industry to describe the children's play & discovery centers we starting producing for our clients in the mid-'90s, which we called 'children's edutainment centers.' The articles we authored about edutainment centers published in industry magazines during the late '90s imbedded the term into the industry's lexicon.

Given a choice between just education, just entertainment, or a combination of the two, more LBE guests prefer the two-fer. A couple of examples: One survey of videogame manufacturers and designers found that they believe that a game with up to 50% educational content will still be perceived as entertainment. And many informal learning institutions like zoos, museums and botanical gardens are adding entertainment elements to their offerings in recognition of the greater appeal of this combination.

What are the different types of location-based edutainment?

Edutainment in LBEs can be organized in different ways, depending. We have classified the various types of LBE edutainment as follows:

  1. Interactive & Participatory
    • Open-ended & Immersive (play)
    • Structured (participatory games)
    • Scripted (mazes)
  2. Non-interactive & Spectator
    • Seated & Scripted (movie, play or science show)
    • Explorative
      • Scripted (aquarium, some museums)
      • Free-choice (zoos, some museums)

Some venues offer combinations or hybrids of these categories. For example, an aquarium (spectator, non-interactive and explorative) might also offer a movie (seated and scripted) and a touching pool (interactive and scripted). Some attractions can be pure entertainment or changed to become edutainment. A maze can be pure fun and entertainment, or it can be overlaid with a storyline, theme and learning stations, making it an educational game.

All of the categories of edutainment described above are either structured or scripted with the exception of one - open-ended, non-rule-imposed based play.

So what's new about edutainment?

Long before Mary Poppins sang that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, cultures were combining education and entertainment. Myths have been used to teach members of a culture the rules of life and acceptable behavior within that culture. Parables have been used by prophets to illustrate religious tenets. Fables have been used to demonstrate the validity of moral teachings.

One example is the story of Cinderella, which originated in China. In this classic myth, a woman from the lower class, through her physical beauty, goodness of heart, and help from others, marries a prince and lives happily ever after. The basic moral of the story is that woman's happiness depends on a man and a woman needs to be transformed to fit into that man's world. While the American Cinderella is characterized by her individual qualities, such as physical beauty and resourcefulness, the Asian Cinderella is lauded for non-individual qualities, such as filial piety. Either way, the story is designed to teach a lesson about which behaviors the culture will reward.

Although the word is new, the concept of edutainment has been around the entertainment industry for years. Sesame Street and The Wonderful World of Disney are just two examples of early edutainment television shows. Likewise, edutainment is not new in concept for location-based leisure venues. Zoos, aquariums, historical sites and science and children's museums are all examples of edutainment leisure destinations. In fact, all are rapidly growing in popularity. There are now over 300 children's museums in the United States. More than 58 million people visited American zoos and museums in 1999, more than attended National Football League and Major League Baseball games combined.

Who's making a profit from edutainment?

One element that is new is the rise of location-based edutainment as a for-profit business. While non-profit organizations once had the edutainment market sewn up, today there are more for-profit competitors.

Ripley's Believe It Or Not owns and continues to develop multi-million-dollar, for-profit aquariums. Every year, 75 million people visit 220 IMAX theatres in 30 countries to be edutained. Half of the screens are in informal learning institutions such as museums, zoos and planetariums, while half are part of commercial cinema complexes. Children's edutainment centers, too, are growing in popularity.

Many traditionally entertainment activities are layering education into the fun to increase their appeal. For example, some paintball facilities have started running scenario sessions with games based on historic events and battles.

Edutainment is as much a marketing concept as it is content. Because of edutainment's appeal, more and more entertainment products and venues are marketing themselves as edutainment to increase their perceived value. Even some informal learning institutions are incorporating the word edutainment into their marketing. The New Jersey Aquarium, for example, markets itself as an edutainment experience. Kellogg's Cereal City, a corporate brand museum, is being billed as an edutainment center. Unfortunately, some LBEs are trying to capitalize on the concept by calling themselves edutainment when they may have nothing more than an educational mural on the wall.

What's driving the increase in edutainment?

Edutainment is one product of a major shift - tied to changes in the economy - that is occurring in how we view leisure time in Western societies.

In the manufacturing economy, people thought leisure was the reward for hard work. Work was associated with self-improvement and leisure with relaxation that had no other practical use. Today, more people work with their brains than their bodies. People are using their scarce, but more highly valued, leisure time differently, and they have an entirely new attitude about leisure. They see leisure time as an opportunity to improve themselves and their children and do worthwhile things, rather than as purposeless relaxation and entertainment.

The change in values was led by changes in the economy, as it moved from manufacturing to technological. Consider the fact that from 1983 to 2000, managerial and professional specialty jobs have increased from 23% to 30% whereas manufacturing employment declined from 16% to 13.5%. Even in manufacturing, many workers now work with their brains, where computerization and robotics are playing an increasing role in all aspects of manufacturing and distribution. A knowledge society places a high value on education and enrichment.

Why are educated people the big market for edutainment?

The number of people with formal education is increasing dramatically, and those individuals have more disposable income and spend significantly more on out-of-home entertainment than their less-educated counterparts.

Data from the 2000 US Census shows that America is becoming an increasingly educated society. Of people 25 and over, 80% had a high school diploma and 24% had completed at least a bachelor's degree. Compared to 1990, the proportion of people with a high school diploma has increased 7% and the number with at least a bachelor's degree has increased 20%. Going back to 1940, the proportion of the adult population that graduated from high school has more than tripled, and the number with a bachelor's degree or higher is more than five times greater.

What segment of the population is the most educated? Asians hold bachelor's and advanced degrees at a rate almost twice that of the overall population. For regions of the country, the Northeast has the highest percentage of bachelor's degrees and advanced degrees. High percentages of college graduates are found in suburban areas around metropolitan areas and in college towns. The states with the highest levels of bachelor's degrees or higher are Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts, along with the District of Columbia. And for cities of 100,000 or more population, Cambridge, MA; Ann Arbor, MI; and Berkeley, CA, have the highest percentages of people with doctoral degrees -- eight times or more than the national average.

And, beyond racking up the degrees, lifelong education has become an important priority for many adults. The 1999 National Adult Education Participation Report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that in 1999, 23% of all adults took one or more college courses strictly for personal enrichment, for non-work related, personal development purposes.

It's the educated consumers who control the majority of expendable entertainment dollars, as there is a direct relationship between education levels, income and entertainment spending. In 2001, on average in the US, households headed by high school graduates earned $37,800 and spent $276 on out-of-home entertainment fees and admissions. Households headed by those with bachelor's degrees earned $70,100 and spent $993 on the same type of entertainment, and those headed by those with master's or professional degrees earned $86,700 and spent $1,229.

In aggregate, households headed by non-college graduates (65% of all households) spent $21.2 billion on out-of-home entertainment in 2001, whereas associate or higher college degreed households (35% of all households) spent more than three times as much per household for a total of $36.8 billion. In other words, college degreed households make up slightly more than one-third of all households, but are responsible for about two-thirds of total out-of-home entertainment expenditures. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to see where the edutainment market's potential is and what market niche to chase.

Is this what kids call "play?"

What we call children's edutainment is really just children's play. To adults, children's play is fun, relaxing and recreational, not work. Many adults view children's play as nothing more than mindless play with little value. For children, nothing could be further from the truth.

For adults, edutainment falls somewhere in the middle of the education-entertainment continuum, with a little of both. For children up to about age 8, play is a very unique form of edutainment since it is both 100% education and 100% entertainment.

Children are biologically wired to play. It is nature's way of programming them with a pleasurable activity that teaches them about the world around them and how to become part of society. Play is child's work. Play to children is unlike play to adults.

Decades of research in child development and recent research in brain development have substantiated the crucial role that play has in children's optimal cognitive, physical, emotional and social development. It is their primary mode and most effective way of learning. Children's play that is age, developmentally and culturally appropriate is called developmentally appropriate play.

What makes edutainment perfect for overscheduled kids?

Edutainment is a great way to sneak old-fashioned, unstructured children's play under the noses of parents who are only just beginning to understand its importance.

Parents today are eager to expose their children to enriching experiences and every possible opportunity for improving achievement. The result? Often it's children who have the schedules of pint-sized CEOs. Child magazine, in its August issue, offered an explanation: "We're a nation of workaholics, so it's not surprising that we're passing our super-sized work ethic on to our children in the form of organized activities."

Research by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research validates the trend. It found that during the past 20 years, children's unstructured free time has declined from about 40% of the average child's day to 25% today.

But a backlash has begun, as people question this over-scheduling of children's lives. As Faith Popcorn captures with her terms clean time and free-range children, some parents are saying enough is enough. Most child development experts agree that before grade school, children don't need structured extracurricular activities, and even in early grade school, one or two activities are enough. David Elkind, Ph.D., at Tufts University, one of the country's leading child development experts, says this about structured activities: "There's no evidence they help your child succeed in life." There's even a book on this phenomenon, The Over-Scheduled Child, by Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld.

What's more, there can be many detrimental effects of introducing children too early and too often to extracurricular activities, including children being overwhelmed socially and developing an aversion for the activity by not being developmentally ready to handle it. It can even damage the child-parent relationship. Dr. Brad Sachs, Ph.D., a family psychologist, says, "When a child is forced into doing something she's not ready for, the parents tend to feel disappointed and the child feels she's letting the parents down."

The biggest complaint most experts have with structured programs and over-scheduled children is that it robs children of time for unstructured free play and a chance to just wonder and use their imaginations -- essential requirements for children's development of both creativity and their intellectual abilities. For healthy development, young children need free play time, and lots of it.

There is strong evidence that parents with the most education have the highest interest in seeing their children attend enriching programs. Data from the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation looks at the well-being of children and their daily activities. Data collected between 1996 and 2000 found that for families composed of parents with a high school degree or less education, only 24% of their children between 6 and 11 years participated in extracurricular sports, 25% in extracurricular clubs and 22% in extracurricular lessons. When parents had a bachelor's degree, the children's participation in these activities increased to 43%, 48% and 50%, respectively, about double the rate. The participation for advance-degreed parent families was even higher, at 49%, 53% and 55%.

The trend may also have a generational component, according to Child magazine, "as more Gen-X parents try to give their kids what they wish they'd had in childhood." The finding was echoed in market surveys by Fischer-Price, the well-known manufacturer of children's toys. They found that unlike boomer moms, who see their children's play and learning as separate activities, Gen-X moms, mothers in their 20's and 30's, want their children to play and learn at the same time. Gen-X moms now make up two-thirds of all moms with infant and preschool children.

Children's edutainment pleases parents who want to give children free play or clean time, but who are worried about letting their children play, even in their own backyards, for fear of abduction. Marc Francis, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California-Davis, has termed this phenomenon as the childhood of imprisonment. Well-designed and managed edutainment centers offer an extremely secure environment where parents can feel safe that their children will never leave with anyone else.

It also pleases parents who feel obligated to offer their children extracurricular activities, including playgroups and classes. The majority of edutainment events and activities are based on unstructured play, where children are empowered and in charge. The scheduled activities, such as enrichment workshops, are based on the principal of developmentally appropriate practice and designed as fun for children.

What does developmentally appropriate play look like?

In academic terms, developmentally appropriate play is free-choice learning - learning that is guided by a person's interests and motivations, and which involves considerable choice on the part of the learner as to when, where, why and what to learn. Developmentally appropriate play has these characteristics:

  • Highly pleasurable
  • Process-oriented, non-goal directed. The outcome is not as important as the process.
  • Child-initiated and self-directed
  • An activity of the mind, imaginative
  • Free of imposed tasks or adult-imposed rules
  • Hands-on/participatory
  • Open-ended

One of the unique qualities of play is that it has high repeat appeal. This is due to the fact that children create their own play scripts, and the scripts constantly change, so the play is different every time.

I certainly experienced this as a child. Every day, weather permitting, I spent hours playing in the sandbox in my back yard, and I was never bored. In adult terms, it was like going to the same movie theatre everyday, but with a new movie playing. Children's play is powered by their imaginations; they are their own scriptwriters, movie producers, directors and actors, all at the same time and with constantly changing stories.

This biologically programmed repeat appeal is what makes children's edutainment so powerful an attraction for located-based entertainment venues. By calling it edutainment rather than just play, parents perceive it as nourishing to their children (which it is) with a higher value than amusements or entertainment only. But it's also fun, and parents love to make their children happy. So parents get to feel good about helping their children develop as human beings, and they do it in a way that, for the children, is just a blast of fun.

How does children's edutainment fit into LBEs?

Children's edutainment has a number of applications in location-based venues. It can be an attraction itself in the form of indoor children's edutainment centers (also know as children’s play and discovery centers), outdoor adventure play gardens or a combination of both. It can be part of larger family entertainment facilities.

We have designed small children's edutainment areas adjoining food courts in malls and as parts of community recreation centers, fitness/health centers and retail stores.

It can be farm-based, such as at a children's discovery farm, when it is sometimes called agritainment. The Brookfield Zoo has created a children's edutainment area called Play Zoo that incorporates animals and developmentally appropriate play. Many botanical gardens have created children's gardens based upon edutainment principals. We are even working with a church on a Christian children's edutainment project.

What does it take to design children's edutainment that kids love?

Part of the secret of creating successful children's edutainment is in the design of the events and the environment. Children's edutainment differs from other types of entertainment in that they are almost all totally custom-designed. It's not like you can go to a trade show or pick up a catalog and order equipment. Unlike a ride that you can add to a space, the design of the space is as critical to the success of edutainment as the content.

Edutainment needs to be designed from an understanding of child development and approached "through the eyes of the child," with sensitivity to a child's scale and how they see, interpret and use space and objects. Since much of children's play takes place in their minds through imagination, you need to create the right space (the stage) and supply the right objects (the props) to support their play (act out their scripts). Since children's physical size, skills and play changes as they develop, the edutainment must offer a continuum of challenge, so there is a match between their capabilities and the play opportunities. If there is a mismatch with what children have the interest and ability to do, they will be bored.

How do the ages of play affect the design of children's edutainment?

Children's development runs a predictable course. Although every child develops at a different rate with often-distinctive differences between the genders, there are generalized "developmental stages" or "ages of play." Edutainment events need to be designed to meet the needs of each age of play so children's skills will match the task at hand.

Generally, in Western cultures, the three ages of play encompassing 2-to-8s are compatible and activities can be designed to offer graduated challenges to them. But once children reach 9, there is a significant change in their attitudes and interests, and they no longer want to be associated with younger children. While it is possible to design edutainment for children 9 to 12, events must be designed to meet the more advanced development of this age group and located in a completely separately zoned area away from younger children.

There is another major change in children's development and interests at about age 12, which makes it difficult to design true edutainment play areas for children much older than 12 years.

Children must be offered graduated play challenges that appeal to as many of the nine multiple intelligences and offered as much variety as possible. This variety of events is very important to the success of children's edutainment so that each child will find something he or she wants to do.

We'll take me and my trusty sandbox as one example. As a child, I was a bit of a nerd and what I call a 'motor moron,' in that I wasn't too physically coordinated. So if there had been edutainment centers back then, you never would have caught me climbing through soft-contained-play structures. Instead, I would have latched onto the dinosaur dig or the reading room.

What impact does the design of the space have on children?

The design of the space or environment will actually shape children's behavior. Children read environments differently than adults. To them it is not background, but rather something to interact with. Design a long, straight hallway and children will instinctively run down it. They are not misbehaving. They are doing exactly what the environment "told" them to do.

Even the difference of a few inches can affect children's behavior. Several years ago we designed our first pretend fishing event for a children's edutainment center in the Middle East. It was designed so children could fish from a scaled-down model of a dhow, a traditional teak boat found in the Persian Gulf. We visited the center after it opened for post-opening evaluations. Children were climbing over the sides of the boat, climbing into the stream and jumping off the bow. These, of course, were not desirable behaviors.

Our Education & Child Development Director observed the problem for some time before she concluded the boat wasn't built to our dimensions. We checked and the sides of the boat were 3" lower than we had specified. We made the contractor aware of the problem and the sides of the boat were modified to the correct specifications. On a return trip we observed that the behavior problems had stopped. The difference of just a few inches can dramatically change children's behavior and play.

Design also affects children's attention spans. The conventional wisdom is that young children have short attention spans. We have designed edutainment events that successfully hold the attention of 2- and 3-year-olds for over 30 minutes.

It is important that the events and environment empower children so they will be in charge. Without empowerment, quality play will not be achieved. This not only requires an intuitive play environment from a child's perspective, but also no externally imposed play rules. To empower children's play, the environment needs to be intriguing, but at the same time open-ended, ambiguous and devoid of literal themes. Theming will actually inhibit children's ability to imagine alternative meanings to objects and features. This of course is counterintuitive to standard industry practice concerning theming.

One other challenge of children's edutainment is duality of design. The play areas need to be designed to work for children, while at the same time the facility also has to appeal to parents. Children's idea of beauty is informal and wild; parents prefer formal and ordered. Children need a sense of enclosure while parents need to be able to see and monitor their children without having to interfere with their children's play. It takes creative design solutions to meet the preferences of both.

Duality of design is particularly important when you consider one group of adults who crave a place to be with their children and other adults, and who offer the potential for repeat business when the center is least busy: homemakers.

What can homemakers do for a children's edutainment center?

Probably the most overlooked market for community-based entertainment venues is the homemaker. Homemakers are defined as non-working parents (mostly women, but men do make up 18% of the market). While not all homemakers have children at home, for purposes of this article, homemakers will refer to non-working adults with children living in the residence.

One reason the homemaker market is typically ignored is that in the majority of families, both parents work, so the size of this niche market is assumed to be insignificant. That's true in part - in 2001, in 63% of families with children, both parents were employed. But that still leaves 37% of families in which at least one parent did not work, and that goes up to 42% in families with preschoolers. That can add up to a lot of families.

Homemakers, too, are looking for something special. They want to find a place where they can meet their friends during the day to socialize while their children are entertained. They can generate significant business during the daytime hours when schools are in session, a time when most family-oriented facilities are empty. Given the right facilities and amenities, they will visit every week, or even more often.

Why do children's edutainment centers require more space?

It takes a lot of space to create children’s edutainment centers with a wide enough variety of edutainment events as well as features that meet the needs of parents.

In addition to the edutainment/play areas, children’s edutainment centers include check-in and waiting areas, birthday party rooms, a café and kitchen area, adequate seating for parents, staff break room, offices, storage, restrooms, family restroom, and a staff workroom with equipment to clean and sanitize equipment and supplies.  All this is needed to assure that parents and children have a positive experience and return often.

Our research and design work has determined that the minimum size for a stand-alone children’s edutainment center for children from infant to age 8 is about 14,000 square feet (1,300 square meters).  And that size will only work in a smaller market.  To be successful, centers need to be sized for peak period attendance.  (For more on correctly sizing a center, see our article “Size Does Matter: Selecting the Right Size for Your Center”) 

To accommodate peak weekend demand in most mid-sized and larger city/suburban markets, children’s edutainment centers typically end up between 22,000 SF and 26,000 SF in size (2,050 m2 – 2,400 m2).  If an area is being included for children 9 to 12, an even larger center is required.

There is a smaller variation of a children’s edutainment center called the (stay-) at-home mom’s play café. Play cafés target attendance during weekdays by mothers with infants to five-year-olds and can be as small as 6,000 SF (560 m2). Play cafés can be sized much smaller since they are closed to the general public on weekends, the time of peak attendance for children’s edutainment centers. On weekends, play cafés are used exclusively for birthday parties.

Why is management so important to children's edutainment?

Management is an important aspect of creating successful children's edutainment facilities because their success depends on human factors much more than the mechanical factors of a traditional arcade or amusement park.

Staff members, whom we call play facilitators, need to be trained in child development and how to interact with both children and parents. Interacting with children as if they are small adults will not be successful in creating the positive experience an edutainment facility needs to offer to them. "Customer service" is completely different for children, as their culture is quite different from that of adult culture.

Children's edutainment is also a values-driven concept, especially for children's edutainment centers. The entire management and marketing of the center needs to be values-driven in order to connect with both parents and the community to win their support and continuing patronage. Those values must be connected to the values of parents. Most parents are very protective of their children, and they pay attention to things like security, safety, sanitation and cleanliness. Gaining the trust of parents means showing them that management cares about their children's well-being, just like they do.

Children's edutainment is more complicated to design and execute than other types of entertainment, but that also creates one of its other advantages, a higher barrier to entry and competition.

Whether designed for children or adults, or both, edutainment is here to stay as modern Americans demand more from their scarce leisure hours.

For more about children’s edutainment: