Dubai has no shortage of interesting spaces for children to engage in educational play and amusement, but that doesn't mean there's nothing left to create. And by the end of next month, a play area like no other will open in the UAE.
OliOli, a 30,000-square-foot facility in Al Quoz, is a dream come true for founders Purshotam Ramchandani and his wife Asha.
"We're a group of parents who came together to set this up, a place that's the opposite of a daycare, a place where parents can't just drop their kids off, disconnect from their children and leave," says the Indian national, who has lived in Dubai for decades apart from time spent studying and working in the United States.
"This is a place that will nurture engagement between parent and child, where we can allow families to come together and spend time together and where the child can lead and have the parents follow."
OliOli, which means "joy" in Hawaiian because the "whole purpose is to bring back smiles of discovery on the faces of the children", is more of a journey than a destination.
Made up of nine interactive galleries that combine 45 hands-on activities, the centre focuses on open-ended and non-judgmental play for children through installations created by academics, artists, professors and designers.
"By open-ended and non-judgmental, we mean that there's no directed outcome that the kids are forced to achieve," explains Ramchandani.
"There's no right and wrong in their play. It's an emotionally-safe environment full of fun, interactive and educational activities with no outcome. Kids go along with it and interact as they see fit, depending on their age and development.
"It's not standing in front of a screen driving a car and feeling like they have to get to the finish line before time runs out or they lose.
"There is a little bit of competitive play because it's important, but the play is what they want to do instead of what is dictated to them."
Although the interior of most of the galleries in OliOli are still a secret until the Dubai opening, one particular space is certain to put the play centre on the map.
Toshiko MacAdam, the 77-year-old textile artist behind the breathtaking Toshi's Nets playgrounds, has spent two years with her husband Charles creating a crocheted rainbow of nylon – tonnes of nylon – and turning her art into an interactive play space for children in Dubai.
Her installation in Dubai will be a first for the Middle East; there are less than 10 of her massive, colorful architectural sculptures worldwide and these are mainly in her home country of Japan, but also Spain, Shanghai (China), Seoul (South Korea), Hong Kong, plus mobile exhibitions in Rome and the United States.
Each piece is one-of-a-kind, joining art and architecture to create a space for play. The most famous example of MacAdam's work is the expansive net-structure inside the Woods of Net Pavilion at the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan, which she knitted entirely by hand over the course of a year.
Her creations are almost like giant spiderweb structures, a rainbow of springy mesh holes, caves and plains, where kids can roam free and let their imagination take the lead.
When one child bounces or crawls along the crocheted nylon, this will cause a ripple effect of motion on the structure, causing other children to shift their positions.
"This is like a stage for children," the artist tells me. "Children walk into a totally different space from home. They can be actors, acrobats, ballet dancers. Not only do they start to climb on it, they perform on it as well.
Charles MacAdam says there are no rules or a set way of playing. "Children's imaginations naturally start working, we see this in every installation once the kids are roaming free on it. They almost start showing off, with cartwheels and flips and ballet poses; they are discovering what they can do.
"They create games with other kids, strangers, bouncing and sliding, bumping and falling down. It gets them interacting and they start doing things together, a whole fantasy about being inside a cave or being on the sea, or up in the air or climbing mountains."
The purpose behind MacAdam's playgrounds mirrors exactly what Ramchandani was hoping to do with OliOli – create a space where children can do what is natural for them without parents interfering too much.
The MacAdams returned to Nova Scotia, Canada, yesterday where their studio is located. For the UAE project, the textile artist spent more than 10 hours a day for a year on her knees, crocheting more than 1,000 kilograms of dyed nylon yarn that Charles produced for her.
In Dubai, the couple then spent 10 days assembling the playground in OliOli and testing their creation with a group of children – a
moment that was two years in the making.
"When we watch the children play, it helps us to see what needs to be changed or tweaked," says MacAdam. "Their reaction was fantastic. That's the reason we make these playgrounds. It's such an emotional moment, after all this work; more work than anyone can imagine has gone into creating something that's just been waiting, in a state of suspended imagination. Then the kids come and what I created comes alive. It becomes art that is usable."
What parents will quickly discover is that children can learn to manage risk themselves through playing on the nets, and doing something they've never tried before.
"Sometimes things will go well," explains Charles MacAdam, "and sometimes they might get a little bump, but we've seen them learn through that. It's important for their brain development. Children who are cut off and live in a very closed or controlled environment, in high rises, never outdoors, always in front of a screen; their brains don't develop the same as when they are being knocked around, using their bodies, changing position.
"They develop awareness of themselves in space and it's important in establishing neural pathways in the brain. Through years of research, we've seen there is great benefit in the actual physical motion of the net in stimulating children's brains."
Ramchandani is hoping that the Toshi's Nets gallery will be one of the most popular spaces within OliOli."It took us a year to convince Toshiko to work with us," he says. "She wants to be the mother of many children as she calls it, so even though she gets requests to do this in private settings, she wants as many kids to enjoy them as possible, so she prefers them in public spaces. We convinced her OliOli supports everything she cares about."
The other galleries will be just as interactive as Toshi's Nets, with the focus on having children working with their hands, which Ramchandani says makes them better problem solvers. "We have a lot of hands-on activities in our spaces: making paper planes and launching them, making paper rockets and launching them, creating shapes that can float on a stream of air, making cars with Lego and repurposed materials and racing them on a track. There will be so much to look forward to, combining engineering, science, maths, and obviously, the arts."
And if children leave having experienced moments of joy, then both Ramchandani's and MacAdam's wishes will have come true.