What Dubai's Museum of the Future has for children: from sensory orbs to building blocks

The new institution has an entire level dedicated to encouraging collaboration and creativity in young people

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“Welcome future heroes,” reads the sign above the entrance to the dedicated children’s floor in the Museum of the Future. “The future needs you."

When you think about it, that’s a big message for children. After all, what do we usually ask of them? To sit still and listen. Pay attention in class, be kind to their friends and siblings. Do their homework, complete their chores … Very rarely does it come up that the future, their future, needs them.

The onus is bold, expectations large, as befitting a building and concept that has made such an impact on the global architectural and educational stage.

So, what does the Future Heroes exhibit hold in store for children? I visited the Museum of the Future with my three children — Indiana, 9, Fox, 6, and Caspian, 3 — to find out.

A relaxed atmosphere

We visited on a Saturday at lunchtime, soon after the museum had opened to the public last week. The building is even more impressive up close, the valet parking experience smooth and the queues in the lobby were long, but moved relatively quickly.

Stepping out of the silver, pod-like lifts and onto the Future Heroes floor, the ambience was instantly discernible in the colour scheme.

Absent are the garish pinks and blues designed to send stereotyped gender messages to parents and children. Rather, soothing beiges, whites and pastels abound, and materials are soft and comforting with a natural feel, inviting touch and interaction. A mirrored area is hung with capes for children to wear, to become the heroes the exhibit intends.

The main exhibition is for children aged from 4 to 10, with a much smaller area for children 3 and under.

It’s important to note that adults are not permitted in the main area. The wide, open space allows you to keep an eye on them, but you should be confident in leaving them to play independently and discover. Plus, there are plenty of trainers on hand to guide children in their discovery.

Build, Imagine and Design

The main area is divided into three main themes, of which there are five experiences: Rocket Tower, Build Lab, Imagine Lab, Balance Balloon and Design Lab.

The three labs are pleasantly, futuristically ergonomic. All curved domes and feel-free-to-touch materials aimed at inspiring innovation and thought, and promoting creativity.

Different from the Labs, the Rocket Tower and Balance Balloon are metal and rope structures designed to get children moving in a way that helps them consider their physicality within that space.

The darkly cave-like Design Lab is where children can try out new technologies that allow them to write and draw on the walls using light, with the parallels drawn between how far we've come from cave drawings to this latest tech inescapable.

My two eldest children wrote their names and drew pictures and patterns on the soft walls, guided by trainers who shone lights on their ultra-modern version of invisible ink.

'Orbs' and 'flowers': inside the Imagine Lab

The Imagine Lab proved a favourite for my children. It is a place where a child could easily spend more than an hour in, returning to over and over, each time discovering something new.

Hundreds of pale blue “orbs” line the walls, divided into four sense categories: touch, smell, see and hear. The touch orbs invite children to feel around and determine what's there, with the likes of skin, sheep, shells, a comet and pasta inside.

The smell orbs offer an olfactory experience including chocolate, soap, eucalyptus, coffee, popcorn and cinnamon. The see orbs are a visual representation of things such as bread, boats, skeletons, full moons and grass. The listening orbs emit a noise to be deciphered, among them whale song, chopping wood and a gushing fountain.

Once the guesswork is done, the orbs are put into the “flowers” to see whether the children chose correctly, with the answers beamed onto the ground in brightly coloured, engaging visuals that they want to watch and touch.

In here, trainers give the children missions, such as asking them to find orbs pertaining to certain categories of animals, plants or space.

Creativity and collaboration in the Build Lab

The Build Lab was another favourite space, filled with wooden sticks and brackets that cry out to be turned into dens, rocket ships, forts and anything else their imagination creates.

Here, children are encouraged to work together to build. Their reward? Apart from the joy of shared goals, a rain shower of plastic balls which fall from the ceiling, much to their delight.

The Rocket Tower, with its speedy chute, had Fox shouting “Again!” the moment he reached the bottom, and the Balance Balloon has high-tech climbing frames that promote physical problem-solving.

These modern twists on traditional children’s play equipment go to show that while time marches on, some playground classics never go out of favour. There’s also a small in-ground trampoline.

Rewards for challenges

Upon entrance to the museum, children are given wristbands that they use to collect digital badges during their time on the Future Heroes floor.

Trainers give them different challenges, which allow them to exhibit behaviours such as creativity or teamwork. Children are also rewarded for being kind, helpful or thoughtful.

There are 12 badges to collect during their stay that can be carried over from visit to visit, and can be used to move from level one — Dubai, to level 12 — Cosmic.

Flat screens in the centre of the area interact with the wristband to show children how many badges they have collected.

Smaller area for younger children

The area for children aged 3 and under is not as extensive or engaging as the main exhibit for older children. A round space filled with cork blocks of all sizes from a deck of cards to house bricks entertained my 3-year-old for about 15 minutes — no mean feat as any parents of toddlers will attest. Younger babies still in that sweet spot of “easily distracted and entertained” will probably fare longer.

However, if you’re juggling toddlers and older children on your visit, be aware that the younger ones will probably tire of their play far quicker.

The toilets are on the same floor and designed with children in mind. There’s also a baby changing area, and different-sized basins for all heights.

Overall, the ambience is surprisingly relaxed for an area that’s dedicated to children. They aren’t running around and yelling the way you might see at the soft play or park after school, because the environment and activities on offer don’t lend themselves to that kind of interaction.

Rather, the surroundings encourage children to engage in different ways, guiding them to be thoughtful rather than noisy. Here, children move at a slower pace than the frantic rush between activities, which parents of youngsters will be used to seeing. It’s certainly the quietest “play area” I’ve ever been in.

As to whether my three children enjoyed their visit, as all parents will know, the litmus test of enjoyability is in hearing those four simple words: "Can we come again?".

Which, yes, I heard from all three.

Updated: March 01, 2022, 6:38 AM