All play and no work at The Journey park in Dubai

We visit The Journey, a fun new play spot for children in Dubai.

Emily Carpenter plays with her daughter Betsy, 2, at The Journey, which opened last month, and has already welcomed more than 5,000 children. Reem Mohammed / The National
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A new park/adventure playground in Dubai is what children's dreams are made of. It features a mud kitchen, a pirate ship, a treehouse, climbing walls, bow and arrows for archery, a waterfall to play in, fountains to splash in and plenty of places to get dirty.

The Journey, which opened last month, has already welcomed more than 5,000 children. Located just off Dubai’s Kite Beach, next to the skate park, it’s the latest addition to the Fazza Beach Club project, and is intended to reconnect children with nature.

It’s designed with youngsters above the age of 4 in mind, but Candy Fanucci, who’s in charge of the site’s day-to-day running, says any child who’s able to walk will find something to enjoy.

The biggest features are the sturdy wooden tree houses (complete with double-glazed windows), which are connected by raised platforms or rope bridges. Children have the option of climbing the stairs to reach them, or venturing up small climbing walls or rope ladders.

There’s also a vegetable patch and herb garden, and mango, lemon and fig trees.

Fanucci, who moved to Dubai 15 years ago, experienced more outdoor life growing up than the average youngster, being raised on a game reserve in South Africa.

“I was very privileged to have that childhood,” she says. “I had mountains as far as the eye could see, and wild animals in our garden. I really grew up in a natural environment.”

Life for children today is very different, she says, especially when it comes to the things that keep them entertained.

“Modern technology has just taken over everything. We are losing an entire generation; it’s scary. They lose their ability to play and get dirty, so it’s our responsibility to nurture that.”

Fanucci, who has worked for years for the office of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, says she’s passionate about children, and has always wanted to create something specifically for them to experience the outdoors.

The project, which is in the first of two phases, was dreamt up three years ago.

The following years were filled with “sketch after sketch after sketch”, Fanucci says, and lots of liaising with landscapers to finesse the designs. Work began last year, and it took eight months for The Journey to be completed.

There are already plans to double its size, with suggestions that the new extension will be home to farmyard animals, but Fanucci remains coy, because the licences are still being processed.

In the meantime, The Journey will really come alive on ­February 1. There will be a coffee shop serving food grown on site, cooking classes, a farmers’ market, antenatal classes, yoga sessions, karate classes, children’s art and crafts sessions, nature trails, and the opportunity for parents to host birthday parties. There will also be an urban forest school, where children can learn about nature, animals and survival skills, such as how to build a fire.

Once a month, children will take over the farmers’ market, and sell items that they have made. They will also be able to pick fruit and vegetables, for use in their cooking classes.

“Some people grow up in apartments, and they don’t know where fruit and vegetables come from,” Fanucci says. “Here, we can teach them about their food, and show them how to pick and cook with it.”

For parents with younger children, there are smaller indoor areas with wooden train sets and other toys, and changing tables in the men’s and women’s bathrooms. Foam fish float in a rock pool at the bottom of the meandering waterfall, with foam rods to fish with.

Fanucci says she has trained staff to pay close attention to what the children are doing – because many of them will inevitably be out of sight of their parents – but not to encroach on their play.

“I’ve been saying: ‘Let the kids discover and let them learn.’ They say kids learn more in their natural environment than they will learn in a classroom.”

Emily Carpenter, a teacher and mother, takes her children Betsy, 2, and Stanley, 11 months, to The Journey. “It’s the sort of playground that means they can initiate their own play,” she says. “They don’t want to have an adult say ‘come and climb these steps’; they want to go and do their own thing, and make their own decisions. It builds their confidence.

“It’s different to the other playgrounds; it’s more natural. Because of how it’s built, it influences parents to leave their children, and gives the parents confidence in their own children.”

Anna Cave, mother to Reuben, 4, and Leo, 1, says her own children go crazy if they have to stay in the house all day. “I think it’s brilliant here. It’s really nice to have a variety of things. It’s good for them to run around, and it’s enclosed. Even if I can’t see them, I don’t need to worry where they are.”

How play helps develop children’s skills

Playing outdoors is about more than just fresh air and burning off energy. It’s critical for a child’s healthy development.

The opportunity to run, jump and climb gives children the chance to develop their gross motor skills.

Gross motor skills – larger movements – must be mastered before a child will learn fine motor skills, which involve coordination and synchronisation, such as using a knife and fork.

An important aspect of outdoor play is free play, where the children dictate what they do, rather than be told by adults what they should be doing.

The American National Association for the Education of Young Children says: “Children who regularly play outdoors tend to be fitter and leaner, develop stronger immune systems, play more creatively, have more active imaginations, report lower stress levels, and demonstrate greater respect for themselves and others.”

Helena O’Reilly, a Briton who runs a Dubai children’s music group and teaches in nursery schools, says open play areas with plenty of different activities help engage a child’s imagination.

“It definitely helps their imagination and creativity,” says O’Reilly, mother to Thomas, 2. “It’s also good for communication between the children. It’s important for boys and girls to have space to run around and not be confined; a chance to explore a free space.

“It gives them confidence in themselves, to go off and do things alone.”

The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends two hours of physical activity a day, and says play is an important part of this.

“Play in an outdoor, natural environment allows children to explore both their world and their own minds,” it says. “Nature places virtually no bounds on the imagination and engages all of the senses. For all children, this setting allows for the full blossoming of creativity, curiosity and the associated development advances.”

It warns that parents often dismiss outdoor free play in favour of organised sports or other activities, and that children are too often passively entertained by television or computer games.

“Unlike team sports, individual play in nature allows the child to tailor exercise to his or her own interests and abilities, often in conjunction with creative efforts. The great outdoors can move children away from the passive entertainment of computers and TV and into an interactive forum that engages both mind and body.”

weekend@thenational.ae

The Journey is open from 9am to 5pm daily. Entry costs Dh30 per person for two hours and Dh15 for every additional hour, or Dh60 for five hours; cash only. Children ages 1 and below are free. The Journey is at 8 35A Street, Jumeirah 3, Park 2; www.thejourneydubai.com.

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