OliOli: does Dubai's new children's play area live up to the hype?

The new play and learning centre in Dubai being praised by parents and children alike, but given its hefty prices, is it worth it?

The indoor playground features eight galleries with various activities to keep children engaged. Courtesy OliOli
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We arrived at OliOli early in the morning. Anticipation was running high, as I had been eager to check out Dubai's latest indoor play zone since writing about its impending opening in August. Parents across Dubai were singing the space's praises and every social-media post about OliOli had me itching to check it out.

Despite our early start, the building's dedicated, but small, car park was already full. I parked outside on the side of the road and gestured to my friend to do the same. Between us, we navigated two 5-year-olds, one 3-year-old and a massive pram containing an 11-month-old baby towards OliOli's entrance.

As we walked through the doors, a mother was leaving with her twin boys, who seemed to be about 4, and were crying hysterically. At first, it was a little difficult to decipher what the boys were saying, but then their words fell into place. "I don't want to leave. I don't want to leave. I want to stay more. More, more, more." And that, to be honest, sums it up. OliOli, which means "joy" in Hawaiian, is simply not the kind of place that children will ever want to leave voluntarily.

The facility has been called a "children's museum", but that doesn't really do it justice. This is no grubby, windowless children's soft-play area with ball pits, mini slides and pounding music. This is a children's haven spread over two floors, filled with open, well-designed spaces, plenty of natural light and quirky touches to explore. There are eight interactive zones – dedicated to more than 40 activities that come under themes such as mechanics, water play, air manipulation, fort building, sensory exploration and more – and all of which call for natural curiosity (with none of that over-­stimulation that comes with neon lighting and screeching machines).

When you arrive, don't be put off by the ticket price, as we were. We had no idea that adults required their own Dh40 ticket, in addition to the Dh120 per child (for children ages 2 and up) for only two hours of play. We had thought the Dh120 ticket price had no expiry time. Not so. You pay an additional Dh30 for each extra hour of play after the first two hours. At first, I was peeved. Wasn't that an exorbitant price to charge a family? After checking it out this one time, would we ever return?

The answer is, as soon as they launch some kind of family or seasonal or annual pass – and I hope they will – I'll be the first to sign up. Because here's the thing: it feels almost like a parental obligation to allow your child to be his or her inquisitive self in such an incredible space. And as for making the adults buy a ticket? Well, it stands to reason, considering that you'll be playing – and learning and discovering – right there with the kids.

Air zone

Start here. Help your child build paper planes and rockets, and go ahead and launch them. Pop some scarves into the air vortex and watch them zoom away, and let your child stand at the ready to receive the scarves once they pop back out and flutter down to waiting hands. Next, step into the hurricane booth. Play with the ball cannon and marvel at the floating items. And see if your child will spot the butterflies and birdhouses nestled in high corners without any help.

Toshi’s nets

This is the epitome of magical, whimsical play, and there’s nothing like it elsewhere in the Middle East. Designed by the 77-year-old Japanese textile artist Toshiko MacAdam, the 800-­kilogram structure, which can reportedly hold up to 29 baby elephants, is made of tonnes of rainbow-coloured nylon, which has been knitted entirely by hand and crocheted into a climbing, swinging structure dotted with little entrance holds and webbed tunnels. We had to beg our children to leave this part of the facility, just so we could check out the rest of the galleries. Tip: for this one, bring socks.

In the Future Park at OliOli, drawings created by young visitors are reproduced in 3D on a digital wall, while colourful, glow-in-the-dark softballs are the source of endless entertainment. Courtesy OliOli

Creative Lab

This place alone would require two hours of focused play, while kids learn to combine STEAM – science, technology, engineering, artistic creativity and mathematics – to create robots, vehicles, trees or any other invention a child could imagine. It went a little over the 3-year-old’s head and the baby tried to eat most of the material, but older children could spend hours building and creating with their peers and parents.

Water, water

We’ll be bringing a change of clothes for this particular gallery the next time, and leaving it until the very end, because even with the supplied yellow raincoats, children will find a way to get soaked. And who can blame them? There’s a waterfall to run under, a car to wash, balls to send down a “river”, tubes to fill and hydraulic pressure to investigate.

Cars and ramps

Head upstairs to a Lego lover’s dream, and sit down at one of the many tables to create a Lego vehicle with your child, which you can then send down one of the ramps, as children learn how their creations withstand speed. Keep babies and toddlers away from this one, though; there are too many tempting small bits for inquisitive mouths.

Toddler corner

Finally, an area for the baby to roam wild in. This was a safe and beautiful spot for little ones to plant a pretend flower garden, play with puzzles and musical instruments, leaf through books, put some laundry out to dry and toddle through a sensory forest, engaging their fine and gross motor skills before hiding out in a teepee to read some books.

Forts and dens

Forget the old sheets-hanging-off-the-sofa type of fort. This zone takes fort building to a whole new level, and can result in hours of imaginative play. Think customised fabrics, dedicated clips, wooden structures, various cushion sizes and more.

Future Park

My 5-year-old coloured in a turtle, then headed to a scanning machine, where staff helped scan her drawing in. Immediately, the turtle came to life on a digital wall and swam away, navigating between the brightly coloured fish created by all the other kids. Drawings come alive in 3D, while in a darkened corner, giant glow-in-the-dark soft balls are engaged in a game of roly-poly, with children lying stomach-down on the huge spheres and giggling in delight.

If you manage to fit all this into only two hours, we salute you. I, on the other hand, will have to make many trips back to a space that truly allows children to simply be kids, and to engage in the type of open-ended play that can only lead to learning. OliOli's founders, parents themselves, have managed to design a high-quality, developmentally appropriate centre that will have a positive impact on your child's learning and behaviour.

OliOli, located just behind Oasis Mall in Dubai, opens daily at 9am, and stays open on Saturdays to Wednesdays until 7pm, and Thursdays and Fridays until 9pm

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