Special report: How child-friendly is Dubai?


There’s an exciting world of kids’ activities out here in Dubai, but do parents find them affordable? Do they have their own wish list?

[Parents and babies interact during a Baby Sensory/Smart Start class at Sunset Mall in Dubai.]
Dubai: With its melting-pot appeal and its booming population of 2.4 million — 21,800 baby births recorded in 2017 alone according to Dubai Statistics Centre — Dubai is a city that has decade after decade only grown to be fully geared towards offering children a range of facilities, clubs and programmes for their all-round development.

Children of all ages get to enjoy the full spectrum of physical, mental and cognitive impetuses for a robust growth of mind, body and spirit with the impressive array of activities available on a daily, weekly, monthly and even seasonal basis, such as summer and winter camps and programmes. As a result, growing up is a rewarding experience for the young ones.

Many parents Gulf News spoke with said they are happy with the variety of options available in the emirate.

But despite the numerous options, some parents said it is hard for them to be able to know exactly what is on offer, where and of what kind.

This is what bothered French-Lebanese mother of two Sandra Rabeiz, a resident of Dubai, when she had her baby. “During my maternity leave, I noticed that Dubai is a great city for babies/kids — there is a lot to do, with many events and classes to attend but we, as parents, barely know about [many of them],” Rabeiz told Gulf News.

As a mum of two, I noticed that the information available is disparate and not easily accessible to parents.”

Many parents, according to her, especially working parents, are often tired by the end of the day and the thought of researching options for children’s entertainment or other activities is often a daunting prospect.

So she decided to create a classified ads website, ‘My Baby Platform’, to help parents plan all areas of their children’s activities.

Other Dubai mums, like Lecia Manfredi, a British expatriate, turn to social media groups and friends’ recommendations to plan their children’s activities.

“I have also joined the British mums and The Real mums Facebook groups. I learn about what’s available through those and also friends who can recommend certain classes or parks,” said Manfredi.

Anais Jacotin, mother of a two-year-old girl, told Gulf News, “I am not a part of any groups on social media, and I hear about kid’s facilities in Dubai through friends with kids.”

Whatever be their medium of garnering information, mothers in Dubai are fully integrated with planning their children’s activities, with a strong emphasis also on organic, nature-oriented learning integrated into their parental approach.

Gulf News speaks to mothers on how and where they plan activities for their children and what they believe works best for the young ones’ all-round growth.

Getting it right with edutainment for kids

Dr Rajeshree Singhania, Dubai-based neurodevelopmental paediatrician, offers advice on what parents should be looking out for to ensure all-round development of their children in terms of extracurricular activities, leisure and the most optimum exposure to a variety of cognitive stimuli.

[ – Dr Rajshree Singhania | Neurodevelopment Paediatrician]

Parents are anxious to do their best. They are bombarded by media and the internet on what is good for their child. They often overdo things in their enthusiasm to help their children. Balanced and structured activities with free play time either outside or inside [not television viewing!] is recommended.”


Are parents getting it right with planning their child’s activities?
There are two different types of parenting styles I see that are a bit worrisome. There are working parents who work long hours with the child left to a babysitter (mostly unqualified); or there are the ambitious parents, who plan too many activities to keep up with the Joneses, leading to the ‘Hurried Child Syndrome.’

* Working parents: With this segment, sometimes, children spend too much time watching television and have very little extracurricular activities.

* Ambitious parents: Children may be running from one class to another — from ballet to piano then swimming, etc — with little free time on their own.

What kind of recreational and edutainment activities are suitable for children?

* Physical activities and play: These are very important to build not only physical prowess but also for brain and cognitive development. The United States’ CDC (Centres for Disease Control) recommends at least one hour three times a week for children from age six to 17 years.

* Symbolic play: The preschool years are very important for language development. From ages two to five, the child’s language grows exponentially. Language is the highest symbol. Easier symbols are miniature toys and pictures. Doll play representing everyday life is crucial for both boys and girls.

* Reading: to children at bedtime or in the evenings is also helpful to develop language.

* Social play and making friends: helps the development of social skills and improves the child’s self-esteem. Playdates are very important to help the child learn skills of sharing, taking turns, negotiation and conversation.

Can children display their own preference for a certain activity?
Parents should always discuss with their children what they would like to do and also see what they are good at. However, many children may get too attached to their iPad. Screen time should be limited and children should be encouraged to play outside, play with toys and even do arts and crafts.

What is the ideal/optimum kind of scheduling for small kids?
Children’s attention spans vary. Young children cannot concentrate for more than 10 to maximum 20 minutes. Children also need free time and free play without parental supervision. Through play, children assimilate their experiences and make sense of them. After school and homework, children need time to themselves to unwind. Kids may spend hours in fantasy and pretend play, which is very useful. Children are self-motivated as far as play is concerned.

Can parents end up overdoing activity planning for children?
Parents are anxious to do their best. They are bombarded by media and the internet on what is good for their child. They often overdo things in their enthusiasm to help their children. Balanced and structured activities with free play time either outside or inside (not television viewing!) is recommended. Parents must give leeway to their children to allow them to develop as they naturally would. This does not mean they should not encourage their children and give them opportunities. It means backing off and not hovering over them. Often, very busy parents are full of guilt and assuage that by giving toys and buying them things. This is detrimental to the child.

What are some practical ways to engage children that don’t cost money?
* Spending quality time with children at home or in the park.

* Playing games suitable for their age from hide-and-seek to football.

* Spending time being creative (e.g. building something out of cardboard boxes).

* Playing board games.

* Sing-alongs and pretend play for younger children.

* Walking in the mall and interacting with children instead of window shopping.

* Going to museums and art centres.

Dubai mums see much variety for kids’ activities

Range of events, edutainment and fun opportunities are impressive though many of them are expensive, they say

‘Physical activities are essential because he is such an active little boy’

Sarah Al Shammari, American-Kuwaiti, stay-at-home mum with a 23-month-old son, Yousef

“My son Yousef is not in school or nursery yet, but I look for activities that stimulate him, both physically and mentally.

“I got my son enrolled in swimming classes when he was nine months old, but I could have easily started that sooner. There are a lot of activities available for babies in Dubai.

“When it comes to activities, I’ve taken my son to a lot of different play areas. His favourite is ‘Extreme Fun’, on the top floor of the Union Co-op in Satwa, because he loves the trampolines.

“We’ve also tried different classes. We went to ‘Toddler Sense’ at Sunset Mall for a few months, and swim classes at Baby Splash.

“There are a few baby classes available in Dubai, but it was difficult to find one that ticked all the boxes for us.

“I wanted to find something that was both physically and mentally stimulating for my son but the good ones allowed so many children into the class that it became chaotic, and I felt like my son wasn’t getting any attention. That’s why it’s so frustrating to end up there and find out that it’s not what you expected or not satisfactory.

“We try to meet up with his friends at least once a week for a playdate. Until my son starts nursery, this is the only interaction he gets with other children his age. The physical activities are essential because he’s such an active little boy with a lot of energy, and I can’t just keep him cooped up at home all day.”

If there’s one thing I wish Dubai had: “It would be better weather, so I could take him to a park more often.”

I get my information from: “Following a few mummy bloggers in Dubai on social media. I find out about a lot of activities, classes and deals that way. If it’s something I particularly want to know, I’ll google it.”

Expensive or affordable? “The classes are sometimes quite expensive.”

Plenty of options available for her twins

Lecia Manfredi, British mum of twin boys, 21 months old. They attend nursery a couple of mornings a week.

As a full-time mother, British expat Lecia Manfredi likes to cover all activities for her twin boys.

She believes the right age to get kids to expand their creativity and fun learning is “as soon as possible.”

Manfredi is part of a twin/multiples network in Dubai. She has joined their Facebook and WhatsApp groups to know about activities and programmes for children, especially for the multiple ones.

“I have also joined the British mums and The Real mums FB groups. I learn about what’s available through those and also friends who can recommend certain classes or parks.”

As they are still quite young, Manfredi’s boys are limited in terms of what classes they can attend.

“They did a term of toddler sensory classes at Sunset Mall. They loved the music and being able to dance and clap.

“I take them to indoor play centres during the warmer months. This includes Fun City in various locations, Kids Palooza at Times Square and Extreme Fun in Jumeirah 1,” she says.

During the winter months, she also takes them to local parks where they can ride their trikes and use the toddler playgrounds.

Manfredi believes there are adequate avenues for child development in Dubai.

“There seems to be enough to cover what I’d like the boys to do.”

The nursery they go to twice a week covers music, language, arts and crafts, outside play time, yoga, etc.

“They also enjoy the centres with the toddler kitchens, building blocks, dress up costumes, puzzles and toy cars, etc. We have a couple of play dates a week with friends and their children.”

The various activities have helped her kids become more social with other children, she says. “Their speech has increased tenfold.”

I get my information from: “Social media groups, mum blogs and friends who recommend.”

What’s missing: “Public swimming pools in most neighbourhoods. The boys have swimming lessons once a week but they don’t get to practise in between. We don’t live in a compound, neither are we members of a club at a hotel. So we do not have access to pools.”

Expensive or affordable? “[Some of the facilities and activities] come with a price tag and for [me] it is more expensive, especially when paying for two children.”

‘Edutainment should be reasonably priced’

Sushma Vinod, Indian, has two daughters. Pavitra Vinod, 9, Vismaya Vinod, 4

Sushma Vinod believes today’s children are spoilt for choice for fun and learning programmes. “There is a plethora of options in Dubai — be it art, music, literature, science, math or social relations. With outdoor trampolines and play areas for little ones at Kite Beach and JBR, it makes a perfect weekend getaway.”

She believes any child after the age of two is already at their development stage. As a working woman, time remains a huge challenge for Vinod. “I try to be involved in group activities for kids. I am also a silent member of some amazing groups like UAE kids and Mommie Club, Love Parenting UAE Support Group and MUMO — Mumbai MOMs.”

The great thing about Dubai, however, she says is that it is coming up with interesting things to do as a family. From bike riding to kayaking, crabbing to sailing and a whole lot of eating, the options never cease. “Recently, we explored the Sharjah Centre for Astronomy and Space Science.”

I get my information from: “Mainstream and social media. But the primary source is through word of mouth from friends or family.”

Expensive or affordable? “Most options are expensive. It’s typically difficult to enjoy good activities without having to spend a few hundred dirhams at least. Edutainment should be priced more reasonably to benefit families across all income groups.”—Sajila Saseendran, Senior Reporter

‘An early start to activities is the best approach’

Anias Jacotin, French, works at a nursery and has a two-year-old daughter, Leina

“Leina has started nursery and is following the Montessori programme. I like activities that make a child responsible, and teach them how to do things by themselves. Some of these activities include cooking, cleaning, folding the laundry, while others develop their creativity, such as painting, drawing, reading, and building Lego. I make sure Leina has a minimum of one activity outside per week, and a minimum of one physical activity and another creative activity a week.

“I think parents should get their kids to interact and get creative early — as young as one-year-old. I like to take Leina to the park, observe nature, watch the birds, look at ants, and play with other kids. In the kitchen, she watches me cook and sometimes helps me with fruits and vegetables, and at home, she helps me clean, and listens to music, dances, and reads books. I think the nursery is also a very good place for creative learning and entertainment.

“Regarding adequate avenues for child development in Dubai, I feel many are indoors and take place during the summer.”

I get my information from: “I am not a part of any groups on social media. I hear about kid’s facilities through friends with kids.”

What’s missing: “Having [more opportunities] for children to discover nature and enjoy the outdoors.”

Expensive or affordable? “I have taken Leina a few times only to avenues specialised for children’s activities so I am not aware of the prices differences.”

A mother’s concern leads to an idea

Dubai resident Sandra Rabeiz, a mother of two, launched a website to help parents finds all children’s activities at a click

Dubai: Sandra’s Rabeiz’s ‘My Baby Platform’, which was recently launched, includes 12 categories with information that can help parents in all areas of their children’s daily life.

“As a mom of two, I noticed that the information available is disparate and not easily accessible to parents,” said Rabeiz. Many parents, according to her, especially working parents, are often tired by the end of the day and the thought of researching on options for children’s entertainment or other activities is often a daunting prospect.

[Sandra Rebeiz, Christina Fakhoury and Thea Fakhoury.]
Through her website, “I wanted to offer the maximum amount of information in an organised manner in one place and make it available for all parents,” Rabeiz said. For example, if a mother wishes to organise her daughter’s birthday party, all she has to do is click on the website and explore the ‘Parties’ category, where she will find venues, caterers, giveaways, and entertainment options.

“This saves parents precious time and energy and helps them make the best decisions possible. It is like the old saying, information is power,” said Rabeiz.

She clarified the website does not provide advice, guidance or recommendations about children to parents, and is more of an innovative directory that is continuously updated by the professionals themselves who can modify their ads whenever needed.

Source: Gulf News