It is no secret that, as urban dwellers, we are becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural world. The closest many of us get to nature in the UAE is a small communal area of grass where the children go to kick a ball, climb on a frame or zip down a spiral slide. Better than nothing, obviously, but there remains a significant disconnect – particularly when it comes to youngsters.
Working behind the scenes to address this issue is sports brand XDubai, which on March 8 opened its latest adventure spot, XPark Junior, just off Kite Beach in Dubai. For children between the ages of 1 and 12, as well as their parents or guardians, this is said to be the first natural playscape anywhere in the country, and it backs onto the popular Kite Beach Skatepark.
The only way to see if something is any good is to try it out for yourself, but at 46, and with a far-from-slight frame, it was suggested that it might be better if I took my 2-year-old son along to get him to “road test” it. Benedict absolutely adores climbing, swinging, jumping and generally doing anything to give his parents near coronaries, so if he gives it a toothy grin, we’ll know we’ve discovered a winner.
It’s a warm afternoon and, as I pull up and park the family wagon, Mrs H exclaims that the boy wonder has fallen asleep, which isn’t the best news for a reporter who needs to see if this new park appeals to his young son.
So while he continues his slumber in the comfort of his buggy, I go for a wander to see what sort of trouble he will be getting into once he’s awake. There’s an overwhelmingly immersive feel to the place. Trees envelope the entire area, the calls of exotic birds and other creatures are pumped from speakers all around the grounds, and the sounds and sights of flowing water and streams with wooden bridges spanning them cascade down gentle slopes, full of enormous rocks. Tree houses and wooden dens nestle in the foliage, with thatched roofs fashioned from straw, just like those you might see on a Kenyan safari.
The park's surroundings
Grass areas, sandpits, slides and climbing ropes are surrounded by colourful flower beds and more random rocks. At the far end is a small petting zoo, where a diminutive pony resides along with genteel rabbits that children are encouraged to handle with care. It’s remarkably serene, apart from the cries of a waking Benedict.
It doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes for him to click with his surroundings, though, and he’s off. We manage to distract him away from the small splash-pad area and up to the rough-and-tumble playground, where he climbs ropes up to the wooden platforms and hurtles down the slides, laughing his head off. This, as any parent will attest, is a desirable result – kids tiring themselves out having fun. That’s what this place is all about: messy fun with a slight frisson of managed risk. No cotton wool around these children – they’re free to get out there, tear around, climb, slide, fall over and pick themselves up again. But rather than unforgiving concrete surfaces or rubber play mats, there’s lush grass, fallen leaves, sand and wood chippings. It’s a world away from the city and, to its credit, it’s as close to “nature” as anywhere I’ve been in the UAE.
The way the park has been designed allows children to let their imaginations run riot, to gradually build their confidence levels and take what its owners describe as “healthy risks”. We as parents want to avoid putting our children in harm’s way, that goes without saying, but there’s nothing wrong with them getting wet, covered in mud and sand, or falling onto their bottoms from a small rope ladder. There are fruit trees and a planting garden to teach them a bit about agriculture, and then there’s the Urban Forest School Programme. This initiative will connect nursery- and school-going children with nature through structured group visits that include den- building, campfire lessons, animal and plant studies, and arts and crafts.
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As for Benedict, he’s discovered the waterfall and rock-strewn stream, where little toy wooden rafts are running the rapids. Spellbound, he jumps into the water fully clothed and joins some other youngsters, blissfully unbothered by the fact that his new outfit now needs wringing out.
Another thing any parent will understand is the measure of success for such a place: how much fuss a toddler will create when it’s time to go home. Benedict goes into full meltdown. That’ll be a thumbs up, then.
XPark Junior is open every day from 8am to 6pm, and admission costs Dh45 for a child and one adult for two hours of free play. Opening hours will change during summer months; visit ww.xparkjr.com