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ELEVATE: Tokyo Play Safari

Play Safari: On an adventure to discover 'Play' in Tokyo.

We reported in our first blog post that our design lead, Grant, had travelled to Tokyo Japan as a fellow of the British Council’s ELEVATE Startwell programme where the focus would be on ‘re-imagining childhood play’.

Day one kicked off with introductions via a story from each of the fellow’s childhood. Attempting a different twist on his usual pleasantries, Grant introduced himself as a seeker and facilitator of lifelong memories: Recalling an event from his childhood inspired by the actions of his own children, Grant posed the questions ‘As parents/guardians of children, so concerned with their safety, learning and wellbeing, how much freedom do we really afford our children to make their own lifelong memories?’ Would you stop your child doing something that you found so gratifying as a child through fear of uncertainty? Is that selfishness or responsibility?’...something you might want to ponder yourself.

Grant closed with the admission that he joined the ELEVATE fellowship to make his own memories and take any learning he can back to Scotland. The activities for the rest of the day were a perfect way to begin – taking in the best in ‘play’ that Tokyo had to offer on the ELEVATE ‘Play Safari’. The Safari covered a range of facilities exploring varying attitudes to play in different forms and environments from creativity and playing with technology and ideas at the Google HQ to the mud squelching, tree climbing, fire building, risk taking, spirit freeing Hanegi Adventure Playground.

Maraikan – Curiosity Feilds

Maraikan, Curiosity Fields

First stop was the Maraikan science centre whose Director happened to be the first Japanese man in space, and was every bit an art exhibit as it was a science centre. Maraikan’s first attraction was its aptly named ‘Curiousity Feilds’, a play space where the primary rule is children and parents play together... with a few secondary rules that applied to the parents:

1. If a child asks ‘why?’ it is your duty to accurately satisfy their curiosity (Don’t say ‘just because!’)

2. Don’t teach the children HOW to play, let them figure it out.

3. Never say ‘No’ or ‘Don’t do that’ – for example, if a child is not doing something ‘right’ or is about to do something where they may fall or hurt themselves, they should be allowed the opportunity to learn for themselves.

4. Never rush the children to do or complete something.

This is the first incidence where we have seen parents being given some form of ‘free play training’, educating them, and forcing them to consider how exactly children learn. This is very much a process driven facility where children enhance their creativity, develop problem solving skills and learn by doing rather than half learning through following instruction and being goal oriented.

This is a very deliberate ethos, in fact it is written on the wall:

“Our children are the future. What kind of adults would you like them to be? “Curiosity Field” is a space where adults can consider the future of the children.

In 2050, for example, when children become adults, global warming will be progressing, and the world population will be estimated to grow to 9.5 billion. At that time, torrential rains, droughts, the shortage of food, water, and energy that we are beginning to experience will become more and more serious.

To survive such a future, what kind of skills should children learn? What can adults do for children?”

Maraikan, Building Blocks

We think the attitude at Maraikan has to be applauded for such a fresh and innovative mantra. We might not all be directly threatened by the problems of tomorrow but it is our responsibility to ensure that children have the space to learn the vital skills needed to face the challenges of tomorrow. One of the points raised at Maraikan is that creativity is far more important than memorising historical dates or being good at calculations – where there is only a single right answer. Whereas, in society there is no such thing as a problem with a single right answer. Process, getting things wrong, getting them right, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, co-creativity. We can’t memorise and retain a correct answer to a question that has never been asked of us. It is important that our children's education and play prepare them with the skills to deal with the infinite possibilities of our future.

As if global warming isn’t enough , consider this “65% of today’s students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet” (Cathy N. Davidson, New York Times, Aug 2011)



Following Maraikan, Kidzania, seems a little ridiculous. Kidzania is a miniature town within a shopping centre where “kidz” can act out predetermined adult roles, working in various jobs/roles, exchanging their own currency, even getting married. The children are given training to qualify for jobs in a pizza restaurant, a beauty salon, bus driving, fire and rescue.

Kidzania claim that their facility is preparation for adulthood, their motto being something along the lines of ‘for a better tomorrow’. However many concerns were raised for example the lack of any consideration for an ever changing future like that of Maraikan, that children were being groomed as consumers rather than free thinkers with all of the ‘shops’ they worked in having real corporate sponsors, and gender equality with very obvious roles targeted at girls or boys.

kidzania, Pizza-la

With that said, Kidzania does offer a unique role playing experience and does teach some life skills like cooking your own pizza but the general attitude was that is commercially driven and could be seen to limit the ambitions and imaginations of its little guests.

SEGA toys

A sister company of the famous SEGA games brand, SEGA toys was another organisation the fellows were not particularly impressed with overall: They also seemed to struggle with a balance between commercial and social gain, perhaps it was more accurate to say that the fellows felt that SEGA games and Kidzania had imbalanced priorities. When asked how they developed new ideas the answer was as short in length as it was in its consideration - ‘we look at what adults or an older generation are doing and adapt it for younger kids’

The fellows felt that this approach summed up a lot of what is wrong with childhood today. Here we saw a marketing ploy, playing on kids desires to copy their older siblings or adults in their lives to sell products rather than challenge them to develop new skills.


Galaxcity, Climbing Wall

Galaxcity could be described as a giant youth club, using play and community engagement to tackle local social issues. Galaxcity run a series of free children's workshops and has permanent large scale play installations such as a climbing wall and giant scramble net suspended above the floor below allow kids meaningful engagement with its architecture. A Clever and tasteful use of colour and light enhance the aesthetic quality of the spaces within - like Maraikan it has feel of an art gallery.

Galaxcity offers a range of activities from self directed to adult organised, covering a broad spectrum of play which impressed the fellows, and ultimately engages children and adults of all levels and interests - this is a community hub like no other.


Having such an engaging community resource has had a great impact, with Galaxcity claiming that since its opening crime in the area has significantly reduced.

Google, Japan


We couldn’t visit a tech mecca like Tokyo, without checking out what Google are up to. Google don’t really deal in childhood play but are a great example of the power of creativity developed through play. Google play with technology, play with ideas and sustain themselves as a global super power with creative marketing, forming relationships with other corporations, advertising their products through creating a desire to use google technology.

This raises the question: can we use corporate partners in play? Play is often short in investment so how might we satisfy or promote the interests of big spending private corporations, through the likes of social media, to convince them to back our ambitions for the future of childhood play?... without forcing kids to ‘work’ in a ‘Pizza-La’ branded restaurant like in Kidzania obviously!

Hanegi Adventure Play Park

Hanegi, Community Structures

So far on our safari, we hadn’t really experienced what ‘The City of Play’ would class as ‘free play’ but when we rocked up at Hanegi it was like a wonderland! Suddenly we were transformed into jittering balls of excitement, only half listening to what our guide was saying, we were more concerned as to where we were going to dart off to first when she had finished.

Hanegi is a proper adventure play park set within the trees but only a stones throw away from local residences. There are tree houses, towers, plywood slides, swings, all constructed by the local community and its kids. Each year they have a building event, at the end of which they vote on which structure will remain. Each is built with scrap and reclaimed timber and can be up to 10ft tall without any clear access or handrails – in the UK it would be a health and safety nightmare –but at what?!

Hanegi, Slide
Hanegi, Fire Building
Hanegi, Tool Cupboard

The kids there are so resilient, switched on and sensible. They can climb these structures and trees like little monkeys while toddlers can be trusted to boil water in little ladles over an open fire. If ever there was a precedent for Risk Benefit, this is it. In 35 years, in 4 adventure play parks they have had just 10 reported injuries – and they can have up to 300 kids visit in a single day! We discovered this on the day that I heard a trampoline park had been closed in Scotland after 150 injuries in just 3 weeks.

In Hanegi the kids are not only more advanced but they are empowered, treated like competent, contributing members of this little society. If there are nails sticking out they are allowed a hammer to pull it out or knock it in; they are give shovels to dig holes and trenches for their waterways; and they can build dens and kit them out with pots, pans and others tools to enhance their games.

Hanegi is such a refreshing, freewheeling and open ended experience when you consider how authorities generally try to confine and direct our play - It just makes sense. The message of Hanegi is clear: the future is old fashioned play.

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