Thursday, 14 May 2015

Riyadh, Roller Coasters and One Small London Backyard

There’s a roller coaster thundering above our heads and children shrieking as it dips and dives.

No, we’re not in Disneyland, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so. This is Panorama Mall, or more precisely the food court on a Thursday night where we sit to eat before doing our weekly grocery shop. And in fact it’s not just one roller coaster that confronts us as we eat, it’s a whole line up of fun park rides.

There’s a reason for this strange juxtaposition. In other countries, malls commonly have an area reserved for cinemas. In Saudi however, public movie viewing is banned, and so malls often find themselves with an area of potentially empty space. It's a problem, but there is a solution. Firstly Saudis typically have very large families. They always visit malls and shop together. This is because Saudi women are unable to drive and so have to do pretty much everything in tandem with both husband and children. Secondly these same children cannot play outside for most of the year. It’s simply too hot and often too sandy.

Hence the building of huge Disney like theme parks indoors. Exit movies, and enter noisy rides and screaming children.  It's just what you want to accompany your Aladdin’s Falafel and Tabouli. Or perhaps not.  And did I mention that in any real Disneyland, noise is naturally dulled because of the outside setting, but here, indoors and surrounded by hard surfaces, the noise is deafening.

I thought about all this yesterday as I observed an entirely different kind of entertainment. Forget roller coasters and forget noise. Take two small boys, one sunny morning and a small inner London backyard. Add some water, a couple of rather wobbly wooden ramps, some potted lavender and mint, one blue ball and some chalk.  

Here's what I observed. Firstly there was the water, the way it fell downwards and could be poured into containers and onto plants.

Then there was the way the water turned to mud when poured onto the ground and the fun this provided for little feet and hands. And chalk. Drawing, mostly on the ground and walls, with just a little experimentation on the glass door before gentle redirection.

A ramp made from timber left over from a building project became the perfect place for little Thomas train to travel downhill.

And minutes later, on another ramp one little boy carefully made his way upwards. At the top he jumped off, getting better each time at landing with both feet on the ground.

And along the way, all the playing together also meant learning about sharing.

I'm sure that one day in the future there'll be roller coasters and squeals of excitement for these two, though maybe not of the indoor Riyadh variety. But just for now however, this kind of morning and this kind of play is just perfect.

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