Junglerama and the museum of childhood

Junglerama giraffe

We were at Junglerama today, a treat for our eldest who turned seven. A treat for him, a friend and his little brother; something of a chore for the adults. It’s a curious place, part funfair, part arcade parlour, and part (plastic) zoo. It’s a got a carnie feel to it; it’s bright and gawdy, as are the staffs’ tattoos; you wonder if a few decades ago they’d all have been travelling with the circus; you half expect to find a Fiji mermaid on display.

Junglerama merry-go-round

(There’s even a shooting range.)

Above all it’s a playground and like it or not, kids love it. It’s not the place I imagined spending time when I thought of having kids. I suspect I’m fairly typical of middle-class parents, having thoughts of pleasant trips to cafes, public galleries and museums, a life of gentle bush walks and sandcastles.

Junglerama tube

But there’s something else too at Junglerama. Tucked away in the corner, right below the shooting range two or three child-sized flights up, is something pretty close to a small, simple discovery centre. Using the same plastic and foam balls that litter the building, kids can drop them into funnels and air blowers and watch their gravity defying tricks.

Junglerama air balls

It’s simple stuff, but fascinating to the many kids and parents playing in the space. And that’s an interesting thing about Junglerama. Sure there are plenty of parents sitting down to a coffee, chips and wraps, looking on from afar as their kids play, but there are plenty of other parents actively joining in with their kids on the playground equipment. Or like us, taking turns to chase kids or eat chips.

The whole area is one big locked down environment, mixing the cafe, arcade games, big kids play area, parents sitting area, and toddlers play area. Kids run free, parents come and go. We assume it’s safe in much the same way as we assume our neighbourhoods no longer are. Get used to it, you’re soaking in it.


Junglerama elephant

This was at the new(ish) Junglerama in Petone, near Seaview, handily close to the Hutt Park campground. It’s about 6.5km away from Naenae College, one of the Hutt Valley schools, and a subject in National Radio’s Sunday morning Insight show in October 2012. It’s a really interesting listen, especially on the way that the amount of experiences a child has directly influences educational achievement. In lower socio-economic areas like the one that Naenae College serves, children typically experience fewer of the types of activities that stimulate educational development.

The school’s principal turned tables on the interviewer and asked how many people in a class of twenty-six on a school trip to Te Papa did the interviewer think had been to Wellington? Wellington’s 20km from Naenae, a twenty-minute drive down the Hutt Road, a bus or train fare. It’s the big city just down the road, full of everything that people in my world – a middle-class, educated, cultured kind of world – value and enjoy: cafes, galleries, museums, national institutions, art collections, the lot.

I suspect the radio journalist lives in a similar world. Of the twenty-six students he guessed that surely most if not all of the had been to Wellington. He guessed wrong. It was 10, or just under 40%. That figure really worried me. If experience stimulates the mind, creates curious kids, and curious kids learn more and achieve at a higher level, then surely we should be funneling kids into places like Te Papa.


Junglerama happy kid

I moved back to New Zealand at the end of 2007 with a nearly two-year-old in tow. I must have visited Te Papa before moving overseas in 1999, but it didn’t leave much of an impression. With a small child, that’s changed, and I can appreciate what they’re trying to do at least at the popular and hands-on level in their discovery spaces and  educational exhibitions on the lower floors. It’s the other floors that I’d to get to though, the ones with paintings and sculpture and carved waka and the like. We pass through the upper galleries occasionally, when I can trick the kids into going up to the top floor and walking back down, or if I dig my heels in and demand to see something like Michael Parekowhai’s piano.

Te Papa puts on a good show for kids in the discovery centres – my kids will go again and again. But the discovery centres are all separate from the rest of the museum and exhibitions, and prompt a listless disinterest in me. As a parent I can entertain my children or I can entertain myself, but as a family we can’t all be entertained at the same time and in the same space. It’s ironic in a place like Te Papa too – the tired complaint runs that it can place a McCahon next to a motorbike (and it’s true, it can) but it can’t place a McCahon next to a kid’s activity.

This seems a long way from Petone’s Junglerama, but what got me here is this question: is Junglerama giving local Hutt kids all the experience they need, or want, or that their parents think they need? What’s the mix that Junglerama has so right that parents will fork out up to $10 per kid on an entrance fee for a glorified playground? There’s a free gallery not far away, a whole city a bit further on, free beaches and walking tracks in easy distance, but it’s Junglerama that my son picks as his birthday treat. And he’s not alone.


Junglerama airgun

What it really makes me wonder is how can a museum or a gallery create a space that stimulates the sort of child and parent interaction that you see at Junglerama? Is it the sort of thing Te Papa has tried to achieve in its discovery centres? It doesn’t feel to me that it’s worked there, so what does a museum that really gets parent-child interaction look like? Is it just a matter of an activity table in the middle of a room with paintings on the wall? It sounds really simple when it’s put like that.

But how does that affect other visitors? Too noisy or distracting? Is it within the capabilities of museums to bridge the needs of parents and children as a group in a way that still appeals to other visitors? It also makes me wonder what sort of metrics museums have about visitors and the different ways they visits – alone, with children, on dates, to kill time, and how each visitor feels about their visit using their different personas.

It’s possible that it’s just too hard – maybe parents and children need to be segregated out in the same way as children are put with children in schools and old people are put with old people in rest homes. But I’d really like to see someone try.