S. Korea’s Kids Cafes – More than just a playground

The Play In Museum (PIM) sits on Solvit Island in this photo from Oct. 22, 2017. With the lack of public play space for children, more and more families with young kids are exploring “Kids Cafes,” an interior playground. (The Korea Herald/ANN)

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN) – With the lack of public play space for children, families with young kids are exploring “Kids Cafes,” an interior playground. But they are more than just a playground. Families have the time of their lives in specially-designed cafes for young children.

Son Tae-wook, a father of an 8-year-old, thinks kids cafes have become indispensable for both children and adults in Korea. Son has raised his daughter with trips to kids cafes since she was 3 years old.

“There aren’t enough play spaces for children in the urban environment. And the world isn’t safe enough to let kids just frolic about on their own outside,” Son said.

News of children abducted and inappropriately touched at public playgrounds has raised alarm among parents, many of whom dote over an only child in a country with a historically low birthrate. The air pollution and extreme seasonal weather have added to the preference for indoor amusement.

The underlying reason for preferring kids cafes is that the parents get to relax and recharge while children burn off some of that extra energy they seem to carry in spades.

“My wife socializes with her friends at kids cafes. She exchanges child care tips with other women while the children play together and allow the mothers the time to enjoy a cup of coffee in peace,” said Son.

One of the hottest kids cafes now is Play In Museum, or PIM, built on one of the man-made floating islands at Banpo Hangang Park.

The floating islands are called Islands Sevit and are made of three small islands – Solvit, Chaevit and Gavit. The islands famously appeared in “Avengers 2: Age of Ultron” as the laboratory complex of Dr. Cho, played by Kim Soo-hyun.

PIM takes up the whole of Solvit Island.

It has only been a little over a month since the river-view kids cafe had a soft opening prior to the official launch, but the internet is already abuzz with blog entries written by young mothers who have taken it to their own hands to do the online marketing for PIM.

The space provides a prime spot for photos at the infinity pool of translucent rubber balls overlooking the Han River. Parents show off photos of their toddlers taken here, calling them “insaeng” shots, or the shots of their life.

“There are many other kids cafes with ball pools. But here’s the deal. Why call it a pool if it’s not going to look like one?” said Lee Seung-ho, CEO of PIM in an interview with The Korea Herald at one its rooms looking out to the flowing river reflecting the afternoon sunlight.

Lee, 33, works with a group of zany 20- and 30-somethings eager to try out something different. They have nothing to lose, according to Lee.

“We added ladders to the ball pool and threw in inflatable tubes, like it’s a real swimming pool. We dubbed it ‘infinity pool’ because it looks like the edge of it falls in to the Han River,” Lee said. The poolside recliners completed the look.

PIM’s playthings reflect the Reggio Emilia approach of education. The pedagogy, named after the Italian town where it was founded, puts emphasis on student-centered experiential learning. In this stream of education, children are urged to touch, feel and develop their thinking on their own without an adult’s directions or orders. It’s the idea PIM is built on.

The giant blue blocks that can be assembled in to castles or cars or anything children can imagine are another big attraction at PIM. An air tube that belches out colorful fabric is also a hit. Lee believes more children grow up to appreciate art if they’re exposed to sophisticated colors from an early age, which is why he tried to decorate PIM with as much hues as possible.

Living up to its name as a museum, PIM arranges art and magic classes for children and puts their works on exhibit. “It’s OK if they break things, poke a hole in the wall or draw on the table,” Lee said. “Children’s imaginations should not be restricted to rule Nos. 1, 2, 3.”

Lee says he wants the toddlers and kids who enter PIM to direct their own play rather than passively follow adults. “I used to be a kangaroo dad,” Lee said, explaining how he, in the past, protected his only son so much that he did not let the child go barefoot or touch anything remotely unsanitary, including the earth.

But he now sees that children really learn when they are left on their own to tackle what’s in front of them.

PIM, which is still in its soft opening stage, will make a full-fledged launch once it finishes building the kitchen for the food section. It is working in conjunction with culinary experts to put balanced items on the menu.

By Lim Jeong-yeo