Are traditional family activities set for a revival?

With children today so focused on mobile devices like smartphones and handheld game consoles, you might be forgiven for thinking that the digital world has destroyed traditional entertainment.

But entrepreneur Luke Johnson, investor in café chain Patisserie Valerie and sushi restaurant chain Feng Sushi, disagrees.

His Brighton Pier Group is currently regenerating the 118-year-old south coast attraction with traditional rides and amusement arcade.

Now, the former owner of restaurant chains Pizza Express and Giraffe, has bought an indoor mini golf business, Lethington Leisure, for £10.5m.

For Mr Johnson, traditional UK family entertainment is far from dead – it just needs updating for a new era.

But does anyone really want to play mini-golf and other traditional family attractions like bowling or darts anymore?

"I think traditional amusements are being reinvented for a new generation, because I think people don't want to spend all their leisure time on a screen – they want to get out of the home and socialise," Mr Johnson told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"A competitive fun family game of golf is, I think, a pretty good option," he says. And, he adds, shopping centres will be ideal for Lethington's expansion.

"Shopping centres need to drive traffic because of online shopping. Attractions will get customers to come to the shopping centre," he said.

Mini-golf, climbing, trampolining, and bowling are all popping up in them. "Increasingly I think shopping centres will become leisure centres too," he said.

Mr Johnson is also considering making a bid for Hastings Pier. The charity that owns the pier recently went into administration after failing to raise £800,000.

Going interactive

Paul Kelly, chief executive of the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (Balppa), says that traditional attractions have suffered from the rise of mobile devices. But there has been significant growth in two areas, he said – indoor play centres and farming attractions.

Companies that are most successful in the industry are the ones that are able to successfully integrate some form of interactivity into traditional attractions, he said.

Mr Kelly said good examples were Adventure Island Mini Golf in Birmingham and Hastings Adventure Golf which have put microchips into balls and are using mobile apps to keep track of how users are scoring.

Mr Kelly said: "Any new attraction being considered or being built at the moment will have a certain degree of technology or interactivity – it's a big consideration.

"All of our operators appreciate it is a challenge and they have to work harder to get people to visit their attraction.

"It has to be a nice experience, good quality products and good value for money, and unless you have all of it, it won't work as a package," he said.

Designing for children

Dr Pragya Agarwal, a psychology researcher at University of Liverpool and founder of the creativity social enterprise The Art Tiffin, feels that family attractions don't need more technology to get children to be interested – they just need to be more interactive.

"All of these attractions don't need to have some kind of screen to get children involved – they forget that it needs to be designed with the child in mind," she told the BBC.

"It has to be reward-based learning. It has to start off with an explicit system where they achieve milestones and collect badges or reward.

"The things children do on-screen [in games] often include collecting a points-based system, and that needs to translate into the real world."

But there also needs to be a change in how we see family attractions, argues Dr Sonia Livingstone, a London School of Economics professor and researcher of families' digital media use.

She says they can't just be seen as activities where parents drop off their children and then disappear.

"It's a misconception that they want to be glued to their devices – most of the children I've interviewed say that really they'd love to do more fun things with their parents," said Dr Livingstone.

"There are lots of things that we could do to make shopping centres more child-friendly.

"If there can be more local resources that are affordable and fun, that would be affective, but it needs to be things that parents and kids can do together."

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