Abu Dhabi Children’s Library did not only looked at cutting-edge libraries around the world, we also asked children: what is a library? Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque

It is cuddle time for Ata, an Indonesian mother, and her two-year-old toddler as they stretch themselves out on a dune-inspired landscape. Snug in her mother’s arms, the little one seems to cherish this moment of togetherness but after a while, clambers out to walk over and in between the dunes, a mischievous glint in her eyes. She gurgles as she misses a step and falls on to the soft, cushioned comfort of the sloping sand dune.

Before long, Ata entices her with a colourful picture book and as she sits up to listen to an animal story, her eyes grow wide in wonder, captivated by the attractive images on its pages. A few minutes later, she is off again to explore the spaces around her – all inspired by the magnificent landscape of the UAE. There are camels here, and just yonder ahead, is a shiny 4WD, where two eight-year-olds are excitedly peering into the windscreen that’s been transformed into a visual display unit.

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In another area, a mother lies down, propped up on her elbows in a cubbyhole with several books strewn around, as she engages her young ones, aged five and three, in a jigsaw puzzle game. They are absorbed in the activity and are in their own quiet world, oblivious to the happy laughter of kids stepping in and out of the many reading nooks just above them.

We seem to have stepped into a wonderful world of escape, or entered a magical paradise, for here, at the newly opened Abu Dhabi Children’s Library, we encounter a unique and innovative environment designed specifically to spark imagination and creativity and offer dynamic, interactive education for children of all ages.

The world of escape is located in the heart of the city in the historic Qasr Al Hosn site Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque

Bursting at its seams with a whole universe of captivating stories that spill out from the pages of its 35,000-plus collection of books, this vibrant and creative space breaks all the rules of conventional library design. Here, you will find quiet reading areas, group activity spaces, tree houses, and plenty of play opportunities, even swings.

Located in the heart of the city in the historic Qasr Al Hosn site – the ancestral home of the ruling Al Nahyan family and part of the rebuilding of the Cultural Foundation, the Abu Dhabi Children’s Library features whimsical, colourful designs inspired by the rich and diverse landscapes of the UAE. Spread out on three levels, organised according to age range, the 5,250 square metre facility draws inspiration from pop-up books, says Michelle Hackwel, Manager of the Abu Dhabi Children’s Library, as she leads us to the first floor of the library.

‘The aesthetically laid out social spaces here have been so designed with the idea of stepping into a story so that it sparks the children’s curiosity and opens them up to a new world,’ she explains. ‘Through three dimensional learning and interactive spaces, and ongoing programmes and workshops that stimulate creativity, children can develop their sensory skills, read, play, and interact together.’

The Abu Dhabi Children’s Library, she adds, has been designed as a space for inculcating 21st-century vital learning skills.

Much thought has indeed gone into crafting carefully the experience children would have in this library. From active learning and STEM learning including science and technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, literature, art and cinema to collaborative spaces, it has been designed as a space for children, friends, families, and communities to grow and learn together.

The Abu Dhabi Children’s Library took five years in the making, says Michelle. ‘We not only looked at cutting-edge libraries around the world but we also asked children: what is a library? What does reading mean to you? They gave us a lot of feedback. Some said they needed a place to play with friends; other said they wanted comics, puppets. And there were kids from large families who said: "I need some space for myself." So when you walk through the library today, you will see the answers to some of these questions."

Babies and their mothers engage in several learning activities in the toddler pen Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque

Its presence at the Cultural Foundation, adds Michelle, ‘will expose the next generation to arts and culture through the dedicated exhibition spaces, artist studios and workshops that are an integral part of this historic space.’

Founded in 1981, the Cultural Foundation was the UAE’s first cultural centre dedicated to the creation and appreciation of Emirati arts and literature. At the time of its opening, it represented a new outlook on the role of culture in modern UAE and served as a community centre with the introduction of the first National Library, theatre and multi-purpose exhibition hall.

It underwent extensive conservation and renovation measures between 2009 and 2018 and its much anticipated reopening took place in December last year. The opening of a new 900-seat theatre and

the Abu Dhabi Children’s Library in September this year marks the completion of its major revamp.

Explaining the reasons for transforming the former general library to become a children’s library, Reem Fadda, Director of the Cultural Foundation, says: ‘There is no lack of adult libraries in Abu Dhabi and we wanted to fill the gap that existed for children’s libraries. We want the new Abu Dhabi Children’s Library to be a dedicated space for families and children that is integral to the formation of an aware child, of an active family, and a place that fosters literacy and learning through play.’

The out social spaces have been so designed with the idea of stepping into a story that sparks the children’s curiosity, says Michelle Hackwel, manager of the library Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque

The interactive spaces are designed to give children the opportunity to wonder, question, collaborate, experiment and investigate subjects that interest them, she adds.

As we walk through the three floors of the library, we soon discover how well this vision has been translated into reality. Each floor has a different design concept, and the first floor, designated for the 0-11 age group, transports you instantly to the desert. ‘Children are encouraged to read on the sand dunes, and we have storytelling sessions and lullabies here, while in the evening, bedtime stories are read out under the starry night sky,’ says Michelle.

An interactive truck set near the dunes offers movie and music sessions, while an open majlis is the place for families to group together, she adds. ‘Here, we often have conversation groups where mothers meet to practise a language, for example.’

A sign language session is in progress for mummies and babies in one room while amidst the rows of books, a lively storytelling session is holding the young ones seated on the rugs in captive attention. The children listen keenly to the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar who ate through one apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries and five oranges, but was still hungry.

The reading nooks, like the tree house above, are favourite family spots Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque

In the toddler pen, we find several babies and their mothers engaging them in several learning activities. ‘This is a social gathering point and also an area for mothers to leave their children in a safe nurturing environment,’ says Michelle.

There are a good collection of books here in multiple languages as well as several motor skills activities for the young ones to engage in.

Close by are the reading nooks, designed in such a way that each cubbyhole offers a private reading space to share a story with a buddy or for mothers to read out to their children in privacy. ‘It’s a place for those who prefer a quieter environment, to just be together and share stories, and it is a favourite family spot especially during the weekends,’ says Michelle.

Look out for a wall featuring a taxidermy collection of Dr Seuss’s imaginary animal characters. ‘This wall is constantly growing; we currently have 12 of the 18 characters and my favourite here is the kangaroo bird,’ she adds.

The Library also houses family rooms for mothers to retreat to when the young ones want some time off. ‘Everything has been thought of to ensure the comfort of families that visit the library,’ she says.

We walk towards Creature Space and enter into a world of real and imaginary creatures. ‘This is a space to talk about nature and the environment,’ explains Michelle. ‘The focus is on starting a dialogue by talking about the oceans for example, and then pairing them with

related books.’

From quiet reading areas to group activity spaces and tree houses, it’s all here Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque

It is here that we meet Etsuko Hirota and her soon-to-be three-year-old Kaede, who is clutching on to the legs of a tall giraffe. ‘Kaede loves animals and nature, and enjoys coming here,’ says her mother. ‘There is so much to learn and explore here. It arouses the natural curiosity in a child. I believe spaces like these make children’s brains receptive to learning, and also make learning more fun.’

Several pull-out drawers in the Creature Space section – placed at the height level of a child – open out to reveal collections of insects, bugs and butterflies, and we watch as young kids go around examining them closely with horn-handled magnifying glasses.

Yet another interesting space is Book Mountain, where the elevated steps that lead all the way up to the next floor are ideal for quiet reading and also has a drop-down screen for viewing special programmes. ‘This open auditorium space is for children to sit, read, watch a movie, sketch or charge their devices,’ says Michelle, as we climb up to the next level of the Library.

Seated here is seven-year-old Shiv, who has missed school because of a minor infection. He has a pile of books beside him and is engrossed in a comic book he has just picked up from the racks. His father tell us that the opening of the library has been a boon for book lovers like Shiv who enjoys the Geronimo Stilton series and any book related to Egyptian history and civilisation. ‘This is an excellent initiative and especially with its design aesthetics that stimulate the imagination, it is a great way of getting children into the habit of reading.’

On the top level, designated for 11 to 14-year-olds, we see how Abu Dhabi Children’s Library has embraced digital technology to promote its concept of 21st-century learning. ‘Today’s learning needs have to incorporate technology tools, and so we have computer stations where you can play educational games, learn a new app, create your own comics, be the star of your own film, learn about animation, cartoons, and so on,’ says Michelle. ‘We also have a designated maker space, a space for children to build things, and explore their engineering and robotics skills.’

A play-based learning environment not only enables a child to acquire knowledge but also sets the foundation for the development of critical social and emotional knowledge and skills, says Michelle, as she leads us on to the falaj area, yet another nod to the landscape of the UAE. ‘In this falaj, however, we have books instead of water as for us, a book is the water of life,’ she says. ‘Children can enjoy the quiet of sitting beside a book stream or step into a tree house to enjoy the sights and sounds of the oasis.’

In addition, there are two study rooms for children to conduct their research activities. A VR area also screens a family movie once a month while at the story-telling tree, ‘children can listen to stories in different languages at the click of a button,’ adds Michelle.

Over 35,000-plus collection of books make up this vibrant and creative space Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque

‘Although the 35,000 books we currently have here ranging from print to electronic books and including fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, comics, autobiographies, audio books, and many others categories are mainly in Arabic, English and French, we have the capacity to go up to 75,000. We are also working on bringing in books in other languages, especially the ones spoken by the different nationalities living here in Abu Dhabi,’ she says.

Everything is child-centric here, asserts Michelle. ‘We are more than a traditional library, and our role is to merely guide the kids as they read, learn and discover things for themselves. We want to broaden their horizons and nurture their growth. Our innovative hands-on learning programmes will foster a lifelong love of reading and aims to connect children with the arts, technology and to each other in ways to enrich their lives.’

The only downside to having such a fabulous learning environment, as one parent put it, ‘is getting the kids to leave the place!’

Know before you go

The ground floor of the Abu Dhabi Children’s Library is showcasing an exhibition titled Step into a Story, focusing on the role that pop-up and moveable books play in literacy. The stories of UAE authors and illustrators are reimagined as 3-D immersive and interactive learning spaces to spark children’s imagination within the exhibition that is open until December 15.

The library offers incredible free programming for children and families, with workshops and exploration activities happening every hour of the day. Detailed brochures are provided at the service desks.

Hours of operation:

Saturdays - Thursdays: 10am to 8pm

Fridays: 12 pm to 10pm