Say the word 'explorers' and the image that usually comes to mind is that of a Christopher Columbus-type man with a flowing beard and a bad sense of direction.

The word does not usually evoke an image of young children, roaming around a dairy farm, post office or factory, peppering the adults in charge of the site with questions.

But in the UAE, there is one such group of children who dub themselves the 'Emirates Explorers', trying to find out all they can about the country, and armed with a map and a Global Positioning System (GPS).

Like every great idea, Emirates Explorers was born out of necessity. The parents, who come from varied backgrounds, spanning three continents, were dissatisfied with their children's after-school activities and field trips.

Jamilah Rashid, organiser and one of the founding members, told Gulf News that school field trips usually consisted of going to the mall or the Children's City - places the children can go anytime with their parents.

"It was the same old thing. They never go on engaging school trips. By the time I heard the same complaint [from a parent] for the third or fourth time, I thought, let's do it ourselves," she said.


"We also felt it was important for our children to learn about life here, about the local people and take this opportunity to learn about the country," piped in Noraini Esmail, another founding member.

Seven families decided to form a small family-based club that specialised in finding unusual places to visit. Dubbed 'a scouting group' by the members, Emirates Explorers came to fruition in March 2004.

The membership has fluctuated from the original seven families, but the number of members has remained constant at 30 children.

Thanks to the club, the children, between the ages of two and 12, have visited places and experienced various aspects of life in the UAE that few expatriate children experience.

At least seven parents accompany the children on their visits. They have visited a fire station, the post office, a dairy farm and gone on an overnight camping trip in the desert. They have also participated in Islamic-oriented activities, such as charity drives during Ramadan and Eid Al Adha. On average, the Explorers visit a new place once every two months.

Jamilah said the concept of a scouting group was unusual in the UAE that they have had problems getting permission to visit certain sites. The young age of some of the members has also limited their options, as some places, such as the Falcon Centre, did not have facilities to accommodate young children.

And if there are no problems while visiting a location, the group instead gets curious questions, mainly if they represented a school.

But for some places, the group's visits presented a chance for the organisations to do community awareness and education.

One of the places that fall into this category is the visit to the Al Ghusais Fire Station, which turned out to be one of the most interesting visits, which was also their first expedition.

"The fire station was very cooperative because they want to do more in creating community awareness," Jamilah said.

Fire safety

The children, and their parents, got a lecture on fire safety - 'Stop, drop and roll' - found out how an emergency phone call galvanises the fire department - "They had one of the kids call and say 'My house is on fire!" - and try on the firemen's helmet and check out the fire trucks. Another aspect of Emirates Explorers is that it really gives its members the chance to learn about other cultures, mashed together in another country.

Noraini said the visits help enrich the children's life, removing the temptation to cocoon themselves into their own communities.

"We are global. We come from many countries and we learn about each other. Otherwise, it would be like not even living in another country, forming a mini-London, or mini-Malaysia," said the mother of five, who hails from Malaysia.

But the real success of the group hinges on the children and what they think. So far, no one is complaining - not even 14-year old Ruqaiyyah Kahtan, who has had to pull double duty as team leader and babysitter on occasions.

Despite 'always' being the oldest person among the children, she does not think she will outgrow the group
"[Exploring the UAE] is important because with our schools, we don't get to go out on trips. With the group, I get to see things that I don't usually get to see," she said.

"It's really fun," said 10-year-old Farhah Mohammad Hasnol enthusiastically. For her, the group is not only her ticket to understanding the UAE better, but also a chance to form deep friendships.

"I have a lot of friends. Sometimes we go to each other's house and have sleepovers," she added.

Her favourite trip was the overnight camping trip, building the fire and roasting marshmallows over the open flame.

The next place on her wish-list is a visit to a chocolate factory.

"I want to visit a chocolate factory to learn how to make chocolate, and to eat it," she added, grinning.