After-school fun in Dubai

With the new term comes new after-school activities too. Dubai has a huge amount on offer, so why not try something different?

Drummer Vir Bhatia

Ah, drumming… every parent’s worst nightmare. But when your son is desperate for a drum kit (and his older brother already plays guitar) then what can you do? Sign him up for lessons, that’s what – then at least when he’s going at it hammer and tongs, it’s a rhythmic beat you’ll be subjected to and not just a darn awful racket. Vir was just five years old when the lure of the bass, snare and tom tom proved irresistible. ‘I used to go with my mum to pick my brother up from his guitar lesson and thought that looked like fun, but I was too small to play guitar, so I decided to have a go at the drums instead.’

Vir turns eight next month, so he’s been drumming for more than two years. ‘I have a class once a week at the Jumeirah Music Centre where I learn all sorts of different songs and rhythms. I really like it because there are loads of things to learn – and because it’s loud.’

Ah-ha, now we get to the crux of the matter. Vir gives us a quick demo up in his bedroom and yep, he’s right, it is loud. Very loud. But, we have to say, he’s not half bad, this fella. The beat is pretty catchy, and he’s certainly got great coordination and timing. The therapeutic and physical benefits of, well, whacking a few drums as hard as you can, are obvious, but for Vir, it’s also brought him closer to his brother, the 12-year-old guitarist, Daksh. ‘Sometimes my brother and I jam together. We don’t have any favourite tunes but at the moment we’re practising If Today was your Last Day by Nickleback.’
But he admits that his ear-splitting hobby doesn’t always make him the most popular boy in the house – especially when he performs impromptu Friday morning renditions of his favourite rock tunes. ‘Sometimes when I’m bored I’ll start drumming just to annoy everyone.’

Where: Jumeirah Music Centre (04 349 2662;

Who: Kids aged five and above can learn drums as well as piano and, once they reach eight years old, guitar, flute, singing and violin. The centre also runs a Young Musician course for kids as young as three and Kindermusik for mums and bubs from newborn to three years.

When: Classes start up again this month and cost from Dhs360 for four 30-minute lessons.

Surfer sky parsons

It’s not often we wish we were seven years old again. Spelling tests, boring lessons, mum’s nagging – we’re happy to leave it all behind, but when we met surfer girl Sky, we were, we confess, a little bit envious of her carefree enthusiasm and fabulously energetic, outdoorsy lifestyle. Sky has been surfing for almost a year which is, in her mind, ‘a long, long time’ but she’s already grasped the basics and can do a few tricks too. Sky took advantage of free Friday surfer sessions offered by and, after just one class, was hooked. ‘My daddy is from Durban and he used to surf a lot when he was younger. He liked the blue of the ocean, like me. I love the sea creatures too – the fish, the crabs the starfish. If I see a starfish stranded at the shoreline, I’ll always carry them back, and I give them names.’

Surfing is not cheap, which is why the taster sessions down at the beach are a great way to see if kids are interested before forking out for a swish surf board, only for it to gather dust in the garage. ‘I just gave it a go and I loved it,’ says Sky. ‘Some people find it difficult but it wasn’t tricky for me. The secret is the balance. I do a lot of ice skating which helps my balance, so after the first day, when we drew a surf board in the sand and practised, I was off. The instructors just pushed you out and let you go.’

Every month (apart from in the middle of summer when the sea is ‘like a bath’) Sky heads down to the beach on a Saturday for her hour-long coaching session. ‘It’s great. They teach you the proper techniques, and we’ve already learned a few tricks like walking back and forth on the board and jumping left to right.’ A slip of a lass, Sky reckons surfing success is all down to being focused. ‘You don’t have to be strong. You just have to concentrate on the waves and think about your balance. But it’s good exercise too. I’d recommend it to anyone because it’s a lot of fun and you’re always in the sea!’

Now that she’s taken to surfing like a, er, kid to water, she’s got her own board and plans on surfing every day even when she’s a grown-up, just like her old man. ‘Yes, my daddy still surfs,’ she says, adding cheekily, ‘but I’m already better than him!’


Where: (04 399 0989/050 940 3487;

Who: Anyone who can swim, but you usually have to be at least five years old.

When: Try out a free surfing and paddleboarding lesson, most Friday mornings down at Sunset beach (near the Burj al Arab) but email ahead for timings and to book your spot, as places are limited. If you like it, sign up for a four-lesson group package for Dhs400, or Dhs500 for an individual class.

Motocross champion matthew fletcher

According to Matthew Fletcher, it takes dedication and a love of speed to succeed at motocross – and he certainly knows his stuff. The 11-year-old petrol head, who practises at Dubai Motocross Club for two hours after school every week, and races every weekend during the September to April annual season, has been into the sport since he was four. He’s won over 50 awards, and is also the UAE’s current Junior Champion for the 85cc class.

‘I’ve wanted to be a professional motocross rider for as long as I can remember,’ he says. ‘My dad’s been involved with Motocross for years, and my mum races too. They promised me I could have a bike if I learned to ride my pushbike without the training wheels. So I learned pretty quickly.’

Although originally from South Africa, Matthew has spent the past five years riding motocross in the UAE. His success has even seen him race at the famous international competition in Las Vegas – the KTM Juniors Supercross Challenge, where he came fourth out of 20 riders.

But it isn’t a sport for the faint-hearted, or the light-of-pocket. ‘It costs around Dhs15,000 for a new bike and around Dhs5,000 for all the kit. The safety gear is very important as this is a sport where injury is a very real possibility,’ says Matthew’s dad, Mike. But so far, Matthew, who has concentrated on perfecting his skills rather than increasing his speed, has managed to avoid most tumbles. ‘I’ve only had one fall, where I cut my gum. That was painful. But I’ve been lucky otherwise.’

And, he says, the UAE is the perfect place to hone your motocross skills. ‘It’s a friendlier environment than most places, where competition is fierce and kids are pushed harder than they should be. It’s more enjoyable as a result and you are able to improve your skills more, because speed and winning isn’t as much of a focus. The terrain in the UAE is great too because learning to ride in thick, soft sand all the time really improves your technique.’


Where: Dubai Motocross Club, Jebel Ali, opposite the Jebel Ali Hotel and Resort (

Who: Kids aged four and up can enjoy motocross. From four to six they race on 50cc quad bikes, and from six to seven, they graduate to a two-wheeler. Other than that, anyone can do it.

When: Race season is from October to April, and races are run every weekend. Check the website for information on training sessions and races.

Volunteer Patrick Thomas

At 14, Patrick Thomas, is living every kid’s dream through his work at the K9 Friends Dog Rescue Centre in Jebel Ali. And who wouldn’t want to cuddle with puppies and tumble with dogs at their work place? Patrick helps neglected and abandoned dogs begin to socialise with people through his weekly volunteer sessions. And his help is clearly in demand – as there are around 140 four-legged residents at K9 – all vying for a bit of human attention.

Patrick, who plans to study zoology, started at K9 as a dog walker, accompanying his dad, and later graduated to ‘volunteer’. He now spends every Saturday at the kennels, pitching in where required. ‘I love it as it has taught me so much about caring for animals,’ he says. ‘Any kid of any age can come to K9 and be a dog walker as long as their parents are with them. Then once you get a bit older, you can become a volunteer.’

Patrick plans to continue volunteering for as long as possible, and has made several close furry friends along the way. His favourite is Blue, a boisterous two-year-old desert dog who came to the kennels as a pup – and is yet to be picked by a new family.

‘I love Blue – and it would be great to see him re-homed with people who appreciate his fun-loving temperament. But I’m hoping my mum and dad will eventually relent so that I can take him home with me,’
he laughs.

Patrick is also passionate about the stray dog cause in Dubai, and believes youngsters will benefit from spending time with the abandoned animals. ‘It teaches you how to treat dogs, what they need from people, and how much of a responsibility they are. It also shows people the sacrifices they need to make when they take a dog into their family.’


Where: Jebel Ali Industrial Estate, sections 2 and 3, behind the Unimix Factory (04 885 8031;

Who: Younger kids can help with dog walking, helping homeless pups get exercise and interact with people. Older kids (preferably 16+) can go through a training programme on how to treat and take care of dogs.
When: All through the year. Dog walking preferably in the Winter/Spring months.

Stage star Crischaela Vallender

What should you do if you fancy learning how to belt out a few tunes, strut your stuff and act the part on stage, but discover, horror of horrors, that there are only seven days in a week? Crischaela Vallender, now aged 12, stumbled upon the answer by chance three years ago when, after a sleepover at a friend’s house, she found herself trying out for a part in a production of Oliver Twist. ‘My friend was going to an audition and I just tagged along. I really didn’t know what was happening so I wasn’t prepared at all, but I liked singing, I’d been dancing since I was four, and I’d done some drama classes too. Anyway, I ended up being the understudy for the Artful Dodger. It was brilliant! That was when I discovered I really liked musical theatre.’

Crischaela quickly signed up to a musical theatre class with Diverse Choreography – a mammoth three-hour session which sees her learning dance moves and techniques with husband and wife team Scott and Lisa Marshall. ‘They’re inspirational!’ she says. ‘I love to watch them, then stamp my personality onto their techniques,’ she says. After that, it’s singing lessons with Rachel, who ‘brings out the best in us by making us look beyond our voices at different aspects of singing, such as how to use our voice to turn a song into a performance’ before learning all about improvisation and stage direction from drama teacher, Emma. ‘It’s a great all-round course and really good fun,’ says Crischaela, obviously deeply passionate. ‘I love the fact I can do all three – musical theatre is handy that way!’

It sounds great, but is it not an awful lot of work? ‘It can be really hectic, especially during a show,’ admits Crischaela, ‘but that’s part of the fun. I love the fact that we rehearse and rehearse until we’re finally satisfied with the result. You have to be committed though, especially when it comes to performing.’ Crischaela has had parts in High School Musical 1, HSM2, Annie, You Can’t Stop the Beat, West Side Story, and many more, so she knows all about dedication. ‘During shows, you’re often rehearsing for eight to 10 hours a day for three to four weeks, but once you get into it, you just can’t stop.’

Stopping is definitely not on the agenda. ‘If you do something often enough, and if you enjoy it because it’s so much fun, it just comes naturally. It’s not just a hobby anymore, I see it more as a career. Why do I like it? It just feels really good.’


Where: Diverse Choreography hold musical theatre classes and other dance courses at the Jumeirah Ballet Centre, Wellington International School and Kings School. (050 115 2347/050 115 2346,;

Who: Musical theatre courses are available to kids aged seven to 18 years (by audition). There’s a mini-musical theatre course for pint-sized performers aged five to seven years.

When: Courses start again this month and cost Dhs50-55 per hour.

Bell time balance

When it comes to after-school activities, we’re lucky that Dubai is a ‘boom town’ but make sure you strike a balance and don’t end up with clapped-out, burnt-out kids.
Most of us remember that wonderful feeling when the final bell rang at school, followed by the euphoric clatter of small feet running for freedom. But just because school’s out, it doesn’t mean lessons are over. Many Dubai kids spend their ‘free’ time developing other interests though the enormous range of after-school activities on offer, from the usual swimming, football and dancing, to the more obscure such as comedy clubs and pottery.

‘I love the fact there’s an abundance of activities – indoors and out – for kids in Dubai,’ says mum-of-two Katy Matheson. ‘We lived in the middle of nowhere back home in the UK, and my eldest would spend his afternoons watching television or playing on his playstation. My husband and I were worried because he seemed like such a quiet, serious little boy. Since we moved here, he’s become far more interested in sport. He swims all the time, he’s taken up rugby, and over the summer, he started to learn to ski. He’s much fitter and much happier because he’s active, he’s making friends and having fun and we’ve seen a huge improvement in his confidence too.’

Learning a new skill, improving an existing one, or just having fun – there’s nothing wrong with keeping busy. Or is there? ‘After-school activities can be brilliant fun and good exercise, as well as helping children develop a talent or a hobby,’ says Therese Sequeira, Triple P parent educator and mum of three. However, striking a balance between homework, play and after-school activities can be a challenge for parents, who have to cover the costs, as well as the additional ferrying to and fro. Triple P recommends parents don’t attempt more than two extra activities per week. ‘I know from experience that this is sensible,’ says Therese, whose eldest son asked to do stamp club on top of football and swimming. ‘Initially, I allowed it, but in practice, it was very difficult to manage, not just for me – who did all the driving around – but for him too. He was so tired on a Thursday, the last thing he wanted to do was his swimming lesson.’

Yes, you can have too much of a good thing, and while Dubai is not short of things to do, choosing the activity that is right for your child is tricky, as mum-of-two Nicky McLean found to her cost. ‘I learned the lesson the hard way,’ says Nicky, who enrolled her daughter in tap dancing and karate classes for a term, only for her to drop out because she decided she didn’t like them. ‘It was an expensive mistake because they have to have the latest tap shoes and all the right kit. These days, I’m more hard. If my daughter wants to do an activity, she has to show commitment for the whole term, whether she likes it or not.’

Therese agrees. ‘You have to be a bit tough about it. After all, what kind of message are you sending out if you let them give up just because they’ve decided they’re not enjoying it as much as they thought they would?’

Ultimately, she says, striking a balance between work and play is key. ‘I consider school a form of work, and I think it’s important to let kids have downtime,’ she says. ‘Over-scheduling is tough on kids – and on parents – especially as they get older and you have to factor in homework time. Balance is the word. Everything should be in moderation.’

Get stuck in!

But remember these do’s and don’ts.
consider the cost. After-school activities can be very expensive so make sure your child doesn’t take them for granted and think about the long-term financial implications. Can you afford to continue it if your child gets hooked?

make sure your kids are genuinely interested and committed. Some classes offer the option of paying by the week, rather than the term, while others have tester or discovery sessions so you can try before you buy.

let your kids drop out after the first couple of classes just because they’ve changed their mind. Of course if they absolutely hate it, there’s no point in continuing, but children need to understand that when they take on an activity – especially an expensive one – they have to stick at it. If they don’t like it, they’ll know they have to be more sensible when choosing their activities next term.


consider your child’s age when selecting an activity. A three-year-old won’t understand about commitment – even if they are made to go back week after tantrum-filled week. And if you’ve paid for 10 riding lessons in advance at Dhs180 a pop, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

over-schedule your children. Kids can suffer burnout too and they need time when they can relax and muck about with friends, or periods in which they can read a book, watch a bit of television or enjoy downtime with you. It’s tough when there’s so much going on, but try to stick to a maximum of two activities per week – it will limit your taxi service duties too!

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