“Get ready for a better world” is the slogan of Kidzania, the Mexican “educational play” company, which promises that it will teach children “real-life skills”.
At these amusement parks – of which there are now 19 worldwide – children play alone in small indoor cities, performing adult jobs: they can be factory workers, learn to fly aeroplanes with real flight simulators, or act as reporters for the city’s newspaper.
They say it’s a great way for children to act out their adult fantasies in a safe zone – the future of educational play. Critics say that it’s entertainment, but hardly educational because it’s so highly scripted.
Following instructions is surprisingly fun
As I stood with another mother outside of the dentist’s office, we peered into the window while our children hovered over a life-sized dummy and contemplated extracting its brown tooth.
“Perhaps this will help my son develop better oral hygiene,” said my companion, hopefully.
Possibly. But other than donning lab coats and demonstrating proper tooth-brushing technique to their activity leader with a giant set of choppers, there wasn’t a whole lot of realistic interaction with dentistry. My four-year-old daughter refused to extract the tooth because she was worried that it might make the dummy cry. In this and other activities, I was impressed by how seriously she took each scenario: much of my own cynicism did not seem to extend to my child.
Moving on to the baby hospital, I watched my daughter “work” as a doctor in a nursery with newborns to earn 8 kidzos, the currency in the city, which she wanted in order to pay for a tattoo at the tattoo parlour. Following the instructor’s lead, she lifted her baby doll and swaddled it, carefully holding its head.
There’s a pleasant and perpetual buzz of activity in the city as you walk around looking for work, or ways to spend your money, and this is augmented by the regular rounds made by a child-sized ambulance (driven by a worker, and filled with trainee EMTs), and a fire engine that speeds every half an hour off to ferry junior fire fighters to a “burning” building, which they spray with real water. Watching this was thrillingly frightening for my daughter, who was too young to participate.
But she did spend the kidzos that she earned with glee, making a necklace that she now regularly wears.
Both of us were riveted for the four hours that we were there: there are plenty of activities, places to eat, and ample things to explore.
As a very elementary schooling in capitalism, the general concept for KidZania is entertaining. Many activities are “partnered with” (ie sponsored by) real world corporate giants – to keep down costs, according to the company – and this has caused quite a bit of controversy.
Still, there is a lot to recommend KidZania as a novel destination for families in London. Not allowing parents into activities is genius. Adults have to stand outside of each job, looking through a glass window, watching but not interfering. While there’s not a lot for parents to do as they hover, it is fantastic semi-freedom for young children. Kids above the age of seven can be dropped off by parents at the entrance to the city, and be left there for four hours. Thanks to electronic tracking bracelets worn throughout the visit, parents can feel happy that their child is safe.
As a simple exercise in having children follow the instructions of adults they don’t know, a visit to KidZania is well worth the cost. My often shy five-year-old loved being a courier, ferrying packages to and from various businesses in town, and navigating the city was a good challenge for her.
KidZania is very proud of its narrative, which involves a few inconvenient things: the city is in a permanent state of dusk (because, Xavier Lopez Ancona, the group’s global president, told me: “Children are rarely allowed out at dusk, so this is a treat for them.” I found it rather difficult to see).
Then there’s the unfortunate lingo. Each worker, or “Zupervisor”, is compelled to greet you with a strange gang-like hand symbol and the word “Kai!”, an alternative to “hi”. Because KidZania begins with a K. Get it?
And then there’s the bizarre cheerleader-like dance the workers must do, in a sort of Disney/early Britney Spears hybrid spoof, whenever KidZania’s theme song comes onto the loudspeakers.
KidZania trades on its authenticity, but a disappointing number of things are for show. At the Eat Natural-sponsored fruit and nut bar making factory, children are taught about the origins of ingredients and about nutrition as they ‘make’ a cereal bar. They handle the ingredients, and are cautioned by the activity leaders to make sure they keep them clean, in order to practice good hygiene. This is, undoubtedly, a good kitchen policy. But it was disappointing to learn that the oven in the corner was fake, that the real ingredients the children handle are thrown away at the end of each day, uneaten, and that they are presented with “‘one I made earlier” at the end of each cereal bar activity.
The ever-present branding of each activity was entertaining in some places – who doesn’t want to make chocolates in a Cadbury’s factory – but one place where the corporate sponsorship, and any semblance of education or, indeed, fun, fell short was the H&M boutique modelling job.
You can earn kidzos for donning an H&M outfit and then posing for a photo shoot (conducted by a photographer, prints of which are available for the bargain price of £12). To maintain decorum, children do not disrobe, they simply put on the H&M clothes over their own. This is awkward, as is the fact that, on our visit, the myriad and tempting pairs of shoes were off-limits if you weren’t wearing your own socks (health and safety hazard). As it was a warm day, and most children were in sandals, that meant that all shoes and lots of other accessories – for reasons that were unclear – were off-duty on our visit. This meant that, rather than being an activity, the H&M boutique felt far more like a (boring) corporate plug and little else.
The bottom line
KidZania is about as real as the Westfield shopping mall it sits in.
If this is a glimpse of the “better world” the group promises, I want no part of it. But if your children are aged between 4 and about 10 (children over that age would struggle to stay engaged), and it’s a rainy day, you could do far worse.
My daughter absolutely loved her time at KidZania – though she was too young for about half of the activities.