KidZania gets children ready for a life of shopping and the pursuit of status

LONDON, United Kingdom. The Guardian. November 6, 2015. (English), by Tim Lott. –I reluctantly decided it was time to visit our local kids’ attraction, KidZania, at Shepherd’s Bush Westfield – an “educational theme park” where children can try out adult jobs. I dislike this vast shopping centre, which is why I had low expectations of KidZania. Also, I have read a number of cynical and sceptical articles about the experience in other newspapers.

But what met me as I walked through the “check-in” – this being an artificial “country” you have to go through “immigration” to get to – boggled my imagination.

As soon as the children enter the airport hangar-sized space, arranged on two levels, they are presented with an entire conurbation of 60 shops, restaurants, fire stations, hospitals, banks, a university – all scaled down to child size. You are issued with the local currency, 50 kidZos. Thereafter you can either earn more money – by undertaking certain jobs, for example fashion designer or parcel delivery person – or spend it undergoing training. Or you might want to invest in a university degree, which will increase your income in a number of fields. At the end of the day, if you have any money left you can buy goods in the KidZania department store.

If you earn enough cash, you can get a credit card. Pint-size policemen march past every now and then with an adult leader holding a megaphone, in this case warning about escaped zombies (it was close to Halloween). Or firemen rush past in an engine to put out a fire at the nearby hotel.

I would tell you more about what my children experienced – they worked in an animation studio, a chocolate-making workshop, as ventilation shaft engineers, a newspaper office, a beauty salon, a dentist and much besides – but adults were not allowed to enter the rooms where the children were working. Neither were they allowed to enter the department store at the end. It was a world for children, in which adults were expected to take a back seat – ideally in the adults-only lounge.

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Like everything nowadays, the experience was meant to be educational but I doubt that it was, particularly. I’m sure neither of my daughters came away with much of an idea of what it meant to be a courier or shelf stacker (yes, you can do that too – it’s not just the high-status professional stuff) – although my 13-year-old daughter was inspired by her visit to the radio station, where she worked as a presenter. But my god, what fun! My only disappointment was there not being a role-play room for aspiring novelists. Then I worked out that sitting alone in a room with a cup of cold coffee and a bottle of antidepressants probably isn’t going to inspire anybody do anything much.

It was just so … 21st century. My theme park when I was growing up was the local rec with a broken swing and a dangerous rusty roundabout. Now you can spend four hours in an imagined country and another life. I wish they would do something similar for adults so I could find out what it’s like to be a banker, a brain surgeon or a worker in a call centre. DadZania?

When I left and entered the cynical glitter ball that is Westfield shopping centre, I felt my mood droop. For this is what all the role play points towards – a world of shopping, choreographed smiles and the pursuit of status. There are critics who complain that KidZania is preparing children for this world precisely. I suggest they put their prejudice to one side, and simply enjoy KidZania for what it is – a remarkable variety of interactive theatre.

But did my children enjoy it? For the first time ever when they posted their review on the children’s review website Kidrated they both gave the experience 10/10. Maybe they’re just dupes of the capitalist system. But if it’s this much fun, I’ll sign them up as dupes again any day.

@timlottwriter

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