You pass through immigration to reach Kidzania – the 75,000 sqft “edutainment” venue for children that has just opened at Westfield shopping centre in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. And when I say immigration, I mean immigration – Heathrow-style – in perfect miniature.
Everything about this sprawling city, built to a child’s scale and designed to offer kids aged four to 14 the opportunity to experience the world of work through role play, is meticulously attentive to detail.
There is no attempt to soften the language that accompanies a transit through Britain’s borders in the 21st century. We pass the same Enhanced Security sign, advising that body scans and screening may be required, and a Kidzania employee in full border force garb attends the immigration desk.
It is an irony that in the current political climate accompanying the world of work and migration in the UK, children must pass through immigration in order to access the opportunity to participate in the employment role play offered by Kidzania. But once they do, they can try any one of 60 occupations, from working a news desk to being a paramedic.
This is London, a city which Xavier Lopez, Kidzania’s Mexican founder, admits is one of the toughest in the world to crack for kids' entertainment and his biggest challenge to date.
Getting down to work
British Airways provide a slick check-in desk, exactly like a real airport. Here, entry tickets purchased online or in advance – which cost up to £22 per head – are exchanged for a boarding pass, a handful of Kidzos, the currency used in the mini-city, a Bank of Kidzania debit card and an electronic tag that is affixed to every child’s arm.
Work experiences are advertised at a job centre, where a personality test suggests suitable occupations. “Artists” are encouraged to try out the radio station (a Capital FM in miniature); “inventors” are sent to the power plant, while “communicators” are directed to the H&M store to become stylists. University courses can be taken to boost earning power.
Supply and demand of jobs means that more popular occupations decrease in value. You can earn 12 Kidzos playing receptionist in a hotel, but must pay ten Kidzos to be a pilot on a real plane, complete with flight simulator.
Collectives form as children pool their currency to make bigger purchases in the gift shop, or make larger groups to unlock work experiences that require a number of bodies to get started. There is a nod to the dark side of consumer economies in a mock advertising hoarding offering ToothfairyKidzo Loans. These cash advances on your milk teeth come complete with an eye-watering APR of 688%.
This is a world where “Kids Rule”, but safety is paramount to how the attraction is promoted to parents as a secure and educational space to leave children while they take themselves off into the real mall to shop and relax for a few hours.
This combination of education, safety and a child-centred approach is clearly a winning one. Kidzania has 19 outlets in five continents and has had 42m visitors through its doors. With its Mexican origins, it also heralds a refreshing shift in the flow of children’s entertainment brands from the hegemony of dominant western players to one that has its origins in the global south.
Playing at consumerism
The educational value of Kidzania is rooted in the idea of experiential learning, whereby children learn through first-hand activities and practical experiences, contextualising knowledge and applying skills developed.
The ethos of making a space in which children are encouraged to make their own decisions and take their experiences into their own future deploys the approach of education and play movements such as Reggio, and open-access adventure playgrounds, run along child-centred “playwork principles”.
But in Kidzania, there is much that diverges from the risky and nature-based ethos of these approaches, not least the total absence of green space. This is a city without parks or nature of any kind.
In many respects, Kidzania is the kind of play performance that play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith has described as flow experience: preparation for adult lives whose central purpose is individualistic consumer subjectivity. There is no critical engagement with the less palatable consequences of market economies, such as unemployment, debt and inequality.
Also glaringly absent is any consideration of the positioning of advanced consumer societies within wider global systems of resource and labour extraction. Yes, there are notices from NGO partner Water Aid on the doors of toilet stalls with messages about children dying from a lack of access to clean water, but these seem to be connected to a world “out there” that is somehow separate from this one.
Privatised play spaces
Mick Waters, president of the Curriculum Foundation, has given Kidzania a glowing endorsement, saying that it: “offers an opportunity for young people to start to understand the way in which the economy works in society”. As a privatised play space, in which participation is predicated on one’s ability to muster the resources to enter, an unintentional lesson is imparted about how the economy works in society to exclude certain people, or include them on an unequal footing.
Ironically, the open-access model of the adventure playground, whose child-centred ethos shares much with Kidzania’s, is deeply at risk from funding cuts and the privatisation of play. Elsewhere in London, the playground in Battersea was recently closed down, and its play workers made redundant. It re-opened divided into an unstaffed playground and a private adventure attraction, replete with hefty entrance fee.
Yet despite these caveats, there is an energy to Kidzania that indicates it offers something that is lacking in the way in which society engages children. KidZania is a truly extraordinary opportunity to play adult roles with real equipment in a gloriously detailed city in miniature. The children here are obviously relishing the chance to be agents in an adult world with which they are deeply familiar – but from which they are largely excluded. They queue up patiently to open bank accounts, and wait their turn to work on the tills in the replica supermarket.
As anthropologist Maurice Bloch’s classic work on cognition and learning demonstrated, it is in the practice of everyday life itself that learning how to operate in a society occurs. But what is the everyday life that Kidzania presents as the real world? As a glossy market utopia, complete with border controls, perhaps the true message of Kidzania is that the world can be your oyster – provided you have the money, or the contacts, to get through the gates.
Dominique Santos is affiliated with Hummingbird Play Association, a South African voluntary association that runs pop up playgrounds in inner city Johannesburg, and advocates for child-friendly planning policy.
Authors: The Conversation