A fascinating article by Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker magazine reports on a new kind of theme park for children, named KidZania. Having opened fifteen years ago in Mexico City, it has since spread to a dozen other countries and will soon appear in England and the U.S. The park is designed to give children between the ages of four and fourteen a chance to enact the roles of grownups in a realistically reproduced urban neighborhood. An enclosed world resembling the outside one in which children can roam freely is oriented to children’s capacities and interests.
In this world, children are ostensibly able to try out adult tasks. They can work on a car assembly line, put out a fake fire with real water, train to be a pilot or a dentist, earn a “salary” for participating in activities, deposit the park’s own currency in a bank and withdraw funds with a realistic looking debit card. The park’s developer believes that children are being empowered in this way to become independent. The goal is education and entertainment: to really learn something while having fun.
In one of the countries, developers worked with the local government to develop activities intended to promote good citizenship, such as road safety, health, civic institutions, the environment and tolerance of differences in individuals and groups. The man behind these ideas says that children are immersed in a “simulated reality. This is not about fantasy. This is not princesses and dwarfs.”
Still, to quote a line from Gilbert and Sullivan, “Things are seldom what they seem. Skim milk masquerades as cream.” After having visited a number of the parks, Mead points out that despite the emphasis on realism “there is a lot of sleight of hand.” Most of the things children are supposedly producing are actually factory made and switched in at the last moment. More to the point, in a replica of a courthouse complete with judge, jury, lawyers and children taking all the roles, what is supposedly a real trial, is actually scripted with the children reading their parts from cue cards. If the goals are entertainment and education, it is the entertainment side that seems to prevail.
A Head of Education has been hired for the upcoming London park, but it is questionable if the activities created are in fact educational. They may not even qualify as play if we think of play in an educational context. Play is often described as children’s work. What this means is that children through their play develop their imagination and creativity, work out conflicts they have with parents or peers, and is thus an important part of children’s social and moral maturation. Through play they work out and master the questions of childhood that help prepare them for adulthood. Fantasy is part of this process.
The real tools needed for that kind of play can be found in nursery schools and early school years. During “free play” children have a choice of activities. Sand and water can be used in a variety of ways. The block corner allows for building cities, highways and other inventions. The housekeeping corner, with its choice of various articles of grown-up clothing, dolls, cribs, stove, groceries, dishes and utensils, offers the opportunity to play out different family scenes – actual and pretend revisions of same.
As children get older, games with peers and ever-changing rules, hobbies and the pursuit of individual interests, all permit a self-determined exploration of many aspects of life. Play that is educational in the true meaning of the word is quite different from the adult determined content of activities and scripts that leave little room for ingenuity that are offered at a theme park like KidZania.
What is interesting is the continuing focus on having children be older when they are younger. It was Piaget who said the idea that “earlier is better is an American disease.” That disease seems to be contagious and now it is spreading to theme parks. Mead quotes a young visitor to the park saying, “I have learned that being an adult is actually hard.” That’s why you do it when you are an adult.