Kidzania: object lessons for children in consumer societies
Kidzania is a multinational chain offering educational entertainment to children around the world. It is set up in a sort of theme park that recreates city life on a child’s scale. Is this ‘edutainment’ or ‘advertainment’?
Kidzania was called “La ciudad de los niños” (The city of children) when it first opened in Mexico in 1999. Later, its name changed to Kidzania, which is a brand concept incorporating three others: kids, zany and ania, the last being a Latin suffix meaning ‘land’. In 2006 the first international location opened in Tokyo, inaugurating a multinational quest.
The Kidzania website announces that, to date, “it has already received some 10 million children in this flagship location”, and its success seems to keep growing as more locations are being built and planned around the world in the years to come. Kidzania can currently be found in eleven places: three in Mexico, two in Japan, and more in Indonesia, Portugal, United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Malaysia, and Chile; parks are to open in seven more countries during 2013, including Thailand, Brazil, Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and India; another three during 2014, i.e., Singapore, Russia and Philippines; and two sites in 2015, which will add the US and the UK to the franchise. Overall, there will be 23 of these theme parks all over the world by 2015. On the website the ‘concept’ is described as follows:
"KidZania provides children and their parents a safe, unique, and very realistic educational environment that allows kids between the ages of four to twelve to do what comes naturally to them: role-playing by mimicking traditionally adult activities. As in the real world, children perform "jobs" and are either paid for their work (as a fireman, doctor, police officer, journalist, shopkeeper, etc.) or pay to shop or to be entertained. The indoor theme park is a city built to scale for children, complete with buildings, paved streets, vehicles, a functioning economy, and recognizable destinations in the form of "establishments" sponsored and branded by leading multi-national and local brands."
So, Kidzania is a family entertainment center, usually located inside or next to a shopping mall, where a child can be dropped and become the center of attention. Inside they can go through a city-like infrastructure, which is their size and where they are ‘invited’ to perform as if they were adults working in different sorts of jobs. In other words, the fun is provided by having them enact – through role plays - different kinds of labor positions and functions in a productive economic system and branded mini-world. After performing their jobs the children get paid in Kidzania currency (Kidzos), which they can use to buy products and services inside the facility. Thus, children here encounter various setups in which they can simulate grown-up jobs and play at becoming part of a corporate world. Inside this park they can in fact have simulated experiences working for ‘real’ multinationals or local brands, which are part of the sponsoring scheme of the franchise. The deal is that parents pay for fun, and that the fun is had by the children playing at working and spending. To put it differently, the more and the better they work around Kidzania, the more they can experience and consume. In sum, this miniature world not only simulates a corporate world for children but is mostly designed to instruct them on how the corporate world functions, the ultimate lesson being that in order to play the game, they have to exchange their labor for currency and earn the fun.
Following the work of authors such as Mitchell, T. (1989) Bennett, T (2005) Foster, R (1999) I would like to point to some of their concepts that may clarify the function of this new sort of ‘theme park’ as part of a broader complex of sites where simulations of power relations and knowledge are offered. These are the ideas of ‘object lessons’, ‘civic laboratories’ and ‘the commercial construction of new nations’, respectively, which I myself find useful if we are to make sense of how the mechanisms and techniques used in this ‘miniature world’ work.
First, children learn a lesson through objects that have been designed and set up to provide them with a constructed experience, by which they can perform a commercial rationale as if they were small citizens of a corporate world. Second, and besides the fact that all children that come to this experience have to wear electronic bracelets so that they can be monitored and followed all through this so-called ‘park’ (resembling some of the surveillance mechanisms that Michel Foucault describes in Discipline and Punishment), it is also important to note that the entertainment here is programmed and guided in a controlled space where children are taught behavioral skills of one type of society - a consumer society - which makes the entire ‘park’ look very much like a human kind laboratory not too unlike those imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, but here meant for little ones.
Finally – and besides the fact that the children in the park are called Kidzanians, and the most senior manager in every franchise is called governor - the role playing focuses on recreating a small city-nation, which involves boys and girls working and consuming for this Brand New World. For example, in the park in Chile the experience starts by boarding a plane from LAN, a local airplane brand, and once inside the children can work as journalists for the local newspaper LA TERCERA or work in the COCA-COLA bottling plant, and then go shopping in FALABELLA, a national retail company brand (Kidzania Sponsors Chile). This brand-oriented setup has led some detractors to call it ‘advertainment’ , whereas Kidzania’s marketing department have labeled it ‘edutainment’ (The Morning News). I would argue here that is an interesting mix of both; a sort of hybrid, which raises the worthwhile question to what extent this type of park is hindering children’s creative possibilities for play while they are taught controlled cultural possibilities for having fun while making a living.