Karen Kay: how children learn that life isn’t always fair and why some adults are miserable

PUBLISHED: 10:58 16 October 2015 | UPDATED: 10:58 16 October 2015

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I took my daughter and a couple of friends to Kidzania. You haven’t heard about this mini city constructed to two thirds real scale on the roof of the Westfield shopping centre in West London?

It’s designed for children between four and 14 to role-play, ‘work’ and earn ‘money’ to spend in the 75,000 square feet theme park.

It has a fire department, police station, hospital, sports stadium and currency – kidzos. There’s a hotel, theatre, dental surgery, radio studio, newspaper office, university, bank, beauty salon, smoothie-making business and much more.

Children check in at an airport-style desk, are issued with a radio-frequency locator wristband coded with parent’s contact details (children over seven are left to explore) plus ‘bank notes’ equating to 50 kidzos. They then enter this boil-washed community where about 60 experiences are offered, each lasting between 15 and 25 minutes. They might ‘work’ in the Alder Hey Special Care Baby Care Unit, move on to ‘DJ’ for Global Radio, head for Renault’s Engineering Centre, sort clothing at the H&M Textile Recycling Office or fly a replica BA jet. Yes, lots of the Kidzania enterprises are the result of industry partnerships, designed to woo small people to the delights of brands at a young age.

“We’re opening children’s eyes to the realities of life. You need the real names to authenticate the content,” explains chocolate heir, Joel Cadbury, the man behind the London franchise of an operation which launched in Sante Fe in 1999 and boasts outposts across the planet.

It felt like an opportunity to share the fulfilment that comes with achieving a task, the reward from earning a crust, and the dilemmas faced when pocketing that wage: save or spend? For many children in an era of helicopter parenting and risk-averse lifestyles the chance to do something for themselves is thrilling.

I imagined children gleaning some understanding of effort and reward in an age where many don’t even seek a part time job until university beckons or even after graduation, when the prospect of being offered ANY job seems dismal.

My daughter was raring to go as we entered this diminutive city. And then came the disappointment. First, we were overwhelmed by the noise of a band that marched round the circular street at Kidzania’s heart, banging drums and blowing trumpets.

All three in my care covered their ears and around me, others – staff, parents and children – were doing the same. In a bid to whip up some atmosphere, Kidzania had created an instant negative experience, which was endured for another four hours.

We went to the ‘airport’, where the queue to be a BA pilot or work as cabin crew on a real Airbus fuselage, was an immediate turn-off for children eager to get some action. We headed off. There were loads of unaccompanied kids looking lost, unsure of where to go next. Fold-up maps issued at check-in weren’t child-friendly and signage, where it existed, was up high, far from the scan of junior eyes.

We found the newspaper office and the children were invited in, given a clipboard and sent to write a story for their front page. Great idea. Poorly executed. The ‘editor’ charged with inspiring her junior reporters took less than a minute to brief them. They marched out, bemused. Pre-printed questions offered a clue as to the task, but children need enthusing and instructing. They have an innate desire to learn, but in the hands of a twentysomething going through the motions, this ain’t gonna happen. Peering through the window, I watched rookie reporters attempt to type up their features on a PC before ‘Bored Brenda the Editor’ bothered to move from her desk and print them out as souvenirs.

Beyond the BA experience, queues were non-existent, with groups looking through windows at the activities. Without adult input, when the next set prepared to enter, children who’d politely waited an age were pushed aside by more assertive ones. Frustrated mothers raised eyebrows in sympathy as I tried, and failed, to organise a queue at the hairdressing salon.

Eventually, my daughter entered, delighted to have the chance to “be shown how to create different looks by the head stylist”. Well, the head stylist did nothing but sit doodling at his desk while a quartet of girls brushed their mannequins with increasing despondency.

Thank goodness for a refreshingly positive time in the authentic dental surgery, where my charges peered into the mouth of a dummy patient as they were taught about toothcare. The idea was inspired, but some staff couldn’t have been less so.

Kidzania could be brilliant. But perhaps the hard truth is that this was a realistic preparation for the world of work where a generation is growing up without many professional role models, without a service mentality that offers the impetus to go the extra mile, and with little hope of a rewarding career. I do hope not. 


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