Spectator: Children playing grown-ups

Lucy Baring says a job is child's play.

‘He won’t be around. He’s doing work experience.’ I find these words extremely lowering, work experience having been wholly absent from the lives of my children. That I’m being told this by the mother of my 15-year-old godson, who has secured a job in a skateboard shop (skateboarding is his passion), cements the issue. I give not a thought to the godson, I’m too busy wallowing in a tidal wave of inadequacy. ‘I don’t think we’ve prepared our children for the adult world,’ I accuse Zam. There is a long pause. ‘Well, you did introduce them to the Shopping Game,’ he finally replies.

The Shopping Game, invented by a friend with many children and generously passed on to me, was the finale at every birthday party. It’s simple: I hide old foreign coins around the house and garden. The children charge round finding them. They bring one to my ‘shop’—a table set up with the unwanted dusty contents of the present drawer plus a few sweets—where they ‘buy’ something. Then, they disappear to find another coin. It takes hours, exhausts them and replaces the party bag. After its first year, the Shopping Game became compulsory.

I’m considering how being pretend customers in pretend shops doesn’t really qualify as preparation for adulthood when my eye is caught by an article on KidZania, a mini-city for children which will soon open in London.

The first KidZania opened 15 years ago in Santa Fe, Mexico, the brainchild of Xavier López Ancona, who realised that there was money to be made from what we all know: children like dressing up and pretending to be adults. In KidZania, this is taken very seriously indeed.

According to the website, this is edutainment, in which children do what comes naturally to them: ‘role-playing by mimicking traditionally adult activities’. I don’t think it’s ready for my niece, who went everywhere as a dalmatian for two years, although I’ve also read that, in KidZania, children can be taught to lead real dogs over real jumps and then clean up fake dog poo. Because KidZania isn’t just fun, it’s creating responsible citizens.

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With paved streets, trees, shops, a hospital, a bank, a TV station, a supermarket and a theatre, all in scaled-down versions, KidZania has its own newspaper, currency (the kidZo), national anthem and language—the Zupervisors say ‘Zanks’ as they help children ‘work’ in a vast array of ‘jobs’.

On arrival, children are given 50 kidZos, which they can spend or bank. They’re encouraged to open a bank account and then they chose their jobs, for which they get paid: they can be a pilot, a dentist, a courier (DHL is one of the corporate partners), a fireman, a hotel receptionist, an anaesthetist or make a pizza (Domino’s is also a partner) or a smoothie (ditto Innocent). There are more than 60 occupations to choose from. Between jobs, learn to drive and rent a scaled-down car (15 kidZos), but, if you crash, prepare to give your statement to an insurance agent (I’m not sure if there’s a queue for this job), with a mini clipboard.

The website is packed with paragraphs on children’s ‘rightz’ with the zeds occasionally outnumbered by cees: KidZania will encourage ‘creativity, critical thinking, communication, confidence and collaboration’. That sounds much better than work experience. But, sadly, it’s too late—my children are too old to work. I mean play. I mean work. I don’t know what I mean.

Looking back, had I inadvertently turned the children haring 50 round the house into mini-adults with money to spend? Was that why they loved the Shopping Game?

Something about that makes me very uneasy. One minute, you’re playing and the next, you’re queuing up for KidZania, a weird combination of work experience, wages, shopping and the dressing-up box. For 4–14 year olds.