KidZania is the dream child of Mexican entrepreneur Xavier López Ancona. It is based on the observation that children like role play and particularly enjoy playing the parts of professionals such as teachers, firefighters and nurses.
The first KidZania opened in 1999 in Mexico City, and was first named La Ciudad de los Niños. It proved to be immensely popular, so much so that today there are 26 KidZanias in 20 countries with 11 new ones planned for the coming year, including three in the United States.
It is interesting to note that 3% to 5% of KidZania’s visitors worldwide are underprivileged or disabled children who are able to participate without charge.
KidZania raises role play to a whole new level by creating a small city with its own bank, police department, hospital, TV station, shops, etc. and then providing the child with a uniform, professional equipment and training that allows them to try out many different jobs.
Not long ago I spent several hours following six-year-old Paolo Ibarra around KidZania Guadalajara, which opened its doors in December of 2018. First there was the priceless look on his face when he discovered that the entrance to KidZania was a full-size jumbo jet situated inside a shopping mall.
As in any airport, our belongings were run through a scanner. Once we were inside, our pre-purchased tickets were exchanged for wristbands which include a chip that keeps track of everyone who enters the place.
In addition, little Paolo was given a cash stake of the local money, called kidZos, and a credit card. “But you can only activate the card by opening an account at the bank,” he was told.
We stepped out on to the street in KidZania.
Underfoot were artificial cobblestones and overhead a cheerful blue sky with painted clouds, and all around us there was hustle and bustle: a DHL delivery was coming down the street, a fire truck was going the other way, lights flashing and siren hooting; people were pushing their way in and out of an employment agency, window washers were washing windows and through those windows we could see the staff of a TV studio taping a show, would-be pilots operating flight simulators, confectioners making candy, and everywhere, in every direction, lots of bodies on the move — but, in this town, the business people, civil servants and laborers were all kids.
Our map of KidZania in hand, we made our way through the hullabaloo to the bank where a teller activated Paolo’s card. Right next to the bank was the police station.
“Would you like to be a policeman, Paolo?”
He nodded his head, eyes wide.
Getting a job, however, required getting in line and we noted with surprise Paolo’s willingness — over and over — to quietly wait his turn, for this kid is normally anything but patient.
Once inside the police station, Paolo was issued a uniform and a very official-looking cap and then, as a member of a group of new recruits, he was given instructions by a young adult using audiovisual aids.
A few minutes later, Paolo emerged in the company of an older child who had a clipboard in his hand and a no-nonsense determined look on his face. It was clear the two of them had a mission, with no time to explain any details of it to me.
Off they went, hither and yon, knocking on doors (which instantly opened: they were the police, after all!) and checking things off on their list. Suddenly we heard the siren of a fire truck and — one second later — Paolo and partner were pulling a police-line tape across the street, stopping the flow of pedestrians. Policeman Paolo looked like he had been doing this all his life.
Having been paid for his work, Paolo joined a class at an art studio where he put on a smock and took a painting lesson — which cost him a few kidZos.
Now he decided he wanted to join the team of paramedics we had seen tooling around the streets in an ambulance. This profession, however, was almost as popular as that of firefighter. “You’ll have to wait in line, Paolo, maybe a long time.”
“I’ll wait!” was the reply.
Eventually — through a window in the hospital — we saw Paolo and five others learning to use a stethoscope and other medical instruments. Soon the squad of paramedics was clambering into the ambulance, off to rescue one of their own members who had volunteered to be the accident victim.
Upon reaching el herido out on the street, it was Paolo who discovered the poor soul was still alive, diligently applying the stethoscope to body parts I’d never expect to exhibit a heartbeat — which had some of us onlookers in stitches. With the help of crutches, the victim made his way to the ambulance and from there to the emergency room.
By now it was time to go, but Paolo stopped off at the department store to spend some of his hard-earned cash (very little, actually) on a bubble-blower.
“Which of your jobs did you like best, Paolo?”
He answered without hesitation: “Doctor!”
A small screen outside the hospital gives info on what the children might learn as paramedics: “You will learn to listen to patients and to discover their needs while working with a team to deal with emergencies and to apply first aid.”
It also lists the children’s skills which might be improved during this activity: self-knowledge, critical thinking, creativity, communicating, teamwork and motor skills. Among the values it tries to promote are respect, integrity, responsibility and honesty.
The enhanced role play offered by KidZania comes to the children through all five senses. They learn by doing, and in many cases the results will be awarenesses which they will never forget. All this contrasts dramatically with reading a book while seated in a schoolroom.
A video clip on KidZania states that “Kids can do amazing things when they are given the chance.” These words echo those of the great educator Caleb Gattegno, who demonstrated that first-graders can easily do algebra — and have fun doing it — if only placed in the right environment and given the right tools.
KidZania’s pedagogical approach is called experience-based learning, committed to encourage, develop and reinforce children’s expertise, skills and values through the medium of role play, taking as a basis that children “learn by doing.”
Like Gattegno’s teaching approaches, KidZania offers real learning which also entertains. Let’s hope that educators will pick up a few pointers from Xavier López’s creation and help turn the world’s schools into places of learning, just as beneficial and exciting as the KidZania centers popping up all over the planet.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.