Sunday, December 17, 2006

Get Em' While They're Young

In early October, a kid's "edutainment" theme park opened in Tokyo. The park touts itself as a fun and educational experience, but a closer look reveals more lessons in consumerism and gender normalcy than work ethic.

It's called "Kidzania"- a child-size replica of a metropolitan city "with streets, buildings and vehicles where children can play adult roles and learn about over 60 professions and occupations" according to the theme park’s mission statement.

The company was founded by Xavier Lopez Acona and the first Kidzania appeared in Mexico City in 1999.

Kids from 2 to 16 are dropped off by parents and get to pretend to be things like firefighters, hairstylists, doctors, etc. For their "work" they are given pretend money (called Kidzos), which they can later spend at one of the many (corporately branded) retail and food stores.

When I first saw a TV news special about the park, I thought it was a great idea- giving children a vision of their possible futures in a wide variety of occupations. I thought that maybe it could be a source of inspiration for girls and boys. I must have been on something.

A more in-depth look at the park shows certain ideas and behaviors being indoctrinated into the minds of its visitors- all of whom are at critical stages in their development.

Though Kidzania allows children to role-play with over 60 occupations, most of the time children are pushed toward those that are acceptable for them based on their gender.

Photos on the website show young boys being suited up to go and fight fires- very masculine! By contrast, the girls are practicing to be nail technicians (and recipients of those services).

I searched through several pages for photographs that did not support my opinion, but to no avail. Other images were girls playing flight attendants and maternity ward nurses, and boys playing scientists.

This is not fair for either gender, because it excludes them from certain fields by clearly identifying what jobs are male and what jobs are female and thus perpetuates stereotypes.

Kidzania parks are plastered with brands. Some of its "marketing partners" include big names like Sony, Coca-Cola and Johnson&Johnson to name a few. Realistically, one can expect to find corporate branding in any theme park; however Kidzania's approach is a little different.

Instead of play-working at a hospital, these kids work at The Johnson&Johnson General Hospital- I think you can see where I'm going with this.

The park also offers different stores and shops that reflect the current fads of the specific city the park is located in.

One might think that the constant advertising is overlooked by the children, who are focused more on having fun- but all the while brand loyalties are being created. All of this is manifested when the children receive their "Kidzo" and anxiously run off to spend it at one of the corporate brand-name gift shops.

Despite this, Kidzania is hailed as one of the best family theme parks in the world, and more are due to sprout up in Portugal and the United Arab Emirates over the next two years. It's only a matter of time before there is one in our backyard. But when or if that day comes, parents: please be careful about the ideas you allow to be ingrained in your children's minds- even if it's only 'pretend'.


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