If kids could have a country or city of their own, free from the unexamined prejudices and pernicious habits of the adult world, what might it be like? What values would it highlight? What forms of human activity would it promote?
Of course, there is no such country or community in existence. Writers have tried to imagine one, and the result has not always been a dreamy utopia. William Golding’s allegorical novel, “Lord of the flies,” for instance, describes the ugly dystopia that emerged as children, marooned on an uninhabited island following a plane crash, attempted to govern themselves. The children promptly forgot whatever values their upbringing and education instilled in them. The pursuit of individual advantage promptly trumped the common good. Soon, they descended to savagery.
But, one entrepreneur, the Mexican businessman Xavier Lopez Ancona, has produced a different narrative. In his story, a group of children, feeling weary about the way the world is run, decided to declare their independence from adults. They formed their own world “unencumbered by race, religion, or culture.” The result of this fantasy is a model city they seek to replicate wherever there are children. This city would uphold basic children’s rights. It would have its own government, its own set of holidays and symbols, its own hymn, visa, currency, economy, culture and traditions. Lopez Ancona named it “KidZania.”
Its founding declaration of independence reads thus: “We, the kids of the world’s cities, countries and continents, proclaim our independence from adults. We hereby hold the following truths to be obvious: that all kids are created equal and that we are endowed with certain irrevocable rights: to Be, to Know, to Create, to Share, to Care and to Play in the pursuit of our happiness and the happiness of the world.”
It’s a charming concept that explicitly responds to a vital need of children everywhere—to be given enough space to discover their talents and their interests, choose careers, learn to perform adult work with other children, earn money and spend it, and have fun doing all these. Lopez Ancona translated this inspired idea into a unique business model. After patenting the concept, he established the first KidZania city in Santa Fe, Mexico, in 1999. He has since brought this play city—a purposeful Disneyland, if there is one—to at least 20 other countries around the world, working closely with franchisees that are under strict orders not to deviate from the original concept. Last July, KidZania Manila opened inside Park Triangle Mall in Bonifacio Global City.
The typical KidZania city is built as a self-contained play world usually inside a shopping mall. Corporate sponsors are invited to set up replicas of their stores, offices, or establishments in which kids may engage in realistic role-play. Upon payment of the admission fee, children and their adult companions are provided with electronic bracelets that allow them and the staff to keep track of where the kids are at any given moment. The place is designed for children from 4 to 14 years old. Toddlers below four may roam the entire facility accompanied by adults, but they are not allowed to participate in activities outside of the special playrooms designated for them.
Taking advantage of the unexpected school holiday brought about by Typhoon “Lando” last Monday, I decided to gather my three grandchildren and two of their cousins to explore KidZania Manila. Two of the kids were just slightly below four, and I wasn’t aware there was a minimum age. One of the two toddlers was my Singapore-based grandson Xavier, who had keenly looked forward to donning a fireman’s uniform, riding the wailing fire truck, and putting out an imaginary fire.
The little boy was brought up to be self-reliant at an early age. He has learned not just how to feed himself but also how to deal with his anger when he loses an argument with his parents. He cries like any other child his age when he does not get his way, but he knows how to calm himself. Arms crossed over his chest, he sulks, and silently lets his anger pass.
I watched him helplessly as he exploded in anger and frustration when he was refused entry into the fire station, even after his 6-year-old cousin Jacinta offered to give up her chance at being a firefighter so he could be accommodated. I stood half-amused as the little boy launched into what sounded like an angry discourse on inequality before he cried. He remained inconsolable despite “Governor” Maricel Arenas and “Minister of Labor” Mich Gorrospe’s peace offering of a set of “pazzes” that he could use when he turned four. I think he would have wanted to tell them that age was a state of mind and not something measured by a number of years.
But the rest of the kids immensely enjoyed themselves. Julia, who is 14, went through the various storefronts, first choosing to learn how to make fans, then taking up the role of chambermaid at a hotel, and ending up recording a song with her cousin Jacinta. The spirit of discovery is natural to children. They are not afraid that an activity might not be worth the long wait and the effort. Still, I overheard adults who could not resist dictating career choices to their kids even under these play conditions. They were telling them which establishments paid more, which activities offered the best value for money, and to hurry up while there was time.
That message, subliminally reinforced by the corporate logos that surround this make-believe world, could easily nullify the subtext of autonomy, exploration, and creativity that sums up the original idea behind KidZania.
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