Lifestyle | CHILD'S PLAY

Ready to send the children out to work?

by Danielle Demetriou

My daughter is very busy. She has just finished a nursing shift on a hospital maternity ward and is now withdrawing cash from an ATM before heading to a nearby department store.

This may sound like an unremarkable schedule to a working adult. Except for one vital difference: my daughter is only five years old. Welcome to KidZania.

Perhaps one of the more innovative children’s entertainment concepts, KidZania — which first launched in Mexico nearly 20 years ago — is a fictitious “city” where kids can obtain a taste of being a grown up.

Children can choose from around 100 vocations — from firefighters and doctors to reporters and chefs — before dressing up and performing the necessary duties to their jobs of choice.

Key to its ingenuity is that it not only introduces children to work experiences, but it also combines two activities that almost all kids love — role-playing and handling pretend money. It is also impressively realistic, as most of the workplaces represent real-life companies, ensuring that everything — from logos to interior design — feels authentic, even if diminutive: It’s all two-thirds the size of reality, to comfortably accommodate its pint-sized workforce.

One recent Saturday morning, my two daughters (the youngest is 3) put the concept to the test with a visit to KidZania Tokyo.

While the girls were beyond excited to “go to work” like their mama and papa, we were a fraction wary, having heard numerous tales about extensive queueing. We were, however, pleasantly surprised. At around 9 a.m., just after doors had opened, we managed to enter without queueing, and just as we were starting to feel thoroughly confused by how everything worked, Marisol, a bouncy Mexican staff member, rushed up to explain. In a nutshell: the kids received a yellow Job Schedule Card, through which they could reserve up to one advance work session at a time. We were told that while they waited, they could also drop into any free spaces at other sessions.

Now, with our yellow card in hand, we make an instant beeline for the sweets factory (the number one job of choice for pretty much any child on the planet). Unfortunately we just miss the final slots, so instead the girls sign up for a shift at a nearby bakery.

Before they start working, though, the girls have to open a bank account. The Central Bank of KidZania is startlingly similar to real life — from the smiling uniformed staff right down to the slightly tedious queuing. As the girls open bank accounts and receive green wallets with bankcards, which they proudly wear around their necks, I am firmly instructed to wait at the door. In fact, most of the workspaces are strictly children-only.

The bakery shift kicks off with the girls donning hair nets, hats and white jackets, before they enter the kitchens, wash their hands and are then taught by a friendly chef how to knead dough into neat croissants, which are placed in the oven.

At the end of their session, they tidy up, pack their freshly-baked goodies into bags to take away and receive payment for their hard work.

Our morning passes in a blur of employment shifts: I watch my elder daughter fly an ANA aircraft via TV screens before she dresses up in nurse’s uniform and carefully picks up, washes and feeds a small baby doll in a very realistic looking maternity ward.

After a lunch break — consisting of very child-friendly pizza — the pair take part in a job with which they are perhaps already a bit familiar: newspaper reporter. In a surreal reversal of roles, I watch through a window as they sit in a newsroom before they are each given oversized flak jackets and Canon SLR cameras the size of their heads.

Then they embark on their first assignment. It’s clearly a quiet news day in KidZania, though, as they head to an information counter where the children ask a staff member named Estella, wearing red glasses and a neck scarf, if they can take her picture. They proceed to raise the heavy cameras to their tiny faces and shoot — admittedly the ceiling at times — before thanking her. Estella is a picture of patience: She’s perhaps used to appearing in front-page KidZania stories about a 100 times a day).

Assignment completed, the girls head back to the newsroom where they sit importantly at computers and create a page, complete with images and headlines — before it’s printed out and ceremoniously handed over to them.

But the best bit is yet to come. After withdrawing 50 kidZos from the ATM and pooling it with their hard-earned cash, the pair spend an inordinate amount of time perusing items in the mini Mitsukoshi Department store, before proudly leaving with their purchases: They both chose erasers — one in the shape of a bus, the other an ice cream.

As we leave, I ask a question that I hear almost every evening from the girls: “So how was work today?” And their response is as quick as it is unequivocal: “Good!”

KidZania Japan operates in Toyosu in Tokyo and in Koshien in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture. Prices vary depending on the timings, but (roughly) range from ¥2,850 to ¥5,800 per child. The admission fee differs depending on age, day of the week and season. Adults cost from ¥1,950. Free for children under 2 (activities are for 3 year olds and above only). English sessions on Wednesdays in both outlets. Reservations can be made via www.kidzania.jp/en.