How do you entice children who have everything to work?
A new theme park in Kuwait is tackling that question by replacing silver spoons with hair nets, turning work into play.
Our journey begins at the Qatar Airways check-in desk, where we hand the agent 50 Kuwaiti Dinars (U.S. $175). She counts the cash and notes our names and ages. The children in our party extend their arms as she snaps RFID bracelets to their wrists and places a stack of foreign bills in their palms. Next, we clear security and glide through glass doors into a new world.
We have arrived to KidZania—a 75,000 square foot indoor theme park anchoring the wing of a high-end shopping mall in Kuwait City. Here, the modus entertainment for kids aged four to 14 is to juggle currency and career paths. Think Disney World meets The Apprentice. After clearing the airport-themed entrance, new recruits begin with 50 KidZos (the KidZania currency) to spend and over the 50 professional opportunities offered.
As unaccompanied adults are barred from entering KidZania, my tour guides are three boys (ages five, nine, and 11) and their nanny. “We will show you everything,” boasts nine-year old Sami. He adds in a delighted whisper, “We can make credit cards!”
And so our first stop is a branch of the National Bank of Kuwait, where the boys deposit KidZos from a previous trip into a savings account and pick up a brochure with information about credit cards. Then we are off to roam the streets. We pass a modeling school, where a line-up of little girls are learning to sashay down the runway; a hospital, where kids in scrubs are escorting patients from the back of an ambulance; and a telemarketing center, where kids in swivel chairs are intensely working the phones.
Each storefront in KidZania is backed by a real-world business, which offers 15-30 minute activities for kids to receive training or work for pay. Kids learn to swirl yogurt at Pinkberry, deliver packages at DHL, and fill gas tanks at Exxon Mobil. Each service job requires a uniform and a disposable hair net.
The backdrop is a child-scaled, quaint New England townscape with a Western democratic ideology to match. Kids stroll mini cobblestone streets lined with lampposts and hang out in petite plazas dotted with marble monuments. Instead of war heroes on horseback, the statues depict cartoon children in togas, flailing broken shackles, and laurel wreaths above an open page of the KidZania Declaration of Independence. The tablet proclaims all kids to be “forever independent” from adults (except for the RFID bracelets that allow parents to track their child’s whereabouts).
And with great freedom, comes great purchasing power. With their hard-earned KidZos, children can go shopping at the local department store, treat themselves to pizza, and invest in training for higher skilled positions such as judges or pilots. Enrique, a KidZania media representative, explained the moral of playtime: “Kids learn that money doesn’t grow on trees or isn’t printed at ATMs, but is a product of working.”
While KidZania was born in Mexico City and has a universal appeal in the 10 additional countries where it is located, the industrious city bears particular resonance in the small oil-rich nation of Kuwait. It is a country with extreme reliance on imported labor—85 percent of the total workforce is made of expats—and it is a social welfare state that guarantees 100 percent employment for Kuwaiti nationals. To counter the imbalance between the national and foreign labor pool and reduce pressure for more state jobs, the government recently introduced a program called ‘Kuwaitization,’ which sets hiring quotas for private companies to employ Kuwaiti nationals. But enticing Kuwaitis to work has been so challenging that many companies are left in a position of simply adding names of Kuwaitis to the payroll to avoid government fines and then scrapping any hope that those citizens will ever show up to work for their pay. Therefore, KidZania could rear a new generation itching to expand the private sector.
KidZania offers Kuwaiti kids a high-end package tour of the joys of jobbing. And it does so seamlessly and comfortably. Kids experience the power of role play to develop new skills, empathy, and aspirations, without skimping on the pizza or Pinkberry that would accompany a regular weekend outing. In this theme park for economic autonomy, a new generation of workers may emerge to declare themselves “forever independent” from their parents and the state.