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KidZania: A Wonderland for Kids and Their Families

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I've seen a lot of education programs in my 32-year career as an educator. I thought I had seen it all -- that is, until I visited Mexico City in early December of this year. I wasn't expecting KidZania, a miniature city located within Mexico City -- created to teach the skills necessary for independence as well as financial literacy to kids 2-14. If you are an educator or parent or anyone who cares about kids in any way, find one of the 11 locations in the world and visit. Originally called the city for children, over 20 million people have visited KidZania since its founding in 1997.

KidZania is the brainchild of Xavier López Ancona, an educational genius and entrepreneur who lives in Mexico City. With our board chairman Maria Pinelli, our CEO Amy Rosen first met Xavier through the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs, then introduced us to Guadalupe Castañeda the local Ernst & Young partner who arranged our site visit with the founder. A former member of General Electric's private equity department, he founded KidZania in 1997. It has been a spectacular success, winning many awards, including being named the World's Top Family Entertainment Center by the IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) and 2009 Global Leisure Operator of the Year. Parents cannot go into the stores, keeping the atmosphere of play strong, and "just for kids." As you walk into the city, out of the corner of your eye, you will notice mothers relaxing in adult-sized spas. Moms need not worry about their kids' whereabouts, at KidZania; each child gets a bracelet to let their parents know exactly where their child is at any moment via a remote viewing device. At the same time, Xavier's company collects the data and what stores the child goes into, what they buy and how long they stay in each store. Last year 250,000 children went through the four-hour experience in Mexico City. There are many safety precautions and cameras everywhere. The parents spend their time walking with their children, or visiting the spa, business center and beauty salon.

KidZania even produces a glossy travel guide which includes detailed information about the history of the place and details jobs and activities kids can enjoy. I should mention that I was visiting as a guest, but typically this is a kids-only environment. As I turned to look down the street I saw thousands of kids working, buying, walking, and on their faces was the intellectual glow of experiential education at its best. All of the facilities are constructed to 70 percent of their actual size to make kids feel grown-up. Being only 5'5" myself, I felt right at home. The entire place is run and patronized by kids. Well not entirely, there are trained "Zupervisors"; adults who help the kids complete their tasks, but the kids are really running the show. KidZania even has a version of a declaration of independence, for youth.

I was handed a map to this wonderful land of youth business education. The minute I walked in, what I saw changed my life because it raised my expectations of what is possible in education. This was an unrivaled example of an experiential program in the field of work, job training and financial literacy -- that has taken education to a higher level by making it immersive and fun. In Mexico City's KidZania, you will find 82 branded stores familiar to adults. Kids ages 4-14 are all assigned age-appropriate jobs, each finding a place to "work" and earn the local currency, "Kidzos." In fact, when you arrive at KidZania the first thing you do is open up a savings account. You even get a debit card and can withdraw Kidzos or keep them in savings for future visits. Kidzo currency is honored worldwide at every KidZania location too. In addition to all the businesses there were ambulances, police cars and miniature trucks -- all driven by the children mimicking the civic features of a real city. There were mock fires, and the child-run fire department would be dispatched to put out the "fire." There is a medical lab, an oil well and a day care center. I grew hungry as we visited the restaurants -- Italian, Japanese, and the Mexican kiosk. There is a supermarket, a cookie factory, a cereal factory, a cosmetics factory, and, most incredible of all, a crime scene investigation school. The aviation center was fascinating as was the driving school. Outside of the ophthalmologist's office, I asked a group of young kids with their mothers what they thought: Without hesitation, one said, "It is incredible!" Another said: "We love it!" Another: "I wish this was my full-time school." And I agreed. I even told the educators with me that I wanted to go to school here full-time for a year so I could learn about all the different job trainings for kids.

There was so much to learn and I wanted to be part of it. When I first arrived, I thought I was at the airport as you go through customs like you are in a different country. My first stop was the job placement service Manpower, where I took a test to see what I liked to do (it came out that I was very artistic which I had not tested for before) and then I got my resume and was given a set of businesses that I would do well at such as, working at the acting academy and the cooking school. I also was assigned to the schools that taught driving and gardening and was encouraged to go to the global education center, perhaps proving I made the right decision being an educator!

I walked with wonder through the sports stadium and the yogurt manufacturing company. My mouth dropped when I was guided through the natural disasters training institute where children learned how to react in a flood. Another building taught what to do in a fire. There is a radio station, a theater where kids make and act in their own plays, a moving company, police station, a tax office, a firefighter school where children learn how to put out fires they ride to on a miniature fire truck, and most fascinating to me, a court complete with kid lawyers and judges. It is designed with care and attention to detail that is so thoughtful it's hard to describe. When the simulated fire breaks out, the kids dressed as firemen will go out with state of the art hoses and spray water to put it out. Although I think I missed this by a minute or so other adults and kids told me about it. The coins made in the central bank are driven in a van to the retail banking outlets with police guards, in uniform. The sports gym and gas station were all fixed in my memory as educational firsts for me. I actually had a fantasy of spending a month at KidZania just learning and writing about it and being part of the community.

Although at some point, I think my colleague Victor Salama, who runs our international operations and I, were in a state of shock from seeing so many unique learning experiences in one place at one time. Although euphoric from the day's earlier success of establishing NFTE Mexico with a $100,000 grant from MasterCard, we were tired when we first walked in. We had no idea that we were going to be visiting a state of art educational center. Needless to say, we were instantly energized as we entered this extraordinary world of experience.

The issue with this wonderful city of the children has been how to teach entrepreneurship and ownership, the specialty of the organization I founded in 1987: www.NFTE.com. My mind was flooded with ideas for how to connect the craft of entrepreneurship to this effort and NFTE plans on helping KidZania think through those issues.

Children are given real world experience, in a fun and exciting way, instilling in them positive feelings and memories that Xavier hopes leads to more prosperous futures. He said to me, "KidZania teaches children the skills they need to be independent." "Get ready for a better world" is his slogan. Historical lessons and values are taught through statues of great historical figures such as Gandhi, and Gutenberg the creator of the printing press. Xavier is a pioneering genius and his work needs to be replicated all over the world. There are 11 sites now with another ten in the works. Go visit -- bring your children. You will be glad you did.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This post has been updated since its original publication.