When child’s play gets serious about work

Eva Wiseman
Photograph: Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

We’re going on a school trip!” sung my five-year-old. “To the Apple Store!” OK. Quite often, as a parent, I find myself struggling with the right thing to do or say, like when she asks, for example: “Roxie told me the virus has arrived – is that true?” Well yes, but… “So when do we die?” This felt similarly swampy. Friends with older children tread fearfully through the traffic of technology and I am already aware of the lure for a kid of a hot small screen. So the idea that the company responsible for these screens would also be in charge of the febrile minds of a class of Year Ones for an entire winter morning sort of… threw me.

In France, school trips to Apple Stores have been banned by the Ministry of Education, after claims they were exploiting children for commercial gain. They contravene, said education minister Paul Vannier, the “principle of public service neutrality”. I mean, yeah. That appears to be exactly what they’re doing, but… my daughter really wanted to go on the bus with her little friends? I signed the form, and fretted gently on WhatsApp, then on Wednesday off she went and had a lovely time in her oversized high-vis vest.

Then half term appeared dressed in black and I was still thinking about the uncomfortable rub between play and education and commerce, so I did what any tired, confused parent would do and booked an afternoon at KidZania. This is an “educational theme park” perched at the top of a shopping centre in west London; it is branded accordingly. Instead of rollercoasters, there is a mini Shell service station, and instead of waltzers there is an Al Jazeera TV studio. Children are invited to queue up to work, then paid in toy cash for their time. You enter through the British Airways check-in, emerging on to a miniature high street, with painted clouds where the sky should be. I had a flashback to a weekend in Las Vegas, stumbling jet-lagged through interconnected hotels, never knowing if night had come – similarly, in KidZania there are a hundred clocks, but each one tells a different time. We acclimatise ourselves to the forced dusk.

Young people are trained, not to find a job that fits their lives, but to create an identity around their work

Adults aren’t allowed into the offices or shops, so when my daughter left, first for work experience at the Metro newspaper, then later at a nursery, hospital and clothes shop, I had plenty of time to sit under the gaffer-taped palm trees and consider work itself. Busy-ness has become the most braggable pastime, with lack of sleep, supermarket wraps eaten at desks and tart conversations in hurried corridors displayed and elevated as signs of superiority.

And that’s for those lucky enough to be over 35, the last takers of the last secure jobs – we rolled in as the garage door came down. I’m largely anti-ambition, leaning more towards a model of comfort – the minimum work for the maximum freedom – but of course, I write this from a spinning office chair of extreme privilege. For those in their 20s (and those soon to be, now parading around the cobbled streets of KidZania) work has become the thing with feathers, a creature that sings a wordless tune all day and all night.

Young people are trained, not to find a job that fits their lives, but to create an identity around their work, work which they harvest themselves on their phones and perform in spaces they pay to use, entrepreneurs since GCSE maths. They are brands before they’re barmitzvahed. “Oh sweetie,” I think, as my daughter proudly presents me with the newspaper she’s made and a sweaty fistful of KidZo cash. “Even with the best nepotism in the world, it’s likely this will be the most you’ll get paid to work at a paper.” Eight KidZos for approximately 30 words: not bad, in this economy.

She marches on to the next assignment like a capitalist cadet and I follow behind in smiling distress. I’m reminded of the importance of media studies, a subject rarely said without a snort. But if media studies was weaved into modern education, then instead of parents fearing the invasion of technology and advertising, children would be adept at navigating both with just the right level of cynicism. They would be taught to identify when they were being sold something and what they were themselves selling when it appeared they were getting something for free. It would be an armour.

There is a lot going on at KidZania, and I don’t just mean the tooting fire truck or the nightless day – there is the silent branding, the crushing contemporary undertow of money and the knowledge we will soon disembark on to the white marble balconies of a shopping mall. And there is the knowledge, too, that the children love it, the independence, the exchange of work for cash and the exchange of cash for a crappy little keyring, and the loss of that keyring somewhere between the lifts and the carpark. The rush, for the kids, was not un-rollercoaster-like. For the adults, the rush was brief and mainly comedown. When we finally stepped outside, it was definitely night.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman