Elevating play to the status it deserves Written by earlyed.asia on December 7, 2015

Several years ago, when Shah Rukh was at a Dubai shopping mall with his family, his kids apparently couldn’t get enough of one particular indoor theme park – the KidZania centre. It wasn’t long before their curious daddy, who self-admittedly loves cherishing his inner child, was hooked as well. Cut to 2013, and India’s first KidZania was launched, backed partly by Bollywood’s King Khan. The KidZania chain, combining fun with learning and reality with entertainment, was growing… For those still in the dark about KidZania, it provides an authentic and powerful developmental experience, preparing kids to understand and manage their world. Through adult professions and hands-on exposure to the working world, children learn the fundamentals of financial literacy and how society functions. The KidZania philosophy – ‘Get ready for a better world’ summarises its commitment to promoting change, inspiring global citizenship and building strong community awareness among children through an experience that is hands-on, engaging, educational, and most importantly, fun. Providing an authentic and powerful developmental experience, it prepares kids to understand and manage their world. The KidZania edutainment perspective revolves around: Fun: make visitors enjoy their leisure time, Education: encourage kids to learn, and Socialisation: contribute to social improvement through the activities and make kids feel part of a community that can make the world a better place. By offering a powerful developmental experience in which reality and entertainment intersect, KidZania empowers children with life skills that help them understand and manage the world they are growing into. Operating at 24 locations worldwide, KidZania adopts the model of direct learning by “doing”. Knowledge results from the combinations of taking and transforming the experience. Every KidZania is themed as a child-sized replica of a real city, including buildings, shops and theatres, as well as vehicles and pedestrians moving along its streets. In this city, children aged 4 through 14, work in branded activities, earn kidZos (KidZania’s currency) while performing the tasks, and bank the money at the KidZania bank for children to spend at the gift shop and on KidZania’s activities. So much more than children could ever learn in a standard classroom! ScooNews turned the focus on Dr Ger Graus, OBE and Global Director of Education, KidZania, and Dr Swati Popat Vats, member of the KidZania global think tank for deeper insights into the role of KidZania in inspiring and empowering all children… “We have become educationally very credible” Dr. Ger Graus As the first Global Director of Education at KidZania since 2017, what has been the focus of work and growth? The focus of my work since 2017 has been quite straightforward really; it’s been on quality, on changing perception – that it’s a meaningless playground but it’s really educational and learning, and it has been moving people away from thinking that content and education are the same thing or that indeed schooling and education are the same thing. One of the key things has been to raise the profile, to increase the credibility and to actually work with the profession, work with the schools, to make provisions better and to allow children of a younger age to join the dots. How would you explain the success story of KidZania? The method KidZania provides, if that is the right word, in terms of inspiring and empowering children, has been immensely powerful. If we look at the education world we occupy now, it is predominantly about schooling, prescribed curricula, testing and inspections. Whilst that might be suitable from a schooling perspective and accountability in terms of the learning and wider education agenda, it means it’s narrowed. So, where can you find and leave children independently learning in a city about the world of work, the economy, about inspiration and aspiration, about applying the science, so to speak, of what’s been taught in school in practice… of turning theory into practice, of making up their own minds, of forming opinions and expressing those and feeling rewarded, and experiencing a sense of achievement rather than a sense of attainment? That has been a global success and that kind of linked with the mantra of Reggio Emilia, that the environment is the third teacher, and that in KidZania, grown-ups are there to be seen and not heard, makes this very powerful and very successful. And we need to strive to become even better at this. Since its inception in 1999 in Mexico City, KidZania now has a presence in 24 cities on 5 continents with plans for further developments in some 20 locations including the USA, Canada and South Africa. What would you attribute its graph to? The success graph since 1999 and growth, in a sense, has to do with the fact that success breeds success. That we have become educationally very credible, that we are doing our own research, we have our own publications, I speak at conferences all over the world, we have a global think tank which of course includes the eminent Dr Swati Popat Vats, and in that sense, you could attribute all of that to it. But also, and perhaps slightly perversely, is that the more education systems, schooling systems become prescriptive and removed from reality, the more the true educators and the good teachers begin to see that learning environments matter and that independent, experience-based learning needs to be put at the forefront and we have become a very significant part of that. I’m very proud to be associated with that and work with organisations all over the world to make this happen and to strive for a better future’s awareness amongst children. At KidZania, children aged 4 to 14 experience the world of work through role-play. How effective has this method been in inspiring and empowering children? Our plans to further promote inspiration/ aspiration in children around the world are manifold. There is the obvious growth but there is also the issue of working in partnership with industry partners, with other learning partners, with NGOs, with governments, of course with schools and universities, to in a socially responsible way so that we move away from the notion of sponsorship in some shape or form to notions in terms of social and corporate responsibility in a meaningful, long-term way, for the benefit of the children. One of the biggest challenges Kidzania faces, is it says very clearly in our intentions, values and principles that we are there for all children. We have to strive, with all of our partners, to make that real. So, when for example Archbishop Desmond Tutu said to me in 2017, “Promise me that children from Soweto will be able to go to Kidzania Johannesberg, I of course, said yes. And we are working very hard at making that happen. And when I look at the work done in Mumbai, for instance, where we had tens of thousands of the poorest children being able to attend Kidzania Mumbai because of a partnership with the Municipality and other partners, we are getting there. We’ll never give up, we’ll never be quite there – but we’ll get close. That is our biggest challenge. What plans does KidZania have to further promote inspiration and aspiration in children around the world? Quality education for underprivileged children is a cause that will always be close to my heart. And actually it has, in essence, less to do with identifying segments of young people – it has much more to do with fairness. Our world is grossly unfair and educationally it is unfair – you either can afford things or you can’t, you can afford to send children to a private school where they learn English or they have to go to a state school where they are not taught English. That’s the scenario in a number of countries. My question then is, how can we strive to create a better level playing field? KidZania could, by running English summer camps or English days in those countries and contribute to that. It is about creating a fairer society and all children have the right not just to an education but have the right to a quality education, quality teaching, quality resources, and quality experiences. Perhaps we should collectively – and I would very happily do that with your excellent magazine – come up with a campaign that says, what do we think are the entitlements of an 11-year-old? What are the experiences every 11-year-old in the world should have? Going into a theatre, going out for a meal, in the broadest possible sense as well as of course of being schooled and experience that outside. It is singularly the most important thing we can do educationally is to create more of a level playing field. I will always be part of that, I’m very proud to say that KidZania is trying very hard to play its part too and I would welcome anybody else to join us in that, because I think nobody can do that on their own; everybody is a piece of a jigsaw, but the more pieces of the jigsaw we have, the better we can view the bigger picture. Given your extensive experience in education, could you share a few key learnings when it comes to children’s education. I think my first advice is: keep it simple. We as grown-ups have a habit of over-complicating things. Put the individual child in the middle and work the education provision from there. The schooling provision that we have had is based on a time, in a sense, that is no longer relevant. It goes back to the Industrial Revolution – we have six weeks’ summer holidays because all children needed to help their parents harvest in the fields. So we need to begin to think about an individualised provision that suits the needs of today and tomorrow. And clearly if you look at the number of young entrepreneurs that exist, that number is greater than ever before, whereas the mass education for certain professions and industries is less relevant. So, we need to put the child in the middle and we need to focus on the needs of that child to function in the society of now and in the society to be. I would also say that we need to be very careful that we don’t continue in the same mode as we have done. We need to ask ourselves the question who the teachers are, we have to ask ourselves the question in the educational provision rather than schooling, what role teachers play. Teachers can’t be the founts of all knowledge. Teachers need to be able to encourage children to research their own work, to judge which ones are the correct answers, and facilitate the expertise of others. Don’t talk to children about becoming a doctor or a brick-layer – invite the brick-layer and the doctor into the school so that it all makes more sense to the children. So, the teachers, to a significant degree, become the facilitators of experiences that lead to children’s learning and get children to see why it all makes sense, and actually answers the ‘why’ questions. Clearly we need to look at a skills-based education – that doesn’t mean, incidentally, that we drop standards – but a sense of purpose, the sense of the inter-personal, of being able to adapt, to be resilient and all those things will matter more as we go on and our schooling system is further and further removed from the reality that is and the reality that will be required. “Play is how all species learn about life and living” Dr Swati Popat Vats As a member of KidZania global think tank could you share more details about your new role? Well, as the name suggests, my role is to be involved in and support KidZania’s ongoing research on how play helps children and supports all round development. As a part of the think tank I can involve KidZania in various initiatives to ensure that their work reaches maximum children and parents and to also advise them about their activities as an educationist. My role is also to ensure that parents understand the importance of play in the cognitive and socio-emotional development of children. And being an educationist, my role is also to ensure that all activities are developmentally appropriate. You have always been a proponent of play-based learning. Can you explain how KidZania makes this a reality? Play is how all species learn about life and living. In humans too play plays an important role in stimulating brain development and keeping the brain interested. The ultimate goal of all humans is to have a career, be it in fashion, engineering, production or design and KidZania combines both these goals beautifully to help children of all ages explore, play, design, deliberate, create interests and solve problems. Social development, creative development, language, and logic are all involved in all the activities at KidZania and there can be no better example of learning for life through play. I feel all teachers and parents should look at KidZania not just as a place where children play but also as a place that helps children learn while playing. Every school should have the concept of KidZania as it is ageless and works as the perfect stimulation for brain development. How does KidZania enhance learning for children of various age groups? That is one of the best parts of KidZania; there is something for every age group in every activity. Children also learn peer or shared play that is an important aspect of all educational approaches. When learning is presented as ‘academic rigor’ all the time in classrooms then children go through something called ‘play deprivation’. Some experts argue that ‘play deprivation’ can lead to depression and hostility in children. After all, if you never had a break, you might get depressed, too! But the most important aspect for all age groups is ‘self-learning’. At KidZania children are leading their play and when children lead their play they are more responsible, more involved and focused. This is actually a fun place for life skill development for all ages. Scott Eberle, historian of play New York feels that most people go through a six-step process as they play —  Anticipation, This leads to… —  Surprise, This produces … —  Pleasure, Next we have… —  Understanding, the acquisition of new knowledge, leading to … —  Strength, the mastery that comes from constructive experience and understanding, this results in… —  Poise, grace, contentment, composure, memory, understanding, and a sense of balance in life. And all these steps are what children of all age groups experience when they are involved in the various activities at KidZania. And the last and most important is the aspect of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ that children experience, its importance is across all age groups as the brain thrives on choice and here children can select which activity they want to try out first and they are free to explore on their own as adult intervention is only when asked for. Your experience in education is vast. What important pointers could you share on children’s education? 1.     The eye and the hand need each other! So, whenever children play, tinker, explore, experiment, this union of eye and hand is achieved and this stimulates the brain and learning with enjoyment. In our school education, we need to move from writing and copying from the blackboard to more activities that are hands-on and interactive. 2.     Children don’t like to be ‘led’ all the time, that is why it is important that schools focus 70% on child-led activities and have only 30% of adult led activities. 3.     Discipline has become a major concern in schools and even for parents at home because there is always a ‘power struggle’ between the children and adults, we need to give back some freedom to the children because with freedom will come responsibility. This will also make discipline intrinsic rather than extrinsic. 4.     Parents and teachers complain about children not being focused or not completing tasks, well, I would say scrap such activities because if children were actively involved (like they are in video games!) then focus and completion of tasks is not difficult. So, look at the problem in the activity or task and not always in the child. 5.     Inquiry-based learning, play way, hands-on learning, project-based learning, flipped classroom, multiple intelligences, STEM, AI etc. all have one thing common, they understand how the brain functions and are geared towards keeping the eye, hand, and brain involved in a fun way. Schools must focus on keeping the trinity involved all the time and then there will be no behaviour issues, no lazy student, no attention issues and every child will be ‘intelligent’…this trinity that needs to be there in all activities is of the – brain, the muscles, and the senses. Senseless writing, copying, and other academic rigor activities lack this trinity and that is why the problems in school education. Someone rightly said that when enough people raise play to the status it deserves in our lives, we would find the world a smarter place for kids.

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