By Vinita Bharadwaj

It’s 9:30am on a Sunday, and Minsuh Chung is patiently queuing at HSBC bank to cash her cheque. Afterwards, she’ll head to work for a few hours, and later that afternoon do some shopping with a few friends.

But she’ll need to ask her parents for permission first. After all, she’s only in kindergarten.

Minsuh is five years old, and a pupil at the Universal American School (UAS) in Dubai. But in KidZania, an education and entertainment centre for children, she can work, save and spend – all while grasping the essential building blocks of money and finance through role play and imagination.

With branches in 7 cities — including Mexico City, Tokyo, Jakarta, Lisbon and Koshien — KidZania’s latest outlet, which opened in the Dubai Mall on January 10, is the first in the Middle East, and helps children acquire financial skills in an interactive world.
Walking down its make-believe streets, Will Edwards, the governor of KidZania Dubai, marvels at the excitement of this land’s “new citizens”.

“The wonderful thing about KidZania is its ability to combine education and values with fun,” he explains. “There aren’t too many concepts in the leisure industry that offer that.”

As a “country”, Mr Edwards says KidZania has all the necessary elements in place. There is an official flag, a declaration of independence, a national anthem and a bill of rights — “to be, to know, to care and to play”. It even has its own economy, pegged to the KidZo.

As in the adult world, children earn KidZos by working, and they can open a savings account with a minimum balance of 50 KidZos at the local HSBC branch. Pupils are also given an ATM card, which they can use to withdraw KidZos, make a deposit or shop at the local department store, which stocks toys, food, games and other prizes.
“The children get to be the people they’ve learnt about,” says Crystal Hanna, a teacher at UAS, and the group’s team leader.

“The money angle is an excellent bonus in order to initiate young minds to the concepts associated with it.”

Minsuh starts her day by cashing her cheque for 50 KidZos at the local HSBC branch, located near KidZania’s town square.

Clutching her cash, Minsuh leaves the bank to wander around her new environment, walking down child-sized streets past buildings and shops situated on the 80,000-square-foot campus.

A parade is under way, and clowns greet the young citizens with loud and chirpy “Kai’s” – KidZanian for hello. Ms Hanna is watching as her pupils emerge from the HSBC with their crisp bills.

“Are you OK?” Ms Hanna asks.

Minsuh, who is from Korea, nods and is pulled away by her Indian classmate, who has decided they will work as paramedics.

The girls are guided by KidZania staffers towards the emergency services area, where they will work to rescue a fellow KidZanian who has been “injured” at a construction site.

“It’s a little overwhelming to most of the children, especially at the kindergarten stage, where they’ve only just been introduced to the idea of money,” says Ms Hanna, after ensuring all her wards are involved in one of KidZania’s 70-plus activities, including a pizzeria, hospital, newspaper office, radio station, salon and fire department. Familiar, real-world companies such as Baskin-Robbins, Pizza Express, Waitrose, Arabian Perfumes and HSBC have sponsored the bulk of the businesses and activities.

At IAS, Ms Hanna says, kindergarten students are taking part in lessons about community helpers. The school, which offers the American curriculum and the International Baccalaureate programme, was attracted to KidZania because it presented pupils with an opportunity to experience first-hand the community jobs and services they are learning about in the classroom.
For a fee of Dh125 per child, the pupils gain unlimited access to the fantasy city (children under the age of two can attend KidZania for free, and all children must be accompanied by an adult, who pay a Dh90 admission fee).

For added security, adults and children wear wristbands, and no pupil is allowed to leave KidZania unless she successfully passes through “Immigration”, to make sure she leaves in the company of a guardian.

Back in the emergency services room, Minsuh and her paramedic colleagues have been kitted out and given a short training session on administering first aid. Soon after, the clinic switchboard receives a phone call about an accident at a construction site. The injured boy is waiting in a pile of bricks, fake blood streaking his face.

Less than a minute later, an ambulance carrying the paramedics arrives at the accident site. The EMTs rush to the victim, who stares up at them blankly. The team removes the bricks from his body, checks his vital signs, administers a saline line, and transports him to the hospital for further treatment. Once the patient is successfully treated and discharged, the paramedics are paid a wage of eight KidZos each, which they promptly stuff in the pockets of their uniforms.

Next comes a crucial KidZanian decision – should I spend my earnings, or save them?

At the general store, which carries items such as yo-yos, toy cars and notebooks, the least expensive item sells for 50 KidZos. Alfiya, the manager on duty at the emporum, explains to two potential 6-year-old shoppers that their 40 KidZos are not quite enough to buy anything.

“You need to work a little harder and then you can come back and buy something,” she says. “Have you been a firefighter today?”

“It’s nice that most children come out here and buy things for their baby brothers or sisters,” she says, watching the students head back to work. “Some children have identified products they want to buy for themselves, but realise they must work harder to reach the higher financial goals.”

How hard? Very, it seems.

A pair of Heelys, for example, costs 1,450 KidZos, while the most expensive item on sale is an Xbox, which goes for 11,000 KidZos.

According to Mr Edwards, the “jobs” the children undertake require about 20 minutes of their time, and pay about eight KidZos, as the paramedics learned after saving the life of the injured construction worker. Leisure activities are also available, as in real life.

For example, wall climbing, which is popular in KidZania, costs 10 KidZos per session.

Helping KidZanians come up with a good balance between saving and spending is key here, and it seems that some youngsters are well on the way to being wise consumers.

“The largest single deposit we had at the bank in the first week was 324 KidZos,” says a counter teller, counting the money brought him to by Kareem Barakat, a 5-year-old at UAS.

“I worked as a baker,” Kareem declares proudly.

“They gave me some money, but I don’t know how much. I think the bank can help me.”

HSBC is the only bank in KidZania Dubai, and operates four cash machines in the country. It has also taught the KidZania HSBC staff how to open accounts, cash cheques and issue KidZania debit cards.

“Financial and business literacy is one of the key pillars of our educational support to the community,” says Kaltham al Koheji, the regional manager of corporate sustainability for HSBC Middle East. “KidZania offers a fantastic opportunity for children to learn these skills in a safe and fun environment. The concept of having to earn money in order to be able to ‘pay’ for fun activities is a fundamental aspect of real life. The activities instil a sense of responsibility and understanding in children from an early age.”

In the real world of the UAE, children’s banking is still a nascent concept, as one must be at least 18 to conduct even the most rudimentary banking tasks.

Outside of KidZania, HSBC does allow children to open an online savings account, but all accounts must be established and monitored by parents.

KidZania bank accounts, by contrast, allow true independence from adults and force children to master basic banking transactions and take the first steps towards money management.

Finance aside, the programme also offers children the chance, as Minsuh learned when she helped save a life as a paramedic, to get an early taste of what it means to work in real professions.

“It’s forever interesting to observe what KidZania means to different children,” Governor Edwards explains, stopping near the community’s Emirates passenger jet, in which children are working as pilots and cabin crew. The fuselage of the aircraft, which is an actual flight simulator, is one of KidZania’s most popular draws.

“It reveals a lot about cultural attitudes, gender roles and even generational shifts, says Mr Edwards. “Some professions have taken us by surprise. The dentist’s clinic, for example, is one that never has a dearth of candidates … maybe because the children aren’t sitting in the chair.”

The emphasis is on working over spending, and the concept of highlighting the importance of labour to a healthy and vibrant city, has met with approval from parents and teachers throught the UAE.

Speaking of education, KidZanians can pay for “university diplomas”, which in turn earn them better salaries and higher positions in their careers. As in real life, where many university students have to work to pay for their tuition, KidZania organisers want the youngsters to understand that nothing comes free.

Each diploma costs 10 Kidzos, and participants can also earn a masters and PhD in five subjects – health and biology, humanities, social studies, engineering and architecture, IT and electronics. KidZanians with degrees are paid higher wages than their less educated contemporaries, – a valubale lesson, indeed.

Speaking a fortnight after the initial field trip to Dubai Mall, Ms Hanna is pleased with the results of the excursion. “The children were obviously delighted with KidZania,” she says. “They didn’t comprehend much about the money aspect, as a lot of them just pulled out their wads of cash. They did develop a slightly better understanding of material and money by measuring products against numbers.”

Back in their UAS classroom, the children who had not left their wages in the bank worked with older grade 4 “buddies” to count their KidZos. Some children had spent their money at the at KidZania store, and returned to the school with less cash but more merchandise.

“The questions that came out of that counting exercise were, ‘How come she has more money’ or ‘Why does he have more stuff?’” Ms Hannah recalls. “Previously, they didn’t get that if you spent more you would have less money. After KidZania there’s an introduction to that idea.”

And the process of learning lessons such as these, which many adults seem to detest, is appealing to many UAE children. Although official attendance numbers are not yet available from KidZania, Mr Edwards says several thousand children have visited so far, and many parents say their young “workers and earners” want to return to the community again and again.

On a recent afternoon, Alka Patel brought Ashish, her 6-year-old son, for his third visit to KidZania.

Ms Patel, who is from India, heard about KidZania from a friend, and usually attends with a small group of mothers.“In the UAE, it’s so hard to find an activity that is safe for children and one where they learn something constructive while also enjoying themselves,” she says, as the mothers wait at Dunkin Donuts while their children put out a fire.

Ashish spends nearly four hours in KidZania during each visit and has earned a total of about 70 KidZos. But he has yet to open a savings account.

“He loves the car racing track,” Ms Patel says. “I’ve told him about the bank and account, but he doesn’t seem to be interested. I’d rather he open an account on his own accord so he actually understands what he’s doing.”

For now, Ashish keeps his precious KidZos under his pillow.