KidZania research on childhood aspirations could be education’s lightbulb moment

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Childhood aspirations are shaped by class and gender stereotypes.

By U2B Staff 

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Hotel housekeeping or radio broadcaster? Pilot or cabin crew? Findings from a study on the jobs children choose at role-playing theme park KidZania show that gender and class stereotypes are prevalent in children as young as four in the UK. 

Girls, it seems, would opt for roles typically held by women, such as cabin crew or hairdressers, while boys would naturally gravitate towards roles more common for those of their gender, such as becoming pilots or pursuing careers in engineering.

And the gap between their aspirations only widens as they grow into their teens. Girls would continue to choose activities below their age range while boys, growing up in a world where even cartoon superheroes were almost always male, would always aim higher.

The same study, conducted by Havas Melia in partnership with KidZania, also found a correlation between aspirations and socioeconomic deprivation, ie. children of wealthier backgrounds would aim for higher-paying jobs than their peers from poorer families.


So what does it all mean?

“That children can only aspire to what they know exists,” KidZania Global Director of Education Dr Ger Graus OBE tells U2B in a recent interview.

“The poorer your socioeconomic context, the fewer experiences you’ve had outside of school and therefore, the narrower your menu of aspirations.”

KidZania London
KidZania data shows that girls and boys would choose roles dictated by gender stereotypes.

Graus says the findings can be used as a powerful tool to revolutionise the world of education, changing the status quo for children everywhere.

And KidZania has global aspirations to do just that.

A Global Barometer of Children’s Aspirations

The initial research by Havas Melia, which started some four years ago, has now been passed on to a team of data experts at Tecnológico de Monterrey, also known as the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, a private, nonsectarian and coeducational multi-campus university based in Monterrey, Mexico.

Under Havas, the study was conducted for UK, Mexico and India, using 12 months’ worth of anonymised data on the first activity choices of KidZania’s visitors at each of these countries, collected from the wristbands they wear for security.

But as the research grew, Graus says it became clear that the next step would be to take the study global. And the data was already there–from its 28 locations worldwide, KidZania has collected the activity information of 73 million visitors, taken over a period of 20 years. 

With all that information, Graus says KidZania could build what he calls a “Global Barometer of Children’s Aspirations”.


This became especially apparent after Graus presented the research findings to international bodies like the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its leaders saw the value of expanding the research to see if the same patterns would persist across geographies or whether there would be local variations, influenced by religious or cultural considerations.

This was what led KidZania to look for a university research partner. 

It all fell into place last December when Graus spoke at a conference at Tecnológico de Monterrey. He says he was immediately “blown away” by the institution’s vision on access and quality, and decided they would be the best ones for the job. Incidentally, Mexico is also KidZania’s birth home, brought to life 20 years ago in 1999 by its current CEO, Mexican entrepreneur Xavier López Ancona.

The agreement with Tecnológico de Monterrey is that the university would conduct the research pro bono, an arrangement Graus prefers as it “comes more from the heart”. In exchange, the institution would get access to a vast body of child-centred data that its academics and students could use for further research.

The university set out on the research about two months ago after formalising the arrangement, and is currently focussing on Istanbul, Moscow, Dubai and Sao Paolo. 

KidZania Global Director of Education Dr Ger Graus OBE
KidZania Global Director of Education Dr Ger Graus OBE. Source: Provided

Finding purpose

Once there’s enough data to build a global picture, Graus hopes the barometer would be used to affect serious policy and systemic change in education systems around the world. 

He believes that current education models from early childhood through to primary and tertiary levels have today become antiquated, priming children for a world that no longer exists.

A rote and regimented system has children going to school because they’re told to and enrolling into university because that’s what people do after they are done with school. 

The sense of purpose of why people do what they do, Graus says, is missing. 

“Wherever I travel in the world, I speak to children and ask them: why do you go to school? Increasingly, the answer is: because I have to,” he says.

Children in a class
Why do children attend school? Chances are, it’s because they have to. Source: Shutterstock

After school, what tends to follow are career choices that societal norms suggest are the most suitable for those of their ilk. 

It’s not often the trend is bucked and those that do and are a success for it are branded as mavericks, as visionaries whose footsteps other kids are then urged to walk. Yet the system, the social construct out of which he or she had to break to find that success, remains firmly in place, its relevance seemingly permanent no matter how different the global environment.


Graus believes this cycle is what’s exacerbating the skills gap problem industries everywhere are now facing.

“We have this context whereby every year, we praise the children who do better at their examinations. Yet every year, industry turns around and says they may have done well in their examinations but they haven’t got the skills we are looking for,” he points out. 

“So then there is this big question that arises that asks: who are their teachers? But actually… who is responsible for this?

“Because if those stereotypes are set at the age of four, we can’t really blame the schools. We need to take a good look at ourselves,” he says.

“And if you really want 16-year-olds to have the skills to come and work for you, why don’t you get off the fence and come and help (the educators) instead of sitting there, complaining once a year.”

Changing the menu of aspirations for tomorrow’s children

It is still early days yet but with the right injection of political will and the collaborative effort of every stakeholder, Graus believes it is possible to create a world where childhood ambitions are no longer limited by gender, racial or any form of societal stereotypes.

And perhaps when at an early age children are guided into the fields they enjoy, it could be assumed that today’s skills mismatch problem would no longer be a problem in the future.

But to do that would first require expanding every child’s menu of aspirations. Graus says that in order to make informed choices for their future, children must be able to see all the options they have at their disposal.

“This may sound a bit harsh but I don’t particularly care what the children choose to do,” he tells U2B.

“I care that they’ve understood all the choices that are there and what our research shows is that children can only aspire to what they know exists.”

KidZania, through its role-playing theme parks, already creates that environment of choice and possibilities for its young visitors. There, children aged four to 14 get to pick from a variety of realistic activities mirrored after real life conditions and sponsored by real brands. 

But for such an environment to be real, change must come from the world outside, when children leave KidZanias.

The barometer could be the catalyst for such a change, Graus says.

Another future dream would be to build an open online KidZania university where children could continue their learning, picking up from where they left off at the theme park. The online university would offer the children what Graus calls “brief tin-openers” connected to the jobs the children had experienced at the park.

He envisions such a university to be built in partnership with universities and businesses around the world, and would be connected with other places of learning such as museums and other themed parks. The university, he says, would be a space in which “children are not taught, but they can learn.”

“That’s my dream, really. And that, to me, would be amazing.”