by Jane Di Leo
For years amusement parks in Latin America have revolved around entertaining children and parents alike—allowing them to experience a day of fun that was out of their normal routine. Parks typically included one large theme or subthemes throughout and had a handful of major rides or attractions that set them apart from the competition. In the past few years, however, a new trend has emerged in the attractions space, one that is challenging the typical definition of what lies at the core of these parks: “amusement.”
Enter “edutainment,” a concept that makes a theme out of learning through amusement. “An edutainment park is one that offers the visitor an opportunity to learn in every aspect of the park,” says Cecilia Chavez, director of Grupo Giva, which runs La Granja Villa, an eco-edutainment park in Peru. “Edutainment parks have a message. They have a reason, a goal, or an idea to teach, whether explicitly or subtly, but every aspect of each attraction is geared toward it.”
The edutainment theme is one that is quickly being adopted throughout Latin America, from an eco-village at La Granja Villa to mini-cities for role-playing careers at Mexico City’s KidZania and Bogotà’s Kandu. Though each park has its own unique mission and way of delivering educational material, each desires to further educate this generation’s children in an exciting, unorthodox way.
Kandu: Role Play for the Entire Family
One of the newest additions to the edutainment scene is Kandu, a Bogotá-based concept created by KidZania developer Luis Javier Laresgoiti. “Whereas KidZania is just for children, Kandu is more of a family park where kids and parents can participate together,” says Rodrigo Afanador, CEO of Kandu. “At least 45 percent of Kandu visitors are adults. Parents and grandparents bring children and enjoy a day of educational interaction with them.”
Kandu is a small town where each attraction represents the public and private businesses that normally coexist within a real town. Children take on the roles that operate in each facility by interacting one another through role-playing. Involving their family and friends is an added benefit. “At Kandu, families have fun and eat together while the kids learn about the role of adults in real life,” Afanador says. “For example, children may dress as policemen or perform in a local show in the theater.”
The developers of Kandu saw a hole in the market in terms of integrating parents into the role-playing experience, and the response has been positive. “Visitors are surprised to find that although the attractions are directed to children, adults are invited to participate and end up interacting a lot with their kids,” Afanador says.
The results show in the numbers. Within the first four months of operation, Kandu had 100,000 visitors (180,000 are expected by year’s end). One of the keys to success for Kandu, in terms of foot traffic, is its location inside the Gran Estación mall, which receives more than 30 million visitors a year. “We plan to open four more parks in Colombia in the next four years,” Afanador says.
Like KidZania, Kandu also has corporate sponsors like local newspapers and banks, to help offset costs and subsidize programming that might otherwise not be available. Kandu’s 24 attractions include a police station, a salon, a fashion district, and a mine. “Kandu is a space for true human interaction,” Afanador says. “It provides a safe and beautiful environment that promotes childhood learning through interaction with other children and families.”
Though the future is never certain, one thing that industry insiders do agree upon is the need and market potential for parks that cater to educating children. “The demand is there,” Afanador says. “The edutainment space has enormous potential for growth; it´s just a matter of creativity and innovation.”
Chavez agrees. “I believe edutainment is a fundamental theme in the amusement park and attractions industry. Parents are more conscious every day that learning is vital and that any form of entertainment should have an educational message.”
Bringing a Grown-Up World to Life
Nestled in the heart of one of the world’s largest cities is an 80,000-square-foot mini city that takes children ages 4 to 14 through what life might be like as a grown-up. “We replicate the real world in a safe and self-contained kid-sized city that runs just like a real city, but with kids in control,” says Maricruz Arrubarrena, director of Industry Partners, which runs KidZania. “There are nearly 100 roles to choose from among 60 replicas of real establishments. Kids earn KidZo currency and learn how to open a bank account, manage their money, cash checks, and purchase goods and services.”
The idea behind KidZania, Arrubarrena says, is not just to give them examples of real-life experiences, but also to empower, inspire, and educate them through role play. “Every kid dreams of being something important as an adult, and as life goes, those dreams are lost if not nurtured and encouraged,” Arrubarrena says. “Our environment is designed to remind kids that life is about options, and to reach as high as possible.”
KidZania was developed by Luis Javier Laresgoiti, who while working in the toy industry, encountered a daycare center in Raleigh, North Carolina, that incorporated themed role-playing activities to entertain its small clients. The daycare center had three small wooden pavilions built to look like a bank, a supermarket, and a hospital. “Children imagined they were visiting these destinations and used fake money and groceries as part of their pretend play,” Arrubarrena says. “It was a simple idea and even simpler execution, a little city to role-play in—it was inspiring.”
Armed with this new idea, Laresgoiti worked with Xavier López to develop an expansive pretend city attached to a shopping mall (an existing successful destination) with the support of recognizable, real companies. “This was a very intriguing expansion on their original idea that changed the scope of the project,” Arrubarrena says. “The sponsorship angle was particularly unique, as it gave the group a powerful way to approach their project’s architectural and interior design and provided a compelling means to get the financial support they would need for its construction and ongoing operation.”
When KidZania first started approaching companies about the concept, they jumped at the idea, Arrubarrena says. Adding sponsors into the park is something that has helped not only garner more financial support for KidZania, but also allow corporations to be able to give back to the community in a unique way. They are not only teaching children about a variety of career options in the future, but also helping them learn about being active, engaged citizens in society, Arrubarrena says. “At a macro level, we’re teaching kids about financial literacy, teamwork, independence, self-esteem, and real-life skills. On a micro level, it’s completely hands-on to provide the most contextual learning experience. All activities have been designed by educators, and curriculum content matches school focus—creativity, critical thinking, communications, confidence, and collaboration.”
KidZania’s list of sponsors includes such big-name corporations as Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Avis, Sears, FujiFilm, DHL, Quaker, Lala milk, and Toyota. Government sponsors also take part, including Policía Federal (Mexico’s federal police) and Aduana México (Mexico’s customs and immigration agency).
Each activity at KidZania is designed to aid and boost different behavioral skills and values in a child. For example, activities such as wall climbing strengthen motivation and perseverance, whereas the firefighter role encourages children to work together as a team in overcoming problems. By working together in different groups, children are also given the opportunity to collaborate, which encourages socialization.
Since it opened in 1999 in Mexico City, KidZania has grown from one park to 11 in nine different countries. These include Japan, India, Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. In 2011 alone, more than 4.5 million children passed through the gates of KidZania. When asked if edutainment is just a fad, Arrubarrena responds, “In a world where kids spend more and more time alone at home with high-tech devices in their hands, offering a safe and fun place where they can socialize, learn, and develop their skills is something that both kids and their parents will continue to look for in the future.”
La Granja Villa: Boosting Conservation in Peru
Just south of Lima, Peru, lies a stretch of land dedicated to bringing nature—from flora to fauna—to the children and families of the region. “We are a theme park that is dedicated to teaching children about respecting the environment,” Chavez says. “This is more than a zoo. We have no animals in cages; people don’t love what they can’t touch.”
What started in 2002 as a 15,000-square-meter (161,000-square-foot) park with 10 attractions grew to a 35,000-square-meter (377,000-square-foot) park with 23 attractions, which include an interactive farm, aquarium, and award-winning gardens. Before La Granja Villa became what it is today, it was a parcel of land with a hotel on it that the government persuaded Chavez’s group to use for animals that needed to be reintroduced into the wild. The group already owned a theme park in Lima’s center and wanted to open another. “We said OK, even though we didn’t know anything about this type of service or industry,” Chavez says. “So, we began to hire people who did know. We thought about opening a zoo, but we realized it wouldn’t be possible without having other things for people to do. So, we created the mix of games and education with the fauna and the animals. We wanted people to realize that animals are not just for consumption, either. They need to be treated with respect and well taken care of.”
To help teach children about how to care for animals as well as the environmental impact deforestation has on habitats, La Granja Villa introduced several educational programs into its repertoire. “In the farm area, children learn about the life cycle of different animals, how they feed us, and what type of dignity they should have as animals,” Chavez says. “In the case of the wild animals, we teach about how to conserve the species. In the case of flora, we teach about the care for the plants and how to create compost for a more ecological environment. Finally, on weekends, those who are interested in veterinary medicine can come take classes about animal care.”
The eco-edutainment concept, or La Granja Villa, has been readily adopted by those in the Lima area. In its first year of operation, La Granja Villa had approximately 100,000 visitors. Today more than 500,000 people walk through the park’s gates annually. The increase was so great another park opened in the northern part of the city to keep up with demand. In addition to the main park area, La Granja Villa also has a rescue center in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, which is considered the park’s third location. It is not a park where visitors can pay to enter, but rather a location where animals are reintroduced into the wild after the necessary readiness has been met. “Families come to La Granja Villa to have fun and to learn something new, but they are also helping the local environment,” Chavez says. “A portion of every ticket sale goes to helping reintroduce animals into the wild.”
What Chavez believes keeps crowds coming back is the interactive educational experience they receive while at La Granja Villa. “Children always prefer the interactive activities: milking the cow, bottle-feeding the calf, combing the little goats, or feeding the rabbits and hens,” Chavez says. “They learn a lot through interaction.”
La Granja Villa offers many educational programs to its visitors, from learning about how a cow produces milk to how deforestation affects some of the species the park has. “We wanted to create La Granja Villa to be an ecological education park that entertained,” Chavez says. “We wanted something that would register in the minds of not just children but adults as well. In everything we did, in every moment, there was an educational component that made every day better not just for the individual but also for the planet.”
When asked why she believes the eco-edutainment concept is so successful, Chavez replies: “This park has a big impact on our consumers, and they feel that they are directly participating in the conservation effort.
“If the children have a fun experience in the games and manage to take away an education message, we have reached our objective,” Chavez adds. “When a child leaves the park and says to his dad, ‘Dad, did you know a cow has four stomachs?’ or comments that for every 10 monkeys taken out of their habitat, only one survives, or tells his or her parents that the preferred plant for the Buho butterfly is the banana plant… in this moment, we feel we have completed our objective.”
New York City-based freelance writer Jane Di Leo writes for city, regional, and national magazines, including Women’s Health and Delta Sky Magazine. E-mail: janedileo@ hotmail.com.