Play to celebrate, Play to prepare - reflections from Tokyo

I am in Tokyo, spending a couple of days with the British Council Elevate Fellowsand hearing about their Play Safari to Kidzania and Hanegi Park
I am in Tokyo, spending a couple of days with the British Council Elevate Fellows - 12 creative practitioners from across the UK and East Asia who have travelled to Japan to spend a week together re-imagining childhood play. Chloe Meineck (developing Trove as part of Play Sandbox) is one of the participants and during the visit I will be sharing some of the REACT approach to developing products with our young coaches.
On the first day the groups went on a Play Safari - visiting various play-related places across Tokyo, and yesterday they shared their experiences. Two places, massively contrasting but linked in their aspiration, really stood out:
Kidzania* is a miniature town for kids, cited in a shopping mall in Tokyo. Once in the town, the children role-play by mimicking traditionally adult activities, getting "jobs" (as a fireman, doctor, police officer, journalist, shopkeeper, etc.) or they pay to shop or to be entertained. The idea is to use play as preparation, a practice session for adulthood. The group who visited heard about how they are teaching kids to be better citizens, to use money, to spend it wisely (and also to conform - there are two kidzania weddings a day, each featuring a man and a woman). 
Role play in Kidzania is scripted and time-based - Chloe summed up her experience (which haunted her dreams last night, as she became a child stuck in a pizza factory) - "there is no nature there and you can’t do your own job”. 


There was also some unease from the group about the presence of brands within the experience - the Kidszania website talks of "recognizable destinations in the form of establishments, sponsored and branded by leading multi-national and local brands. Some of KidZania's current sponsors include Coca Cola, Domino's Pizza, Wal-Mart, Mitsubishi Motors, HSBC, Nestlé, and Unilever. Their presence seems shocking to people who are used to similar brands being banned from schools and even children’s TV. 

A very different kind of play space then is Hanegi Play Park, which is more than 30 years old and is an adventure playground made by local kids and adults out of scrap wood, tatami mats and more… Play in the park is free-roaming, children are encouraged to dig holes, build fires - even young kids show skill and responsibility, developed through the trust that is shown to them. There are four playgrounds like this across Tokyo (they are based on a model from Scandinavia), and there was only 10 accidents in the last year. US based writer Amy Fusselman, was so moved by her experience of the space she write a book called Savage Park - asking “How fully can the world be explored . . . if you are also trying not to die?”
Hanegi Play Park

Whilst the existence or even enjoyment of these two places is not mutually exclusive, and in truth I would be happy to visit either, Hanegi seems a much more democratic form of play - it is inherently connected to nature, there are no pre-assigned gender roles or expectations. Where both experiences celebrate children (and put them at the heart of their business) Hanegi seems to develop skills and Kidzania to develop adults.

*Kidzania is a global franchise business - a UK branch opens in London in the Spring.