Saturday, 18 May 2013

Japanese Kindergartens

Excuse the poor quality photos, I only had my phone camera handy

A couple of times a year I get to teach at kindergartens. It’s chaotic, scary and absolutely amazing in every way. Kindergarten is an invaluable gateway between the comfortable, pampered world of home, which is the only life most children have ever experienced, and the structured, self-reliant atmosphere of elementary school. Children learn to be separated from their mothers, to work in groups and to deal with conflicts with other children. The emphasis is on physical development and social behaviour, with very little attention to academics in the public kindergartens I have experienced.

Stilts, hula-hoops, balance walk and mattress to jump onto. What more could a five year old want?
One principal told me that she tries to teach the hiragana syllabry to the children before they go to school, but every other principal I have talked to seemed to think that this was inappropriate. Large picture books are always available and pre-literacy skills are taught, but any specific of reading and writing seem uncommon, as is numeral recognition. Instead the day consists of free play, structured play, crafts, singing and dancing, story time, music lessons and lunch. When it comes time for lunch, the kids are expected to set up tables and chairs. The tables are often the kind with legs that fold down flat. They are too heavy for five year olds to set up alone and the metal clips for the legs are too rigid for their little hands to release. They have to work together as a group in order to erect the table (preferably without catching their fingers in the workings). This is done largely unsupervised because the adults prepare tea or additional snacks during the set up time. The kids have to organise themselves and cooperate, and they do.
The teachers have buried objects in the sand box for the little archaeologists to excavate

Bare-foot play is not a problem
Whenever possible the kids are encouraged to play outside. This inner city kindergarten has various activity stations the children move between at will.

Restaurant corner. The knives have rounded tips but are serrated and cut nicely. 
A kindergarten on the fringes of a remote suburb interrupted free play to put the kids through a sort of obstacle course challenge designed to improve strength and coordination and including monkey bars and pogo-sticks. That kindergarten also had free-range chickens. Every morning the kids would run around looking for eggs and if they found any they got a mid-morning snack. A rural kindergarten I visited once included a stroll in the forest to collect pine cones and acorns to use in craft activities. Many kindergartens have rabbits or hamsters so that children can experience taking care of animals and learn to be gentle. I like pretty much everything about the kindergartens I have worked at (the exception being the expectation that the kids wear t-shirts and shorts all year round).
This is harder to balance on than it looks...
I saw a segment on "super preschools"* on TV the other day. Each of the featured pre-schools had a special focus, whether English lessons, kanji or athletics. Skip to around 3:00 in this video to see the very small children tackling an impressive hill.

My personal favourite was the "playing in the dirt" pre-school (have a look, there are some gorgeous photos).

The children are encouraged to test their physical limits playing freely outside: climbing tall trees, splashing in mud, and caring for goats and chickens. Between energetic play the children are taught 座禅、seated zen meditation. The idea is that they learn to self-regulate their emotional arousal, a vital skill for elementary school. Being excited during exciting activities is important, but so is the ability to quickly change focus to an activity that requires calm concentration. The panellists on the TV show talked at length about the tree climbing. Many parents are afraid of their child getting hurt these days, they said, so children aren't being allowed to fully explore their physical capacities. An Olympic medallist observed that children can't come to properly control their bodies if parents and teachers are always controlling it for them, imposing restrictions from the outside (I think that's what he was saying, my Japanese isn't great). They then showed statistics about a massive increase over the past thirty years in elementary school kids injuring themselves and others. I think they were saying that childhood has been getting less physical, and as a result children don't understand natural consequences or their own limits. I find this fascinating. 

I love the way children in my area are free to engage in unsupervised "dangerous play". They learn to assess risks, understand their own boundaries through experience, and if they do hurt themselves adults expect them to take responsibility for whatever stupid thing they did that they should have known better than to try. Yet, while I like it in theory, I know with absolute certainty that I couldn't control my own fear enough to sit back and watch my five year old climb an 8 foot tree. After decades of removing anything that could cause a boo-boo from playgrounds in Australia and the US, it seems that the pendulum is swinging back and the advantages of letting children take risks are being promoted again:
After observing children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr. Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common is climbing heights.
“Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”
Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.
In Japan this is just common sense; but in Japan, too, there seems to be a tenancy for contemporary parents to be more risk-averse in their parenting style than previous generations were.
When we asked Director Kumagai if she thought that families and children have changed in the past twenty years, she responded: 'Yes. Everyone is running scared. Parents overprotect children and themselves. They fear the world. They fear forming relationships with others, fear that a relationship they might get into will become strained, so they don't form relationships, and as a result are isolated. They fear germs, so they keep their children away from others. They fear dirt, so they keep their kids away from dirt, sand, and nature. They are afraid of encountering problems in life. But if there were no problems, that would be the real problem. Life is full of problems. Our job as early educators isn't to protect children from problems, but instead to put them in situations where they can experience problems and struggle to find solutions.'
Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited: China, Japan, and the United States, Joseph Tobin, Yeh Hsueh, and Mayumi Karasawa, 2011.

*There is a distinction between day-care/preschools and kindergartens, but the lines is very hazy, with many pre-schools offering a kindergarten year for the older kids and some kindergartens offering day-care services for younger kids. Consequently I'm not bothering to make a distinction, although I am aware it will annoy some people.

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