The Japanese Way of Educating Children

“A child can teach an adult three things: to be happy for no reason, to always be busy with something, and to know how to demand with all his might that which he desires.”

Yesterday, as part of my professional development, I had the privilege of visiting the kindergarten associated with Tohoku Bunkyo University – Tomizawa Bunkyo Kinder where boredom has no place. I dare to say that I witnessed how Japan’s stability and prosperity is planted and where it is rooted.

Bunkyo Kinder was born in the same year as the university’s research institute for early childhood education and provides the ‘playground’ for research and development in the field. At the heart of the kindergarten lies the belief that children need to be educated in a way that allows them to “bring motivation and excitement to everything they do”.

Children here are provided with the time, space, facilities, and tools they need to execute their basic right to play, free from worry and anxiety. The teachers’ role involves securing children with their right while letting them demonstrate and develop their personality with peace of mind.

Every child has the right to rest, relax, play and to take part in cultural and creative activities.

At first glance, this approach doesn’t sound much different than what other ‘old-fashioned’ kindergartens are doing. It’s universally known that play is the hallmark activity of the preschool period. With programming and coding slowly creeping into the curriculum of some preschools, the pure act of playing appears to be some sort of a breakthrough formula for educating kids. We have deviated so much from the norm that what used to be the order of the day nowadays seems outrageous or even utopian.

Tohoku Bunkyo University isn’t revolutionizing early childhood education. It is simply going back to basics and concentrating on what really matters without stifling children’s development by prematurely introducing new ideas and complicated matters. And if you are interested in this idea of looking back at earlier times with nostalgia for lost simplicity and authenticity, I personally recommend you checking John Spencer’s website and listening to his podcast on Nine Vintage Ideas to Spark Innovation in Your Classroom.

So, what precisely makes Bunkyo Kinder outperform traditional ‘old-school’ kindergartens is the idea of children’s planning, development, and construction of their own toys and games. Not that there are no Duplos nor role-play corners ‘scattered’ around. There are plenty of these yet one could see kids enthusiastically clustered around the toys and games they had chosen to invest their time and effort into building up from scratch.

And to be honest, there wasn’t a single kid who wasn’t engaged in some sort of creative expression prior or post the ongoing play session. There wasn’t a single idle kid. No idleness, no tantrums, no arguments. Kids seemed excited and fully absorbed by meaningful projects. From building Ninja houses to painting and singing, literacy had no place on the curriculum for the kindergarten. The principal subscribes to the belief that if children are introduced to literacy at this early age, once they enter primary school they will feel boredom rather than excitement, arising out of familiarity with the subject matters. She holds the resolute conviction that premature exposure to ‘the world of adults’ would stifle children’s excitement. These kids are being taught nothing about letters, numbers, nor patterns unless they explicitly show interest. There are no black- nor white-boards on the walls for the walls serve the purpose of exposing kids’ colorful artwork.

A single visit is sufficient to inform the observer of the implementation of activities that engage, grow, and teach children the skills they need for a lifetime. Some of the most important skills are taught through the process of engaging in play and constructing games and toys: to share, work hard, respect, value, take initiative, be patient, dedicated, enthusiastic, and independent. In return, children feel trusted while their ideas, rights, and feelings are valued.

Every activity and experience is structured around the idea of play. In an indirect way children are taught that if they want to play, they need to think, work and construct their toys and games.  This is how teachers condition the mind of children in the general way of life.

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Unlike the IB approach where the beginning of the process is marked by a question, this method of teaching starts with children’s self-directed project in terms of collaboratively constructing something that comes from their own imagination (no direction, no theme, no guidance is given). The idea of self-initiative of the students guides the whole process.

Hard-(team)-work, initiative, and intrinsic motivation

The first output of this collaborative effort takes the form of a simple drawing. From there, it grows into an ongoing work-in-progress with kids adding new elements entirely within their own discretion. This approach helps fill the hearts of children with excitement and expectation. Every morning kids enter the school’s main doors, feeling doki-doki (excited with joy and expectations) about the contributions they are going to make towards their project. From an early age, children learn not only to work hard but to work hard in a team, to use their own initiative, to motivate themselves intrinsically, to give their all for the group, and not let it down. Skills crucial to the success of any member of an organization.

Respect – yourself, your friends, the environment

Kids are taught to respect their own selves and to do what their heart tells them to do. As long as the weather is good, most kids venture outside to run, play, ride bicycles, catch bugs, water the plants, observe the fruits and vegetables. However, if a kid doesn’t feel like going out, they are free to remain in the classroom and engage in whatever they wish. Children move independently from one area to another without anyone looking after them (except for a few CCTVs):

Freedom of movement, freedom of expression. If they decide to go to the playground or return to the classroom, or even visit the teachers’ room, they just go. Since the child is the decision-maker, the teacher isn’t the permission-giver. Except for lunch time and practice time, kids play with what they want, when they want, the way they want.

Freedom allows children to learn managing their own time. Knowing what options are available to them for the day, children unconsciously become adept at allocating their time according to their interests.

The Japanese close ties to nature are manifested in respecting everything found in it due to the belief that everything has a spirit. Because they are raised to feel one with nature, Japanese kids learn how to celebrate and preserve it.

Children’s journey towards respecting their environment starts with the use of recyclable items (cereal/snack cardboard boxes, tissue boxes, milk cartons, plastic bottles, cups, and containers). Teachers and parents gather very basic supplies for these activities and then implement them to engage, grow and teach each child the skills they will use for a lifetime.

Honestly, I wonder when astute organizations, especially the ones catering to children, will see this trend and turn it into an opportunity. Wouldn’t it be nice if milk producers turn their packaging into a communication tool for surprising, cheering or teaching children – either through visual messages or creative ideas on how the carton can be cut out and transformed into or used to create various models.

Kids respect their space by sweeping, collecting trash and keeping it neat and clean. Including the element of ‘zero waste life’ consciousness in the school curriculum helps the children develop an awareness of, and pride in, their surroundings. And as children grow, their concept of what constitutes their space extends beyond the classroom to include their neighbourhood, their city and their country. One can see children using things consciously – just the amount they they need, neither more nor less.

Children are taught not only to respect their environment but also to show respect towards their friends, their ideas, space and belongings. Respect of others’ personal space is evidenced by the mode of silence every class as a group enters into when they walk down the corridors of the kindergarten. When in ‘transit’ around the kindergarten, out of consideration and respect for the friends around them, every class tiptoes down the corridors in a ‘ninja’ manner with a shh gesture, thus leaving no trace of their passage.

From silence in the corridors to silence in the way children absorb information, the kindergarten believes in the silent system of learning, based on observing and tuning in to clues intended to feed their project. Soaking knowledge by watching, in Japanese minarai, is a traditional Japanese training technique. In contrast to the Western teaching style which is heavily based on words and where the best teachers are those who can skillfully express the ideas in words, the Japanese approach to learning is based on the assumption that someone who learns by observing invests more into the process and so is more likely to retain the learning.

There is an unspoken emphasis on learning by observing, thinking, and acting based on a well-thought-out idea. Unlike IB where the research state facilitates clarification of thoughts and ideas, here children are encouraged to observe what the older kids have made or done, to reflect on their outing experiences and integrate their knowledge back into their work.

The process culminates in the children’s enjoyment of their new toy, not in any sort of presentation. Exhibiting pride in one’s ability and accomplishments has always been a taboo in Japan. In a culture where people humble themselves before others, children do not present the outcome of their hard work nor brag about their achievements. This also helps shift the focus from the outcome itself to the process and the enjoyment of it.

Filled with astonishment, I was curious to find out what graduates of the kindergarten have chosen as their career paths. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the kindergarten and some of the most prominent students have turned out to be Olympic players – the epitome of hard work, initiative, patience, dedication, enthusiasm, and consistency. Good luck to all of them during the upcoming Tokyo Olympics 2020.

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The people behind Tohoku Bunkyo College are taking bold steps towards “cracking the code” of developing children’s social, intellectual and linguistic skills. Children learn best while they are actively engaged in meaningful and challenging work. In the course of the “work”, children naturally acquire the language through interactions with teachers and peers. With that thought in mind, Tohoku Bunkyo College offers high school graduates a carefully planned one-year Japanese language course through Drama and Music. It is the “where” and “how” of learning a new language that truly matter. Situated far from the bustling Japanese cities, Yamagata is the ideal place for students to concentrate on their studies with peace of mind while immersing themselves deep into the rich traditional Japanese culture and natural environment. The course is highly recommended for foreigners who wish to pursue their study of Childhood Education and start their career in the field of education in Japan.

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