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Children Play with Their Minds and Bodies 4 Creating a Rich Environment from Limited Nature in the City

This is a summary of a dialog between Takeshi Asao, professor of developmental psychology at Nara Women's University, Takashi Saito, assistant professor of pedagogy at Meiji University, and Noboru Kobayashi, M.D., director of CRN.

4 Creating a Rich Environment from Limited Nature in the City

Kobayashi: Children today are surrounded by information. It is all virtual information that has no basis in personal experience. I used to live on the outskirts of Suginami near a river called Zenpukuji River when I was a child and would get excited just watching the fish that swam there, but it is not possible for children to have this experience any longer.

It is extremely important for children to play in nature. There may still be places to play in nature around Nara, but not in Tokyo. They have all disappeared because of over-development so it is up to us to think about how we can provide children with places to play.

Asao: At kindergartens, children love to play in sandboxes. Sandboxes don't restrict children and the children can dig or make mountains or tunnels. Children like making mud pies, too, and they all get so absorbed in the process. (laugh)

The sandbox is not a sophisticated place, but there children can experience the richness of the earth and possibilities of the material. There are many ways to play and learn, and in the process, they discover what they are good at. So, it's necessary to think about how to provide children with an environment that has a rich potential. But spaces like this are disappearing. Sandboxes in apartment complexes are now full of germs because dogs and cats use them so children are told to stay away.

Saito: Even if some nature still exists today, children don't get as absorbed in play as they used to. A concept like the sandbox could actually provide children with opportunities for play. When we think of how to create these environments, we also have to think about how to use them. I tend to think in terms of the four primary elements in Greek thought: earth, which is the ground or something hard, and then water, fire, and air. When the imagination is stimulated by these elements, it turns into a very powerful force and has a strong effect on the vitality or life force of human beings. When people encounter the earth, water, fire, and air as children, these experiences continue to provide a kind of sustenance throughout adulthood.

Sandboxes remain popular with children. This is because the feeling of the mud and sensation of the earth and water are tactile and deeply resonate in the body. Children experience these sensations as being necessary to their life force in an immediate way.

Asao: When adults have a playful spirit, it becomes contagious and children catch it, too. Adults let children know what they are interested in, and children tend to be pulled in the same direction. When the mother says, "Have you made a mud pie yet? I haven't," her playful spirit spreads to the child. A playful spirit in adults creates a playful spirit in children.

If adults make an effort to explore nature in their immediate environment, their curiosity and enjoyment will spread to children around them. If adults are scared or repulsed, children will act the same way. Adults should try to explore and enjoy the richness of nature.

Kobayashi: Adults have to give more thought to how to create spaces for play, even if they are tiny spaces in housing complexes. And rather than being based on casual ideas, the design of play spaces should be a subject of research and constitute a field in itself.

In addition, we have to approach play methods as something to be designed. CRN uses closed-down school buildings to conduct workshops called "Playshops" where children can come to play. We should create opportunities like this that will enable us to design both play spaces and play methods.

Saito: Children tend to be drawn to older children. They aren't interested in children the same age, but in what children who are just a little older are doing. It's very important to create a time and place where they can be with children of different ages who are not their siblings.

It is difficult to set up this situation just because children don't have many siblings these days, but it is possible to create something like non-nuclear pseudo-families. This happens when different parents who are friends get together and let their children play. Of course, relatives can do this, too. Parents take their children along when they are having fun with other parents and this creates a pseudo-family that is not a nuclear family. Children look up to older children and this creates a situation where children of different ages can play together.

Kobayashi: Our Playshops function like that. Children come with their parents, but then they separate and make their own groups and that creates a pseudo-family.

Asao: When I think about the relationship between parents and small children, it strikes me that parents play with their children much less than before. Parents have much more information these days, but they seem to think that they don't have to play with their children since children have other types of play.

In non-nuclear families, there were many jobs that had to be done and adults spent time playfully interacting with children. For children, it must have been fun to be teased by family members. But I don't think many children have this experience any more. This has diminished their own ability to play.

Saito: Parents could ask children to do chores around the house. Of course, children may not be capable of completing the entire task themselves, but a parent can ask the child for advice on how to do something and then incorporate the idea. It's fine to play with children, but rather than going down to their level, parents can bring children up to an area that is most interesting to them. Children love that.

Kobayashi: In any case, if we allow the natural environment and human relationships to continue as they are now, children will keep losing their ability to play. We have to somehow design environments and spaces where children can enjoy playing to their hearts' content. Rather than being similar to high-tech toys developed from technology, they should be designs that derive from biology. The purpose of this sort of design would be to enhance the life force in all of us, in other words, to operate the programs of the mind and body at full capacity. This is the creative aspect of toys and I hope that we will be able to work together on this in the future. Thank you for this wonderful discussion today.

Takeshi Aso
Professor of Faculty of Literature at Nara Women's University
Specializes developmental psychology
Books include Miburi kara Kotoba he (From the gesture to the words)
Kodomo to Yume (Children and Dream)

Takashi Saito
Professor of Faculty of Literature at Meiji University
Specializes pedagogy
Books include Koe ni Dashite Yomitai Nihongo (Japanese phrases to read aloud)

Noboru Kobayashi
Director of The International Center for Child Study, Konan Women's University
Professor Emeritus of The University of Tokyo
President Emeritus of National Children's Hospital
Books include Human Science, Kodomo wa mirai de aru (Children are Our Future), Kodomogaku, Sodatsu sodateru fureai no kosodate (Reciprocal Development Through Child-raising).
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