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Child-Caring Design in Schools

At the beginning of November, I had the occasion to speak on the subject of "Growth, Development and Brain Science as the Basis of Child-raising" at a seminar for kindergarten, elementary school, and junior high school teachers held by the Board of Education in Chiyoda ward, Tokyo. Before the seminar, I visited Shohei Elementary School, the prospective venue, to talk with the elementary school teachers there who were in charge of preparations. When I got there, I was surprised to see that the school did not have a schoolyard or resemble anything like a typical school.

The school was a six-story building in the middle of a neighborhood that was partly residential and commercial with a street of local shops. Named Shohei Doumu Kan (), literally "the building of children's dreams," it turned out to be a very sophisticated facility with number of different functions. According to the teacher who came to pick me up, the school has a heated pool in the basement, a kindergarten and library on the first floor, the entrance on the second floor, an elementary school on the second, third, and fourth floors, and besides classrooms, there are also a teachers' room, multi-purpose hall, home economics classroom, a Japanese-style room, computer classroom, music classroom, an arts and crafts classroom, science lab, school nurse's office, and gymnasium (auditorium). Children's facilities on the fifth floor include an audio-visual room, meeting rooms, and play spaces, and the schoolyard is located on the sixth-floor roof with a dome covering that can be opened and closed. The heated pool, children's facilities, schoolyard on the roof, etc., are open to local residents and also used by them.

Over twenty years ago when I was a member of the provisional council on education under the Nakasone cabinet, we were already addressing the problem of the declining birthrate and its impact on schools. I recall that one proposal recommended building multi-purpose school buildings that could used for both school and local activities and functions. Now, ten years later, I was amazed to see before me the realization of this idea and evidence that, at a political level, this educational issue had been considered with impressive foresight.

Child-caring design plays an important role in my concept of the field of Child Science which addresses children's issues from three main perspectives, and these are also relevant to multi-purpose facilities: 1) philosophical and ethical views of children based on the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations 2) analyzing and resolving child issues involving the family, school, and society and emotional and behavioral problems ranging from refusal to attend school to violence and homicide, and 3) child-caring design that creates child-friendly structures, both tangible and intangible, from the eyes of the child and with the child's diverse needs in mind. By "tangible" structures, I mean the architecture (school buildings), city, parks, etc.,--the concrete structures that make up our physical environment. And "intangible" refers to the institutions, laws, and educational methods that make up the information environment.

From the perspective of child-caring design, how is this sort of multi-purpose school and facility useful in child education? Beyond its economic merit as an administrative way of dealing with the declining birthrate, what direct benefit does it have for education? First, the fact that, in this case, both the kindergarten and elementary school are located in the same building means that local children can attend the same school until junior high school. This allows the school to function as a locus of relationships at a time when there are fewer children. At the same time, it strengthens the vertical relationships among the kindergarteners, students, and teachers at the school. Because local residents can also use the facilities, the school is also more likely to be supported by the community. This is quite different from how my generation tends to think of a school, that is, as a building and schoolyard standing alone in the middle of nature or a town.

I entered elementary school in the mid-1930s. From the back of my house, I took a path through woods by Zenpukuji River until I came to a paved road where buses passed, went down the hill, crossed the river and climbed up a hill. It was then that the school and schoolyard suddenly appeared on the other side of a field. I can still see it in my mind's eye. Then walking from the paved road, I turned to the right; the school gate was in the back (front?) of the building on the opposite side of the schoolyard. As I entered through the gate, I passed by a picture of the emperor which hung solemnly on the left, and if I remember correctly, a statue of Ninomiya Sontoku stood on the right.

The picture of the emperor was a photograph of the Showa emperor in a large wooden box shaped like a shrine. The statue of Ninomiya Sontoku presented him as a symbol of industriousness and filial piety, studying under adversity. Times were very different from today. These images were meant to teach children something. The image of the emperor served a symbolic purpose and the statue showed children a role model to which they should aspire.

It is possible to think of these images as setting in motion the innate programs of the brain, for instance, the program of belief or the program of mimicry. Just as it is impossible to learn mathematics unless one first believes and accepts that 1+1=2, people must believe in a certain logic of things and the mind in order to live as human beings. Observing newborns mimic behavior clearly indicates the existence of a program of mimicry, and in both a negative and positive sense, it forms the basis of education. I am sure that everyone agrees on the importance of having role models, particularly, in school, to guide children in their lives and for the future of society. On the other hand, many scholars think that the behavioral problems of children today are the result of mimicking the poor role models on TV, video, and other media. We can think of the program of mimicry as corrupted with poor information.

Of course, in the Shohei Doumu Building, there might have been images or other displays in the building that were meant to present role models for children. I didn't look carefully so I can't say for sure. In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with such images nor am I saying that a photograph of the emperor, a statue of Ninomiya Sontoku or anything else should be displayed at the school gate. School is not just a place for intellectual education, physical education, and nutritional education. It is undoubtedly a place for moral education as well, which is the most difficult of all of these. Intellectual education, physical education, and nutritional education each turn on the respective programs of the mind and body. In the same way, moral education turns on the innate programs of belief and mimicry, and the question of how to do this is the starting point for moral education. And for this reason, don't schools also need child-caring design as well as role models that are inspiring?

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