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Let Children Enjoy Lots of Free Play during Summer Vacation!

The weather has been so unseasonable this year. It seemed the rainy season would never end, but now that summer vacation has started, the summer heat has become even more difficult to bear. On TV, we see children full of joy as they playfully splash in water and swim in pools.


In summer vacation, play naturally tends to involve water, whether it is splashing or swimming, and these activities are also what first come to mind when I think of summer vacation as an elementary school child. At the time, I lived near Zenpukuji in Suginami ward of Tokyo, and my school had no pool. What I recall is the pool at the Higashi-Fushimi campus of Waseda University, which was quite a distance, but I used to walk there, sweating under the broiling summer sun and blue bright sky. As I neared the pool, I could hear children's joyful shouts, and as soon as I could see the diving board in the sky, I started eagerly running up to entrance.


Summer vacation is also officially called summer recess or summer break, the term during which each regional board of education decides not to hold classes during the hot summer out of consideration for learning efficiency and the health of children. Because this is decided by the local board of education, summer vacation varies according to the region.


These boards of education did not exist in Japan in the pre-WWII period, but were organized by the GHQ under the Allied occupation, which was predominantly directed by the U.S. military. On the advice of the first US Education Mission invited to Japan by the GHQ, the prewar education system was vastly overhauled. Among other changes, this resulted in the establishment of boards of education. Even so, my generation had had summer vacation in elementary and junior high school in the prewar era, so it must have been a part of modern education system introduced from the West by the Meiji government in the nineteenth century.


However, when the modern education system was introduced in 1872 (Meiji 5), school education was only available to children of a certain class, and it appears that the summer vacation period was not particularly fixed either. The Education Order of 1879 decreed that all children should receive a school education, and with the Principles of Elementary School Education of 1881 (Meiji 14), school was to be held every day except Sundays, holidays, and summer and winter vacation. In this way, both summer and winter vacation came to be days when classes did not have to be held. Summer vacation was not officially established until nearly a decade after school education was instituted.


Once school is out for summer vacation, children, of course, spend much of the day joyfully playing, having fun, and releasing energy in physical movement. Depending on the child's age, this physical movement takes various forms, such as sports and physical education, which are considered to be types of play. Today, however, play for an increasing number of children consists of reading manga, watching TV, and operating games with their fingers--no physical movement at all. In my view, moving the body itself is a central component of play.


What role then does play, as joyful physical movement in children, serve? For infants and preschool children, play and learning are inseparable. Pediatricians, day-care workers, and others whose work brings them into frequent contact with children are well aware that they are two sides of the same coin. Nevertheless, as soon as school education starts, play and learning are strictly differentiated. Even play that consists of physical movement is turned into "physical education" and then becomes one kind of "learning."


Thinking about the educational significance of play is said to have started with Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) and the dawn of modernity. For Froebel, play was the means by which one freely expresses the inner self, and the source of all things good. And joy and smiles are meant to be an important part of play.


To understand play in terms of Child Science, we need to consider both its biological and social aspects. From a biological perspective, the play of children all over the world displays shared characteristics that are universal, and from a social viewpoint, child's play has much in common with adult work. In this sense, we could say that play is dependent upon the particular culture. Children, whether in Japan and Africa, play tag and build secret hiding places. Boys mimic adult's hunting or driving while girls make little huts where they play house. In this respect, play is both universal and culturally dependent. Furthermore, as children grow up, this play is transformed in tandem with cultural change. Cultural change is reflected in the way children grow up, and the above games are the most typical of play.


The modern education system has separated learning from play so that they have become opposed, but insofar as play and learning are human activities that are created by one brain, there is clearly a deep relationship between them.


As I have mentioned previously, the evolution of the human brain is thought to have started with the survival-movement brain in vertebrates such as the ancestors of fish and alligators, which is central to the programs of the body that control bodily functions necessary to life and survival. With the evolution of such primitive mammals as the ancestors of the kangaroo, the archicortex (neuronal membrane) developed programs of instinct and emotions, not only for the purpose of physiological development and propagation through instinct, but also to form relationships and collective life through emotion and prevail in struggle. The result was the evolution of the instinct-emotion brain equipped with strengthened functions of the programs of the body in the survival-movement brain. This was followed by the evolution of the intellect-rational brain in higher mammals such as dogs and horses. At this stage, the neo-cortex with programs of the intellect and reason developed to enable animals to adapt to the environment, to live not only with members of the same species, but also different species, and increase the probability of survival. This intellect-rational brain, which is the most highly evolved, is the human brain, and its programs of higher cognitive function have been responsible for culture and civilization from science and technology to art and religion.


In light of the above process of evolution, our various programs of the mind have evolved to skillfully operate the programs of the body, and without the evolution of the programs of the mind such as instinct and emotion, we could even say that the programs of the intellect and reason would not have evolved. The program of emotions located in the archicortex functions is much more important than we think.


Consequently, the programs of the mind and body mutually influence each other in the brain of the child. When programs of the body start working, leaving aside instinct in the program of the mind, it seems that they also promote the functioning of the program of the emotions and those of intellect and reason. This observation is also backed by over twenty years of firsthand experience with Tokyo University medical students. Students who engage in sports and other physical activity study in a less pressured manner than students who do not. In other words, most of them managed to keep up without inordinate and intense studying.


What I would like to tell parents is this: Let your children enjoy lots of free play during summer vacation. Physical activity in play does not just build up the body, but it also develops intellect and reason, so from a long-term perspective, it is important for both the mind and body.

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