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[Japan] Young Children and the Arts in Japan: A View from Two American Teachers

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We are two early childhood teachers who work together at the Mills College Children's School in Oakland, California. Our school is a laboratory school on a college campus, and one of the primary purposes of our institution is to educate and train student teachers. Over the past several years, we have worked with Professor Mikiko Tabu, of Seitoku University for Women, on a cross-cultural research project. This past summer, as guests of Seitoku University, we had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Tokyo to study Japanese kindergartens, an elementary school, and several other institutions that serve young children. As we reflect upon our journey since returning home, one of the things we have noted is how very deeply arts education seemed to be emphasized everywhere we went. It is clear that adults in Japan value providing children with numerous opportunities to engage in and to enjoy high quality fine art, crafts, music, drama, and literature.

The first school we visited was a small, private kindergarten in Tone, a rural town about an hour and a half outside of Tokyo. Over the course of many years, the founder of this school has developed his own unique curriculum for three, four, and five year olds, which emphasizes the development of focus and concentration. It is very different from the play-based programs that we expected to find in Japan. Here, in all three age-grouped classes, children spent most of the morning sitting at desks and engaging in assorted teacher directed tasks. Opportunities to draw, weave, play instruments, and especially to sing were woven into this structured setting. Formally, children in the five-year-old class worked on drawing pictures of a fire engine. They had recently been to visit the fire station, which was conveniently located just in front of the school. Now the children were expected to reproduce a fire engine as carefully as possible, and teachers worked patiently with individual children to point out details of the photo they were copying. More informally, in each classroom children used their own individual sketchpad and colored pencils to draw freely from their imaginations. Weaving seemed to be an important part of the current curriculum and children worked on specially designed frames to create individual pieces. In the four-year-old room, the children had a "mouth-piano" lesson. Mouth-pianos are hand-held sized keyboards with an air tube attached. Children blow into the air tube and press on a particular key to produce a note. We were impressed and a bit envious that each child had his or her own instrument to use. As was true in other Japanese schools we visited, there were full-sized pianos in each classroom and teachers frequently moved to the piano to sing songs in Japanese and in English, as children carefully followed along with the words. Songs were both specifically educational - children sang to learn multiplication - and more generally for relaxation and fun. One song, which the children seemed to really enjoy, included all of their names. All in all, it was quite clear to us that visual arts, crafts, and music were highly valued in these classrooms.

As we entered the main kindergarten connected with Seitoku University on a Saturday morning, the teachers played the piano in each classroom while children gathered around to sing the morning greeting song that begins their day. A few minutes later, we observed as children from several classrooms, now gathered together in a larger group on the school's stage to sing together once again. This time, the occasion was a rehearsal for a Grandparents' Day celebration to be held at the school the following week. We were impressed by the children's determination to make a beautiful concert, as their enthusiastic voices filled the auditorium. A few minutes later we saw a younger group of children rehearsing a play for the same event, evidence that drama as well as music is valued in this school. Later, the staff showed us the children's drawing materials and sketchbooks, and we saw several displays of children's artwork on the walls. We were impressed, as we had been in Tone, at the skillfulness of the drawing as compared with children of the same age in the United States. It appears that Japanese children spend more time learning to draw, in school and a home, than do children of similar ages in the United States.

Although we went to Japan primarily to study and observe early childhood education, we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the private primary school associated with Seitoku University. We were excited to see this school because our professional interest in education extends to all grades and types of schools. Also, Nanu has an elementary-school aged son herself. He attends the fifth grade in an arts-magnet public school in Berkeley, California. In addition to his academic coursework, he receives instruction in visual arts, music, dramatic arts, and dance. We were curious to see how an elementary school in a different country approached these same subjects. Granted, Seitoku is a well-endowed private school program, but the richness of their arts education was astounding. As had been true at the Seitoku kindergarten, stunning three-dimensional artwork by two different resident artists adorned the entryway. We arrived at the school just in time for lunch, and we were greeted by all of the children who were seated at mixed-age table groupings. A small group of 4 or 5 students played some band instruments for us. (We both took note of how much more skillfully and cohesively they played than same-aged children in our local schools.) Later, we toured the many different art-focused specialty classrooms throughout the school. There were well-equipped, specialized rooms for learning Japanese calligraphy, for painting and drawing, and for woodworking. There was a room just for learning piano and another for learning to play other kinds of instruments. Everything was light, airy, and beautiful. Walls were lined with samples of children's artwork and with photos of the children engaged in different kinds of activities. It was, in short, a spectacular place, and we left wishing that all children, both in Japan and here in the United States and indeed throughout the world could have the chance to attend a school such as this one.

Because of our deep love of high-quality children's literature, we greatly enjoyed our visits to children's libraries. We had the opportunity to visit the children's section of a small, local library and also to visit the International Library of Children's Literature. In the neighborhood library, there was an impressive collection of Japanese children's books, as well as many familiar American (and, we therefore assume, other nationalities) children's books in translation. We were introduced to "Kamishibai", or "Paper Theater". High quality children's books were transcribed onto large, poster sized pieces of cardboard. On one side of the cardboard was the illustration for a particular page; on the back was the text. This design enables a teacher to easily read a story to a large group of young children. It provides a lovely alternative to reading stories where children can see and become familiar with the text. At the amazing International Children's Library, there happened to be a stunning exhibit, "The 16th Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustrations: Illustrations from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 2009". Beautiful and extremely varied illustrations from children's books from dozens of countries were on display. Here in the United States we are always looking for new high-quality children's books, and we definitely think that good illustrations are an essential element. It was therefore incredibly exciting to see such books from all around the world.

Along with the schools and libraries we visited, a national children's discovery museum was another environment in which we could observe a dedicated philosophy of exposing children to the finest traditions of music, visual and performing arts. The Children's Castle is a unique place and a testament to the care and respect for children that we found everywhere during our stay. The Tokyo institution, administered by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, provides an impressive array of activities for children all under one roof. The facility includes areas devoted to indoor and outdoor play, health and fitness, and art and music centers that are the focus of this article. We were most impressed with the collection of musical instruments available to children in the Music Lobby. Some of the music classes for the youngest children use simple rhythm instruments that can be made from recycled materials at home, such as plastic shakers made from empty jars and drums made from plastic buckets. In addition to these inexpensive instruments, we also saw several pianos, large drums, and an amplified music area with several electric guitars, pianos and organs. Singing is a daily activity in the Music Lobby. Visual art activities are also important at the Children's Castle. In the Fine Arts Studio we saw tables at which children might sculpt with clay, wood or paper and also an ingenious painting area, the "Playing Board". The Playing Board is a 2-meter high, 17-meter long painting board that can be cleaned off with an automatic sprinkler system. Kamishibai, the picture theater we first encountered in the children's section of a small public library near our host's home, is presented in the Play Hall. More formal theater presentations are staged in two theaters, and children may also participate in drama classes on site.

In every school, museum and library we visited, the physical environment provided for children was aesthetically pleasing. The campuses of the kindergarten and elementary schools connected with Seitoku University amazed us with their impressive displays of public artwork commissioned especially for the school foyers and hallways. Much of the artwork on view is the work of Seitoku's late artist-in-residence, Professor Kojin Toneyama. In the kindergarten, wall-sized mosaics of larger-than-life birds, animals and insects grace the walls of the central hallways. Realistic depictions of the natural world are the chosen subject matter, intended to enhance the work's appeal to a very young audience. In the Seitoku primary school, the beautiful artwork on display is geared to a slightly older audience and on a much grander scale. In the main entry hall in a space several stories high and filled with natural light from abundant windows, an enormous wall mosaic greets all who enter. Teeming with life from floor to rafters, the piece depicts a mother and child under a radiant sun, surrounded by images of life on earth in all its diversity.

It is rare indeed in the United States to find such impressive works of art in spaces intended for children. One had the sense at the Seitoku schools and even at the little school in Tone that the beauty of the environment itself is intended to teach children the importance of aesthetics in daily life. We found this philosophy thoughtfully expressed in a short essay by the president of Seitoku University, Hiroaki Kawanami, "I believe it is only through first-hand experiences that you can realize the true enjoyment of discovery and the awe of learning something new...So, I invite you to throw open your eyes and ears as you enjoy the various works of art. Employ your five senses. Feel deeply and richly with your whole being."

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