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[Japan] To Continue and Further Develop Effective Activities to Foster 21st Century Skills through Play

Japanese Chinese

This lecture was given at the 5th ECEC Research Conference "ECEC in Japan and around the World (2): The Strength of ECEC in Japan from a Comparison of ECEC in Four Countries", on Oct. 4, 2015.



[What I have noticed from practices in England]
Reforming ECEC in Japan as comprehensive family support

I would like to talk about ECEC in Japan.

Reflecting on the presentations by the four professors in my own way, I would like to think about common and different aspects when compared with Japan and suggestions for Japan. As my research concerns enriching children's life and play, I have been listening to the system of ECEC and the training of teachers introduced and suggested by the professors from the children's point of view.

Regarding England, as Professor Tabu also has said, I felt that the system can be changed dramatically in a short period of time if the government tries seriously. Although this is encouraging, I am concerned of the possibility that the public opinion will have less influence in this matter. However, ECEC reform in England as comprehensive family support will be very helpful in thinking about the future of ECEC in Japan.

In addition, the adverse effects of early childhood education starting earlier is something that Japan faces as well. In Japan, we also see children who lose the motivation to learn as a result of learning to read and write when they are too young to even hold a pencil. Japanese teachers and ECEC researchers have voiced alarm about this matter, but I would like to appeal widely and strongly to the public so it will be discussed as a national matter.

[What I have noticed from practices in South Korea]
How to bridge the gap between theory and practice is the future issue

I feel that the present situation of ECEC in South Korea is very similar to that in Japan. In both countries, the national guidelines state the importance of children's life and that life appropriate for childhood should be valued. I imagine most teachers acknowledge the importance of this. However, I don't think the declared policy is necessarily fully put into practice at ECEC facilities. There is a gap between theory and practice. How to bridge this gap is an issue that faced by both Japan and Korea.

At the kindergarten I visited in Seoul, Korea, the educational activities were all conducted in English. I suppose it is in response to the parents' requests for English education before starting elementary school, but I wonder if this is really happiness for the children. Although the level might differ, English education is no doubt widely practiced in ECEC facilities around East Asia. Of course, Japan is no exception.

[What I have noticed from practices in the Netherlands]
Discussing the goal of happiness

Regarding the Netherlands, I was impressed by people's high level of civic awareness. Civic awareness is an inevitable issue when thinking about enriching ECEC.

It has made me think about what happiness is as well. Why do children in the Netherlands feel great happiness even though ECEC programs are intended as "preparation for school"? I felt that it is because the children's lives are generally happy. Children's sense of happiness is largely dependent on how happy the parents are. I believe there are many children who feel their happiness as a result of parents perceiving happiness in their own lives.

On the other hand, while Japan boast of being one of the world's leading economies, someone here commits suicide every 20 minutes. In my view, many adults are not necessarily happy despite their material wealth. Therefore, the whole nation must share a certain form of happiness so that children in Japan will feel that "life is generally happy." It is difficult to define what happiness is but I think there is a need for us to thoroughly discuss the happiness we should aim for and the ideal sense of well-being.

[What I have noticed from practices in Sweden]
Preparing a good environment for both children and teachers is required

Regarding Sweden, I was impressed by the mature state of society supporting child-rearing. This kind of society is well equipped with a comfortable environment for both children and teachers. In other words, a good childcare environment for children has become a good working environment for workers.

On the other hand, as has been pointed out before, it cannot be said that most teachers in Japan work in a wonderful working environment due to the long working hours and difficulty in taking holidays. Teachers are there to see the day-to-day changes in children from the closest position and take part of their growth. In an environment where teachers are exhausted, it is impossible to fulfill the ideal, whatever ECEC we try to implement. Therefore, I think it is necessary to comprehensively pursue a good environment for teachers in addition to a good environment for children.

[The strengths of ECEC in Japan]
The tradition of raising children through play

Let's look at ECEC in Japan.

At ECEC facilities in Japan, I suppose the national average of number of children taken care by one teacher at the same time is around 25 for children over 3 years old. As this is a large number, there might be cases where the teacher cannot completely keep an eye on everyone if each child is doing something different. Here, the ECEC culture of Japan in which children play together in small groups becomes useful.

For more than a century, ECEC in Japan has placed importance on activities which comprehensively accomplish aims through play by providing suitable themes and preparing a space where children can settle down and play in a group.

Through play, children find meaning in the relationship between the world around them and themselves. In other words, through play, children can learn about objects and how to relate to them, and about themselves in relation to objects through play. This is directly linked to fostering 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. This means ECEC in Japan has been at the forefront internationally since long before. I suppose ECEC in Sweden is probably heading in the same direction as Japan.

In addition, teachers are setting long-term plans for childcare and child education, listening to children's feelings, thinking about what they want to do, and what is needed for children. These are educational practices that have given ECEC in Japan a global reputation.

[Issues and future prospects of ECEC in Japan]
Cultivating both children's cognitive and non-cognitive skills

The strengths of ECEC in Japan that I have mentioned are, of course, emphasized in the national guideline. However, the guideline seems as though it might become only a token standard in recent years. For example, as a result of the growing number of kindergartens only focusing on cultivating children's cognitive abilities, before entering elementary school, an increasing number of children have never considered what they want to do, but have only learned that they must listen to what the adults say.

Early education specializing in cultivating cognitive abilities is based on an educational philosophy that views children as not growing up unless they are taught by adults. However, children in Japan have been discovering and learning by themselves through play. Needless to say, relationships with teachers and parents have probably played an important part in this, but I believe that children possess their own abilities to grow and develop.

On the other hand, there is a persistent educational philosophy that favors emotionalism which is a view that children will grow up as long as they play. I am skeptical about this as well. Because I believe that children will develop even more through stimulation and interaction of adults, for example, by guiding their thoughts, prompting discovery, and creating an environment where children can deepen learning.

We often see the expression "childcare/education" now that we have Early Childhood Education and Care centers (ECEC centers: nintei kodomo en). In the Curriculum for Education and Childcare in Unified Type of ECEC Centers, the notion of the relationship between "childcare" and "education" is not clarified, but only has a legal explanation. I feel that a new system is starting to take hold while the notion of childcare and education is still unclear. This might lead to practice based on the wrong understanding that "childcare" is just about looking after children and spending time with them and that "education" is a matter of gathering and teaching them, which can be more widely conducted than before. For example, there are already facilities in some areas which let children come early, play freely until 10 a.m. when kindergarten starts and then start "education" after 10 a.m. with teachers gathering all the children.

ECEC in Japan is internationally recognized for its practices in which children learn independence in life and acquire both cognitive and non-cognitive skills. As I have mentioned earlier, activities which have been continued from previous generations are not only valid today in the 21st century but are also able to comprehensively foster the very skills required for a global society. However, with the decreasing number of facilities that practice this education, these traditional practices will come to an end, leaving only the idea and no power to affect reality if we do not think about countermeasures now.

In order to do so, I think that there is a necessity to strengthen relationships with the local community and families, review and enrich the content of childcare, and constantly consider how to improve teachers' quality while referencing and learning from other countries' practices.

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Takako Kawabe
Professor, Department of Education, University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo. Ph.D., Education. Worked as a kindergarten teacher at a public kindergarten in Tokyo for 12 years, and teacher's consultant in preschool education research division, Tokyo Metropolitan Institute for Educational Research and In-Service Training (current Tokyo Metropolitan School Personnel in Service Training Center) before assuming current job. Main research themes are methodology for child care practice recording and theory of assisting child's play. Served as member of the Board, Japan Society of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education, and collaborator in Case Studies in Fostering the Emergence of Morality in Kindergarten by MEXT, Japan. Publications include “Hoiku Kiroku No Kinou To Yakuwari: Hoiku Kousou Ni Tsunagaru ‘Hoiku Mappu-gata Kiroku’ No Teigen [The Roles and Functions of Recording Child Care Practice: A suggestion for "Activity Map Recording" to improve daily planning]” (Seikokai Publishing).

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