Fumiki is never in the nursery room.
Fumiki is always running around.
Fumiki always disturbs other children when they are playing.
We sometimes unconsciously make instant assumptions about a child's personality based on behavior and appearance. For example, we tend to think "He is that type of kid" or "He always behaves like this," and take a single aspect of behavior to represent one's entire personality. One example is the case of Fumiki, whom I met at a preschool. I learned from his case that people's unconscious assumptions about him negatively affected the situations surrounding him in the children's community.
Fumiki seemed to have difficulty keeping up with peers in preschool activities. He often showed up late for class when the teacher and children were starting to do something. When he found out there was no room for him to sit down within the circle, he intentionally put his bag between two children. Understanding his intentions, the two would move over to make room. In this way, he secured a place.
Another example is the drawing class. Children queue up to show their work to the teacher. Fumiki often sneaked in between his friends and cut in line. For him as someone who is always behind in daily activities, this behavior is probably a way of dealing with daily life. Of course, cutting in line is not polite. However, for Fumiki, it seemed that there was no choice but to take such a strategy in order to catch up with other children.
When Fumiki cut in line, the other children seemed to realize what had happened but continued queueing up without pointing it out to Fumiki. Their reaction suggests that they were thinking "Fumiki is different from us," "Fumiki is never in the room," and "It makes no difference whether I tell him or not." They just remained indifferent as a way of getting ahead in life instead of objecting to Fumiki.
Daigo, their teacher, told me that he felt uncomfortable about the children's reactions toward Fumiki. He felt sad that the children around Fumiki had also learned a way of dealing with daily life by adopting indifference.
Nevertheless, Daigo was charmed and impressed by Fumiki's funny expressions and amazing agility in physical exercise. One day, he gathered children who loved to play tag and started a game with them. In the beginning, Fumiki was engaged in other play and did not show interest in the game. Daigo finally invited Fumiki to join the game of tag, hoping that he would recognize the enjoyment of playing with peers and that other children would understand Fumiki's uniqueness in a positive way.
Running around to avoid being caught, the children loved playing tag very much. They enjoyed this simple game of chasing and escaping as well as the fun of physical activity. However, Fumiki often broke the rules. He ran away beyond the boundary of the tag game, which had been determined before starting the game. He did not care at all when he was told, "You cannot go beyond the boundary!" The teacher patiently tried to tell Fumiki the importance of following the rules, saying, "If you break the rules, it may be fun for you, but not for the person who is doing the tagging." Gradually, Fumiki learned to follow the rules. He seemed to understand that tag would be more enjoyable for both himself and other children if he did not break the rules.
The children's enthusiasm for playing tag continued for several months and transformed the original game of tag into other game formats such as "Freeze Tag" and "Cops and Robbers." Tag has a variety of formats with different rules. The simplest tag is a chasing game that children can enjoy individually. In contrast, "Freeze Tag" requires peer collaboration. A tagged and frozen child needs to ask other children for help. Other children need to think about saving the tagged child while they are running around away from the person who is doing the tagging. In the case of "Cops and Robbers," children are divided into two groups, the "Cops" team and the "Robbers" team. Children on the same team will discuss strategies and ideas to win the game together. They even need to communicate with each other through body language while chasing or running away from the other team.
Here is a story about "Cops and Robbers" played the other day. At that time, all members of the Robbers team were tagged except Fumiki. The tagged children shouted out his name for help, "Fumiki, Fumiki!" "Fumiki, please help, you are the only one who can save us!" They communicated with each other through body language and eye contact without speech, so that the Cops team would not notice. "Come here from this route, the Cops won't see us." "OK, wait here until I come." "There, there!" Finally, Fumiki made his way through the Cops team to escape, and successfully saved all the Robbers team members. As a result, the Robbers team won. The Robbers team members gathered around Fumiki and applauded, "Fumiki saved us!" "We count on you! We are glad to have Fumiki!" At this moment, Fumiki became part of the children's circle of "we" and this increased a sense of solidarity.
Here is an episode that happened on the same day. Fumiki was reading a picture book. He suddenly put the book aside and left the nursery room. He probably remembered something to do. Another child came into the room and picked up the picture book without knowing that Fumiki had been reading the book just before him. When Fumiki came back to the room and found out that another child had taken the picture book, he said unpleasantly, "I was reading this book...." Then, he added, "Never mind. We can read it together because we are friends!" He sat down next to the child and started reading the book together. That was the moment we saw Fumiki's new self. He did not take away the book from his friend like he used to do but chose to share it.
I can safely state that during the stage when Fumiki came to recognize other children as his peers, the other children went through the phase of accepting Fumiki as a peer. Whether the teacher and classmates consider the child as part of their community or not is especially important for the child to develop a sense of solidarity and belonging. The teacher joined and enjoyed the children's favorite game with them and shared their enthusiasm. This sharing seems to help children develop a sense of solidarity and belonging. Through play and other preschool activities, both Fumiki and other children could enhance their respective presence and interpersonal relationships within their community.
There is also the concept of inclusive education and care. It comprehensively includes all types of children in society, regardless of whether they have disabilities or not, and accepts those who had once been excluded from the education system in the past (Itami, 2017). Nevertheless, it is not easy to practice this concept in reality. There are probably teachers in charge of a large class who are struggling with a dilemma--their wish to pay attention to the individual needs of each child and their duty to take care of the entire class as a group, which means they cannot spare time for each child.
Indeed, it isn't easy to make the ideal real. Nevertheless, the case of Fumiki raised the following question for me: Shouldn't we seek to find a way to change the social situations surrounding the child (i.e., people's perceptions toward the child), instead of trying to change the child's unique personality simply due to our unconscious assumptions about the child's behavior? I felt the case of Fumiki questioned us about this. A person could develop interpersonal relationships with others through the experience of fully engaging in something mentally and physically. To live as part of society, it is essential for a child not only to acquire a feeling of security from parents and teachers but also to feel satisfaction by being part of the children's community, being cheered for and having his/her friends say "we're glad you're with us," and earning trust from them.
- Shouichi Itami (2017) "Inclusive Childcare," Tomoko Nasukawa & Mika Ogata (supv.), Shouichi Itami (ed.) "Theory of Inclusive Children," Minerva Shobo, P.11
I would like to express my sincere thanks to the children who warmly welcomed me into their childcare facilities, and their teacher, Daigo, who told me about his feelings and expectations. All names in this article are pseudonyms.