These days, we rarely see children of different ages play together in our communities. Therefore, daycare centers, kindergartens, and certified ECEC centers (nintei kodomoen) offer a valuable place for children where they can have vertical and horizontal relationships with their peers. In particular, in playgrounds, children have cross-class and cross-age interactions, which create opportunities for them to encounter "otherness." Through such interactions, children will develop their interpersonal skills every day, where older children think about how to interact with younger ones, and younger children admire the behavior of older ones.
One day, I saw two children of different ages playing in the sandbox at a daycare center. One is named Haruka, a four-year-old girl, and the other is Toshiki, a two-year-old boy. Haruka shoved the sand for Toshiki. It looked like they enjoyed playing together. However, I noticed a glum look on Toshiki's face, so I paused for a second to observe their activity.
The sink in front of him was a stainless steel sink, the kind we generally see in the kitchen. There was a drain hole in the middle of the sink basin. Toshiki shoved the sand and scattered it around the drain hole. Then, he hammered the lower part of the sink with his shovel. The sink shook each time Toshiki hammered the sink. At the same time, sand granules jumped up on the sink and gradually moved towards the drain hole. Then, they disappeared into the hole. For a moment, I was about to cry out. It was amazing. I, as an adult, could easily imagine that the drainboard was slightly sloped towards the drain hole in the middle, and water would be drained through the hole. Therefore, it was no surprise that sand granules moved towards the hole. Still, the jumping movement of the sand was like magic, as if they were alive. Finally, I understood why Toshiki hammered the sink repeatedly. He created and observed the dancing sand and was fascinated with its vanishing moment.
Then Haruka went up to Toshiki. She watched his activity and decided to help him. With a natural sense of caring for the younger peer, she brought more and more sand to the sink. Gradually, the sink basin was full of sand. When Toshiki hammered the sink with his shovel, there was no sand movement anymore. He looked at the sand for a while and left the sandbox. Haruka followed him and said, "Let's continue playing with the sand!" However, Toshiki looked like he had lost interest and wandered away from her. Haruka was left alone, bewildered and gazed at his back.
As in the case of Toshiki and Haruka, children often face different ways of thinking and feeling while interacting with their peers. They think, "Why do others not understand me?" Gradually, children will learn that others have their own way of thinking and feeling and that, to understand each other, they need to express their thoughts clearly. In addition, it is also important to understand what children observe, feel, understand, and how they interact with the world surrounding them, instead of simply focusing on their behavior. Had any adult stopped Toshiki's behavior, i.e., hammering the sink with his shovel, without knowing what attracted him, his pursuit with the sand would have had no chance.
I will also tell you another story. One day, five-year-old children were playing dodgeball at a daycare center. Then, a three-year-old boy came and said, "Can I join you?" The older children discussed it for a while and replied, "No, you cannot." Then, the boy walked away and came back with a teacher standing nearby and said again, "Can I join you?" The teacher asked the older boys "Why do you say no?" They replied, "What if the ball hits him? It's dangerous for a little boy." "Three-year-olds do not understand the rules." "We cannot enjoy the game with a little boy." Were they really mean to him? No, they could envision what it would be like if they let the 3-year-olds in. They imagined that the little boy and they themselves would not enjoy the game because it was too hard for the little boy. In other words, these older boys had already acquired the ability to project what would happen ahead. They also understood why they could enjoy the game—because they knew the rules and could play as a team. On the other hand, the little boy might think, "When I grow older, I will definitely play dodgeball!" His interaction with older boys caused a feeling of aggravation, but at the same time, it might bring a future objective or dream for him.
Had the teacher pushed the social norm of "Older children should be kind to younger ones" and instructed the older children to accept the little boy, the outcome would have been different. Instead, the teacher respected the ways of thinking and feeling of both children in different age groups and functioned as an intermediator to communicate the views of both sides. Such a role of teachers is critical to enriching cross-age interactions among children.