As part of my job, I visit ECEC facilities in different regions and often feel that childcare is linked to the respective local culture. For example, at an ECEC facility in Osaka Prefecture, I saw children playing house using an imitation toy of takoyaki (octopus dumpling, one of Osaka's soul food). As another example, children at an ECEC facility in Shizuoka Prefecture played store with imitation toys of oden (a one-pot dish and popular food in Shizuoka). These observations indicate that children's play activities are strongly connected to their daily experiences in the community.
Let me give you a more detailed example, the case of an ECEC facility in Nara City. The ECEC facility successfully links childcare to local culture by listening to children's voices and inspiring their interest in cultural activities. The ECEC facility has an annual school excursion for the class of 5-6-year-olds. However, the children are not usually asked what they precisely thought and discovered during the excursion. So, when they went on a hiking excursion, the teachers tried to listen to the children's voices carefully while walking on a mountain path. When the children found a fallen tree, they asked, worrying and wondering, "What will happen to that tree?" Their questions seemed to come from sympathy and kindness rather than mere intellectual curiosity.
After returning from the excursion, the teacher addressed the topic of the tree again, asking the children, "What will happen to fallen or chopped trees?" Children bounced ideas off each other based on their knowledge from daily experience, saying, "Maybe they are used for making a house or desk?" "I heard paper is made from wood," "What is made using that paper made from wood?" Then, one child pointed to a paper fan in the classroom, asking, "Isn't this made from paper?" Other children became interested in the fan and gathered around it. They wondered how it was made and discussed possible technical methods.
Before that discussion, the teacher had thought that a paper-making activity might be enjoyable for children. However, because children became interested in the fan, wondering "how it was made," the teacher changed her mind. By flexibly adjusting her direction to children's interests instead of forcing children to follow her instruction, the teacher successfully maintained children's curiosity towards the fan, exploring new things together.
Then, the teacher thought about what kind of activities children could work on regarding this topic and decided to take the children to a traditional fan shop established more than 170 years ago in Nara to interview the artisan. She was encouraged to make that decision since the artisan had graduated from the same ECEC facility. He explained how to make the "Nara Uchiwa" fan; a traditional craft passed down since the Nara period. Children listened to his story with a strained look on their faces, being a little nervous about the unusual location different from their nursery room. They saw authentic craftspeople, authentic equipment, and skills. Through the expert artisanship, they experienced Nara's local culture. They learned which part of the town the artisan lived in and what he was doing, and that he would teach them how to make a fan if they asked him to. This experience inspired children to imitate, replicate, and create a real fan.
When they returned to the ECEC facility, they made a fan using the skills taught by the artisan, each saying "I will make it this way," or "I will decorate it with this." They imitated the traditional fan but also explored their ideas and attempted their strategies to create an original fan ideal for them. This way, children can inherit local culture and create new things with their hands.
Loris Malaguzzi, who promoted an innovative philosophy of early childhood education in Reggio Emilia, Italy, said, "ECEC teachers have two pockets, one for factual knowledge and one for uncertainties." Factual knowledge is obtained from inquiries, such as what kind of a community the ECEC facility belongs to; what kind of cultures the community has; what kind of people reside in the community; where such cultures can be seen in the surrounding environment; and what kind of possibilities can be discovered. At the same time, teachers always have uncertainties while taking care of children and listening to their voices. Therefore, they need to flexibly tune in to children's responses and explore further with them. This attitude supports children's power of curiosity in the pursuit of local culture.
Children interact with community people whose names and faces are familiar to them and learn where these people live and what they can teach children. In this way, children will gradually develop their connections in the community. By doing so, this will foster a sense of belonging and attachment to the community in the children. In this regard, children's presence in the community may differ depending on whether adults consider children as "fragile and need safeguarding" or "little citizens who inherit local culture and create new things." Children are already part of the community and have a lot of potential to drive the community's culture prosperity. However, interactions between children and local communities tend to be led by adults. In this time of uncertainty, we should believe that children have the power to inherit and reproduce traditional culture and at the same time create new things independently where needed. For that very reason, the experience from this fieldwork made me feel that ECEC settings should offer children the specific and practical activities in community.