TOP > Projects > ECEC around the World > [Japan] Child Centered Education: Cultural differences that Affect Childcare Practices


[Japan] Child Centered Education: Cultural differences that Affect Childcare Practices

Child centered education is also referred to as "free education." This means valuing the initiative of each child, achieved by care workers who assist children in learning. Childcare practices under this principle, however, show considerable variability according to frames of reference in human relationships, communication styles, and perception towards children. In this article, the author who has been involved in and observed both child education in Japan and the U.S. will discuss how a childcare worker can contribute to the development of children, by drawing a comparison of differences in childcare education as delivered in Japan to that delivered in the U.S.

Keywords: Child centered education, Perception towards children, Free education vs. curriculum-based education, Scaffolding

>>Basic Data of Japan japan



To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

< Auguries of Innocence, William Blake >

A grain of sand, a wild flower, a palm of the hand, and a short period of time...a job trying to put eternity into a fraction of time - this is childcare. A childcare worker takes on wholeheartedly the care of children, and learns from them. A childcare worker sees through stumbling blocks the children are encountering in their mind and helps them overcome these blocks for themselves. Childcare workers try to increase their competence in every area of childcare education, its fundamentals, its psychology, pediatric neurology, history, child culture and so on before entering into the practicalities of the work of childcare. Nevertheless, when faced with real children, they feel these knowledge and skills are helpless.

To commence this work, they first need to be able to learn from each child they encounter in order to be able to help children to develop themselves. They should go back to the beginning and give their full attention to each child. They should forget what they have learnt about child education, without being bound by annual plans, monthly plans, weekly or daily curriculum, and start childcare face-to-face. This principle of childcare is so called "child-centered education." In a nursery room, a child is a hero or heroine and a childcare worker is a supporting character. Adults stay with children, speak to them and assist them, taking into consideration their stage of development. Although practiced under the same principle, the outcomes differ depending on each culture. In this article, I will discuss how this form of childcare is affected by the perception towards children as determined by the culture of the society in which the children live. I will do this by drawing a comparison between childcare education in the Ochanomizu University-affiliated kindergarten and the Rainbow Nursery School attached Stanford University in the U.S., both of which practice child centered education.

1. Improving the quality of early childhood education by shifting emphasis from 'childcare' to the principle of "child-centered education"

Since 1988, the childcare system in Japan has changed with the goal of improving the quality of early childhood education, from "curriculum-based education," whereby the child's activities are organized and systemized under the same curriculum for all children, to "child centered education" in which children make independent choices according to their interests. In this new approach, a child is a "hero" or "heroine" and a childcare worker is a "supporting character" who assists the child in the nursery environment. A childcare worker talks to and helps children by being with them closely, observing the mental and physiological development of each child. If children should stumble, we do not put children on the "right" track but provide them with a scaffolding.

The Ochanomizu University-affiliated kindergarten is Japan's oldest kindergarten established in 1886, where the concept of free education was introduced into Japan for the first time by Sozo Kurahashi who was inspired by the ideology of a German pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel. This education style became a good model to improve the quality of childcare. In 1998, official child education curriculum guidelines were revised, followed by the revision of day-care center guidelines, thus this child-centered education spread nationwide and has been maintained up to the present.

Transformation to the free education style has proved a challenge. Many educationists including young childcare workers and even experienced teachers have commented on the difficulty in switching their practice from "curriculum-based education" where education activities are planned in advance and organized by childcare workers to "child centered education" where a child's initiative is the focus and childcare workers are at stand-by position to assist the child.

Under these circumstances, Ms. Fumiko Horiai and I visited kindergartens throughout Japan to disseminate the idea of free education. Those involved in child education in each community gathered for a simulation by Ms. Horiai of the free education style, after which I explained and developed the principle. We also answered questions from the audience, and discussed the skills required in child education. In particular, I emphasized how it is important that we should value the initiative of each child; observe carefully the conflicting feelings within a child, and give timely help when a child who has stumbled could not step forward. We also explained to the participants that the outcomes of child education is generated from the relationship between the character of childcare workers and children; therefore, when each of us engages in free education under the same concept, the outcome will differ depending on the community in which the children live, the kindergarten they go to, the teacher they learn from, and the relationship between the teacher and the community, kindergarten and how the children develop.

Gradually people's awareness has improved, and there is a readiness to accept child centered education. Now it is evident that many kindergartens are practicing this concept, although there are still some kindergartens that keep to teacher-oriented education in response to the demand from parents. Nevertheless, we can be assured that the idea of "valuing the child's initiative" is prevalent in the field of child education.


2. Cultural differences that affect childcare practices

I once had the opportunity to attend and observe childcare activities practiced by Ms. Horiai for three years between April 1982 and March 1986. At that time, Ms. Horiai was well known and attracted nationwide attention as the "God of Childcare" who practiced the theory of childcare developed by Professor Kurahashi. Every Friday, teachers from around Japan used to visit her nursery room to observe her childcare; sometimes the number of adults was more than that of children. In her nursery room, we could see a truly child centered education. However, this concept generates completely different results when carried out in another culture, era, or historical context. I noticed this fact when I attended a kindergarten class in the U.S. for one year, where child centered education was also practiced.

From 1996 to 1997, I conducted my own research on second language acquisition at Stanford University, focusing on their affiliated elementary school and kindergarten. One of their affiliates, the Rainbow Nursery School advocates "child centered education," a principle developed by Professor Constance Kamii and Professor Rheta DeVries based on the theory of a Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.

My first observation was the difference between Japanese and U.S. style of education; this difference being rooted in the childcare worker's stance. For child centered education in the U.S., a childcare worker stands with a child side by side. The childcare worker will walk a bit ahead of the child, and when the child stumbles, he/she points the child the direction in which to go forward, eyed from a slightly higher level of the child's eyes, acting as a guide and teacher. Furthermore, he/she will show not only one direction for the next step but several options, and let the child select by him/herself.

In contrast, for the "Kurahashi theory and Horiai childcare," a childcare worker and a child stand face to face on the same ground. When they walk, the childcare worker walks slightly behind the child, with a scaffolding ready in case the child stumbles. Ms. Horiai practiced the Kurahashi idea that "guidance should come at the last minute, and be given the most careful attention when carried this out." In her nursery room, we could hear suggestions but never words of prohibition, orders, or directions. She gave her whole attention to the verbal and body language of children, trying to capture their true expressions. She often knelt down to the child's level, in order to listen carefully and catch the inner voice of the child. She would never suggest the direction to go forward, but instead, would watch the child carefully and wait until the child made an independent choice.


3. Perceptual differences of children's needs affect the type of childcare support in Japan and the U.S.

The above difference in a childcare worker's stance between Japan and the U.S. is probably rooted in the difference of frames of reference for human relationships. I have adopted the hypothesis that the way of fostering child's initiative differs because the frame of reference for American people is that of their own identity, while for the Japanese it is set on how they perceive their relationship with those around them. To test this hypothesis, I asked several mothers who had a child attending the Stanford University-affiliated elementary school, what expressions they use when speaking to their child when they get home from school. The three most popular were the questions: "Did you express your opinion?" "Did you contribute to your class?" and lastly "Did you enjoy your day?" For them, the behavior of referring to one's own self is favorable. However, mothers in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan care about whether their child can get along with everybody in class.

Those who live in an East Asian culture deeply influenced by Confucian philosophy are taught to consider the feelings of the elderly and other people to determine one's own behavior and to refrain from acting of one's own accord. Thus, it is not easy for children to make independent decisions or to have a strong attitude of self-assertiveness. In such a culture, if we adults always instruct children in the steps to take forward in order to help them to make decisions, even though this help is intended to develop autonomous decision-making, autonomous thinking and social autonomy, these children might become a "person always waiting for someone's instructions" unable to have confidence to make an independent decision.

To avoid this problem, Japanese childcare workers are encouraged not to instruct a child's direction, but rather prepare a scaffolding in case the child stumbles. They are required to show children that there are various directions in which to go, by helping them expand their field of vision. As such, I presume that it is necessary to provide children with more opportunities for selecting the way they should go or want to take. When I asked Ms. Horiai about this matter, she answered "Children need time to make a decision, so we would stay with them patiently waiting until they decide which direction to take." Likewise, Ms. Jennifer, a teacher of the Rainbow Nursery School replied, "Each child immediately starts playing on their own, so we try to suggest them some activities which will benefit the development of children."


4. Conclusion

In summary, I believe that, in practicing child centered education, the principle will vary according to human relations and the perspective on what it is to be human that have been nurtured in each culture and society. Childcare is a 'living' profession; it is created in various styles and forms depending on the characteristics of culture and the local community where childcare is practiced as well as the characteristics of childcare workers who practice in this field. Therefore, it can be said that the principle of child centered education will manifest itself in various ways depending on the cultural identity and practices of its people.

Nevertheless, for childcare to foster the sound development of children, it is essential to assist children one by one staying close to them, valuing every child's initiative. Childcare workers should receive children's words with their whole body, and then respond to children with the greatest care. Only within such an environment can children move smoothly through the process of development to reach their own identity. Therefore, what is required of childcare workers today is to enhance their perception of a child's need for autonomy, as well as childcare and education skills. This will be achieved by childcare workers making continual efforts to improve their competence in order to be able to respond to each child, seeing through his/her inner conflicts and stumbles, providing adequate support, and thereby allowing each child the opportunity to have a fulfilling and enjoyable day.


Uchida, Nobuko. (1998) Conscientious Child Care: Learning from the words and practices of Fumiko Horiai. Shogakukan.

Horiai, Fumiko (editorial supervisor). Uchida, Nobuko (explicator). (2007) Talk about Child Care: The child care theory of Fumiko Horiai (DVD). Noproblem.

Related articles
Write a comment

*CRN reserves the right to post only those comments that abide by the terms of use of the website.


Japan Today

CRN Child Science Exchange Program in Asia

About CRN

About Child Science


Honorary Director's Blog