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[Japan] Play in Early Childhood Education

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For many, it might seem a little peculiar to think of "education" and "play" together, as if they were related; however, in the worlds of early childhood education and developmental psychology, this is quite common. The word "play" here does not refer to learning activities incorporating play elements or creating a sense of play enjoyment. We consider that "play" itself includes "learning." In this report, I will explain this concept of play and education, as well as the perceptions of children and play in early childhood education.

Introduction: My thoughts on the opinions of students at a university which provides training for teachers

I give lectures at a university in a teacher education program. Each time, at the end of the session, I ask my students to write down any ideas and/or questions. Those students, newly enrolled students in particular, write quite frankly to me regarding various thoughts on play and child care based on their experiences. Among them, I read opinions such as:

"These kindergartens (or childcare centers) only allow children to play but do little else for them..."
"It seems that teachers just let the children play and do nothing themselves."

Probably, playing gives such an impression that they are just wasting time or doing meaningless activities. However, from the perspective of early childhood education, the meaning of "play" for young children is quite different. Children become seriously and deeply engaged in play. Sometimes it requires practice, and most children are making individual attempts and efforts to improve their necessary skills in play. In this way, "play" is considered to be a way to provide various opportunities for children to foster their development, which can never be a waste of time.

Then, how about the following opinions?

"I want to enroll my child in a kindergarten that allows children plenty of time to play."

Because we recognize the importance of play, is it better to give children plenty of time to play? If children can experience meaningful play which would not be considered as "just letting them play," giving plenty of time to play does not seem like a bad idea. We may need, however, to examine what kinds of play will generate opportunities for children's development as well as the enrichment of play experiences for young children.

Some students say, "I want to be a teacher who lets children play happily," or "I want to become a teacher who can teach children a wide variety of play activities." Surely, it is important for a teacher/caregiver to be aware of various kinds of child play activities, but it is also important how to provide children with opportunities to play, because this may affect their interest and curiosity towards such activities. There are numerous elements to consider such as when and how they learn a play activity and how they are feeling and interested in it, and with whom they engage in the activity. The timing of becoming interested in a play activity may vary, depending on each child. If caregivers teach a play activity in the same way as academic subjects are taught in elementary schools or above, the sparkling attractiveness of the play will quickly disappear, and it will then become a dull task which otherwise could have been an interesting activity for them.

Curriculum guidelines for early childhood education and care

To manage such various modes of young children's responding and developmental behaviors, teachers/caregivers refer the equivalent to the Courses of Study for elementary school teachers. The "Courses of Study for Kindergarten." It has been established by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the "National Guidelines for Care and Education at Day Nursery" by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare for childcare centers, and the "Course of Study and Guideline of Childcare for Integrated Center for Early Childhood Education and Care" by the Cabinet Office for ECEC centers. The latest versions of these three guidelines were concurrently announced in March 2017 and have been implemented since April 2018 after the one-year period which was required for notifying the public. With these guidelines, kindergartens will determine their curriculums (based on this broad framework, detailed plans will be determined according to the actual conditions of local communities and children) in order to establish universal national levels for early childhood education and childcare (for children of three years or older in the case of kindergartens, and for children of zero years or older in the case of childcare center and ECEC facilities). These national guidelines constitute a binding agreement among teachers/early childhood staff. Based on the agreement, each teacher will make their own attempts and efforts considering the actual conditions of local communities.

In addition, the objectives and contents of these three guidelines for childcare targeting children of three years or older are almost equivalent. Because of the current split system in Japan, they are divided into three frameworks, but focus on the same philosophies and important factors for young children. This aims to provide universal early childhood education to all children in the different parts of the country. Likewise, for children of zero to three years, childcare centers and ECEC facilities aim to provide childcare and education based on the same philosophy. In this way, all children can receive the same levels of education and care based on the common goals, curriculums and perceptions, regardless of whether they are at a kindergarten, childcare center, or ECEC facility.

Importance of creating a play environment

How is play positioned in relation to these three guidelines?

First of all, it is important to make each child feel secure by providing stable interactions with others. When they feel secure, they can afford to become curious and try out new things, or repeatedly attempt some activity they find difficult to master. Newborn babies start experimenting with movements as they gradually gain strength and control over their body. They learn by touching things nearby and tracing the shape with their hands, dropping or throwing things to make sounds, etc. Babies are eager to explore new things and engage in such play activities that might create trouble for adults, such as pulling everything out of the cabinet, but bring valuable opportunities for them to learn.

As such, play is a child's independent and voluntary activity that creates various opportunities to learn. To establish play opportunities, however, it is necessary to provide children with an environment in which they can deeply engage in play, as well as making them feel safe and secure. Such an environment includes not only various toys and play equipment, but materials with versatility, modifiability and broad applicability are more attractive for children and encourage them to voluntarily think and make attempts to interesting and creative use. Therefore, kindergartens, childcare center and ECEC centers often utilize wooden building blocks that can be configured in unlimited ways as well as materials that can be used for creative activities such as different types of paper sheets, pens, crayons, scrap wood and natural objects, and daily goods that can be used for "pretend play" such as different types of clothing and fabrics. In the natural environment around the facility, there may be a wide variety of materials with high modifiability and broad applicability.

But there is one thing we need to think about. Even if children are allowed to play freely, they cannot experience playing with things that are not offered at childcare centers and kindergartens. Therefore, to what extent children can enrich their learning will depend on the environment provided by adults with a sufficient amount and variety of instruments and materials which children can voluntarily choose from. Another condition of such an environment is to provide children with sufficient space and time to engage in play. Nowadays, it is becoming hard to find spare time in our busy life where children are obliged to play just to kill the time. Another condition for the environment is the availability of adults and peers. Children are likely to be more interested in trying something their favorite teachers show, or their older peers play at. They will be more encouraged to challenge something in which they are not really confident, if their friend suggests doing so. Play means for children to simply enjoy activities by interacting with things and people around them, regardless of whether there is any specific purpose. Nevertheless, play activities will provide important experiences for children's growth and development. Therefore, the above three guidelines focus on teaching through "play" in an "appropriate environment" as the basis for early childhood education and care.

One of the characteristics of early childhood is individual variation in development among children. Even when it looks as if children are all engaged in the same activity, if you observe each of them closely, you will find that each child is enjoying themselves in their own way. When children enjoy playing with each other, most of the time what they do has sufficient freedom to explore the activities and materials.

Play is a serious matter. When children are deeply involved in play, their facial expression tends to become serious. At times they play with a smile on their face, but there are also situations where they are seriously committed to play activities. Sometimes they discuss what they want to do with peers, which is also considered to be a play activity. There may be cases where a child cannot do what s/he wants to do because it is necessary to compromise, not only enjoy a collaborative activity, but also have a sense of failure or conflict when they are playing with their peers. In this way, children can get opportunities through play to understand social morals and rules and develop their language skills, as they need to understand and respect the feelings of their peers, communicate their own ideas and thoughts, and seek a solution to achieve the goals of everyone. At the same time, children can develop their socio-emotional skills that are the ability to challenge, the abilities of learning to learn, being patient and making ingenious attempts and efforts.

The way of involvement by teachers/caregivers towards play

As explained above, children are able to comprehensively develop various abilities through play. It is therefore necessary to consider, how should teachers support and develop children's independent and voluntary play activities? Teachers/caregivers should carefully observe each child as well as the dynamics of their play activities, and predict and prepare materials necessary for children through the processes of play and development. At times, they can introduce to children some group activities that may offer opportunities to acquire new skills and experiences. In this way, teachers/caregivers provide children with sufficient potential play elements and seeds of ideas, which children will incorporate into their play activities.

Teachers/caregivers sometimes play with children as their play partner or a role-model, or even offer advice for children. They also need to ask children some questions based on their ideas and attempts, in order to help them deepen or extend the scope of their play. It is important to help children focus on the process of maintaining play enjoyment, thinking and making attempts to develop the play, rather than teaching them to find the right answer or to achieve a satisfactory outcome at an early stage.

This concept of "play" in early childhood education is useful for families and elementary schools as well as for kindergartens, childcare centers, and ECEC facilities. According to the commentary for the National Curriculum Guidelines for Kindergarteners, the content of Chapter 1 of three guidelines was prepared to "provide a guideline as the "Map of Learning" to be broadly shared and used among centers, families, and local communities." I believe that, if there are more opportunities to share the perceptions of children and play based on the documentations of children's play between teachers/caregivers and elementary school teachers as well as between parents and teachers/caregivers, the essential childhood of children will be nurtured to a greater degree.


References:

  • Ferre Laevers (Ed.), 2005, Well-being and Involvement in Care Settings. A Process-oriented Self-evaluation Instrument https://www.kindengezin.be/img/sics-ziko-manual.pdf
  • Kiyomi Akita, Hiroshi Ashida, Masatoshi Suzuki, Riyo Kadota, Takako Noguchi, Junko Minowa, Yumi Yodogawa, Yutaka Oda, 2010, Childcare Processes Based on Children's Experiences, Office of the Early Childhood Education Video Production Committee
  • Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2018, Commentary for the Guidelines for Nursery Care at Day Nursery, Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd.
  • Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 2018, Commentary for the Course of study for Kindergarten, Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd.
  • Cabinet Office, 2018, Commentary for the National Curriculum Guidelines for Integrated-type Certified "Kodomo-en" School, Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd.
  • Yumi Yodogawa and Kiyomi Akita, 2016, Introduction and Summary of Typical Childcare Quality Evaluation Scales, Siraj, I., Kingston, D., and Melhuish, E. (translated by Kiyomi Akita and Yumi Yodogawa, 2016), Assessing Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being (SSTEW) Scale for 2-5-year-olds Provision, pp.84-100, Akashi Shoten
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Chiharu_Uchida.jpg Chiharu Uchida

Professor Uchida graduated from Ohio State University, Graduate School, College of Education, where she was awarded a Ph.D. Currently she is serving as a professor at Toyo University Graduate School of Human Life Design, Department of Human Care and Support, Child Support Studies, as well as an associate member of the Early Childhood Education Research Center at the National Institute for Educational Policy Research (NIER) of Japan. She specializes in education for young children, developmental psychology, early childhood education and care, multicultural education, etc.
Major publications: "Socio-Emotional Skills in Early Childhood Education", Child Studies, (5) 8-29, 2017; "The Current Demands on Teachers of Early Childhood Education and Care-Issues of Early Childhood Teacher Education and Professional Development at this Transition Period", Annual Bulletin of the Japanese Society for the Study on Teacher Education, (25) 48-55, 2016; "Chapter 4: Expertise and Roles of Childcare Workers and Teachers in Multicultural Early Childhood Education" of the "Theories of Multicultural Early Childhood Education", co-author, Mirai Co., Ltd.; "Creating Cooperative Learning in Education Processes from Early Childhood Education to University Levels", co-author, Sankeisha Co., Ltd.
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