My encounter with the book titled "Preschool in Three Cultures: Japan, China, and the United States" written by Professor Joseph J. Tobin at the University of Georgia, inspired me to conduct an international comparative study on ECEC practices. I was vaguely hoping to receive direct guidance from Professor Tobin if I could have a chance to initiate such a study. When I consulted Dr. Yoichi Sakakihara, my former professor from graduate school, I learned that Dr. Sakakihara knew Professor Tobin. Thanks to the warm support from Dr. Sakakihara and other professors at Akita University, I was able to start an overseas research study under the guidance of Professor Tobin.
In this report, I will introduce my international comparative study focusing on ECEC teachers' feeding practices at mealtime in Japanese and US ECEC facilities. The observational survey was conducted at a daycare center in Kitagami City, Akita Prefecture in Japan, and the Child Development Lab(CDL) at McPhaul Center of the University of Georgia. Based on the survey results, I will discuss childcare practices in Japan.
1．A comparative study focusing on childcare practices at mealtime in childcare facilities
When thinking about children's learning at kindergartens and daycare centers (collectively, "ECEC facilities"), most researchers and ECEC teachers would focus on the significance of play, not mealtime activities. However, having observed children's activities at mealtime, I realized they acquired different experiences and learning compared to when they were playing. In addition, ECEC teachers' childcare approach during mealtime seems to differ during play activities.
There are two reasons why I became interested in conducting a comparative study on childcare practices at mealtime in Japanese and US ECEC facilities. One reason is that I thought children learned through mealtime activities differently from play activities. According to previous studies, mealtime activities at ECEC facilities can provide opportunities for children to interact with all their classmates and subsequently build peer consciousness (Nakazawa, Kaji, & Ishii, 1995; Toyama, 1998; Tomioka, 2010).
This is because children must sit at a table during mealtime with other four to six peers—eight at the most—who might not necessarily be their closest friends. They cannot leave the table even if they quarrel with one another or wish to do something different. Therefore, they need to learn how to somehow get along with others seated at the table during mealtime, whether or not they are good friends with each other.
In contrast, during playtime, children do not need to stay in the same place. When they lose interest in what they are doing or quarrel with peers, they can freely leave the scene. Therefore, children may have significantly different experiences during mealtime compared to playtime.
Another reason is that I thought mealtime in childcare settings could highlight cultural differences in ECEC teachers' childcare practices. Today, early childhood education and care worldwide can be roughly divided into the "school readiness" approach and the "daily life-based" approach. The former approach is taken in the US, mainly focusing on preparing children to enter elementary school. In contrast, the latter approach is common in Japan, where ECEC curriculums seek to enrich young children's lives and experiences, focusing on the holistic development of children. Therefore, there is a substantial difference in preschool curriculums between Japan and the US.
Consequently, the scenery of play activities also differs significantly between these two countries. At mealtime, however, the scenery is almost the same regardless of the levels of education in the sense that students are all sitting at a table and eating lunch with their peers. Nevertheless, ECEC teachers' feeding practices may reflect cultural differences, including what and how children will eat, follow mealtime rules, and interact with peers.
In the next section, I will explain mealtime differences in ECEC facilities observed in Japan and the US.
2．Differences in ECEC teachers' feeding practices during mealtime
I conducted an observational survey (video recordings) at mealtime in Japanese and US childcare facilities six times between June 2019 and February 2020. Then, I asked the ECEC teachers at the US childcare facility to watch the edited video taken at mealtime in the Japanese daycare center. Finally, I interviewed them to find out how impressed or surprised they were.
The survey results revealed that the most remarkable difference between the two countries regarding ECEC teachers' involvement in children's mealtime was their "feeding practices." The Japanese ECEC teachers seemed to frequently try to feed children who ate very little at mealtime, which was something observed in all six mealtime recordings. In contrast, the ECEC teachers in the US did not show such feeding practices in any mealtime recordings. Furthermore, when I asked the ECEC teachers who participated in this survey, "Is there anything that surprised you in these videos?" all three mentioned the feeding practices. They said, "We never feed children at the age of three or four years old. We only feed babies and infants who are too young to eat by themselves."
Feeding babies and infants (up to around two or three years old) is a very common human behavior. Moreover, the "eating-feeding" relationship between infants (up to around two years old) and adults can be observed in all countries. However, this habit of feeding children aged three or four even though they are able to eat on their own seems to be a custom unique to Japan.
3．Japan's childcare practices: the meaning of feeding behavior
"Feeding children" is not only for nutrition intake but also for constructing social foundations that support interpersonal communications when children grow up (Kawada, 2013). Furthermore, in Japan, many people think eating up all the served meal is a virtue. In this regard, the Japanese ECEC teachers' feeding practices might intend to teach children such a virtue. However, I assume that such practices also intend to accept children's "amae (dependence)." A Japanese psychoanalyst Takako Doi defined the term "amae (dependence)" as a "behavior to get someone's attention and elicit their caring" (Doi, 1973). The essential developmental task of Japanese children in their early childhood is not to learn how to become independent but to overcome solitude and loneliness through dependence (Caudill & Plath, 1966). Therefore, I think children's behavior to get ECEC teachers to feed them at mealtime may result from their amae (dependence). They want to draw the attention of the ECEC teachers and personally interact with their caregivers and peers.
In addition, ECEC teachers' feeding practices seem to provide quality time for them to interact with each child. According to the minimum staffing standards for daycare centers in Japan, one ECEC teacher will be assigned to a class of 20 children aged three or 30 children aged four. In the case of the Japanese daycare center under this study, one caregiver was assigned to 15 children aged three. In contrast, the US childcare facility assigned one teacher to six or seven children.
Therefore, compared with overseas cases, Japanese ECEC teachers may have much less time to directly interact with each child in school curriculums and play activities. To cover this shortfall, they seem to seek personal interactions with each child through their feeding practices at mealtime.
Researchers Hayashi and Tobin pointed out in their study that Japanese ECEC teachers were more likely to observe playing children than to frequently interfere with their activities (Hayashi & Tobin, 2019). In other words, Japanese ECEC teachers try to ensure that children can have enough opportunities to interact with their peers during playtime by carefully observing children's activities. At the same time, they retain interpersonal relationships with each child through their feeding practices. Therefore, it can be said that childcare practices in Japan successfully maintain a good balance between "teacher-child" interactions and "child-peer" interactions.
Educational curriculums in professional development and childcare practices are said to differ between Japan and the US, which is truly what I saw firsthand through this survey. For example, the survey results revealed that Japanese ECEC teachers' feeding practices at mealtime are not common in the US childcare facilities. In addition, these active feeding practices may be related to the childcare practice of "carefully and warmly observing" and the psychological mechanism of "amae (dependence)," both of which are considered to be unique to Japanese culture(Azuma,1994；Hayashi, A., & Tobin, J. 2015).
Young children eat lunch at childcare facilities every day. This specific behavioral pattern is repeated hundreds of times throughout their daily experience. Furthermore, mealtime activities do not deviate from other activities at daycare/kindergarten. The aspect of mealtime scenery is linked to other preschool activities and society at large, having a meaningful impact on the holistic development of children.
A comparative study that includes other countries with entirely different cultures gives us valuable opportunities to re-evaluate ECEC in our own country and beyond. In this way, we can understand childcare practices from international perspectives, which may lead to further discussion across countries. In addition, by reflecting on conventional norms that we have uncritically accepted, we may open the gateway to creative thinking and consider ECEC in Japan from a new perspective.
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- Hayashi, A., & Tobin, J. (2015).Teaching Embodied, The University of Chicago Press.
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- Kawada, M. (2013). Chapter 8: Development of a self-other relationship. Negayama, K., Toyama, N., & Kawahara, N. (ed.). Kodomo to shokou—shokuiku wo koeru [Reshaping children's development of eating: from multi-disciplinary views]. University of Tokyo Press. 133-146.
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- Toyama, N. (1998). Hoikuen no shokujibamen ni okeru youji nosekitori koudou: Yoko ni suwaruto nanika iikoto aruno? [Peer Interactions and Seating Preferences at Japanese Preschool Meal Times]. The Japanese journal of developmental psychology, 9, 209-220.