I (Senoo) am the primary author of this article. About two and a half years ago, I conducted an overseas research project at the University of Georgia in the USA. At that time, I had the opportunity to show my research video clips to teachers working at the McPhaul Center, an ECEC (early childhood education and care) facility at the University of Georgia. The video clips showed children in a four-year-old class at a Japanese kindergarten during their lunch preparation time. Two boys, called "A" and "B," appeared at the beginning of the video. A was a little tardy in preparing his lunch, while B had finished his preparation early. It showed how B started teasing A while their teacher observed them as she served miso soup to other children. After watching the video, the teachers asked me, "Why didn't the teacher stop A and B when they were bugging each other?" "Why did she continue serving soup to children without intervening?"
I remember myself desperately trying to explain to them saying, "It is easy for the teachers to stop the fuss. However, in Japan, ECEC teachers do not intervene immediately. I think they believe children can solve their problems by themselves, or at least they count on them to do so. They are not ignoring them, nor simply watching them but are taking the mimamoru approach by watching with great care." It was a somewhat unpleasant memory for me as I could not adequately answer their natural and simple question as to what the mimamoru approach is.
The Practical Guide for the Courses of Study for Kindergartens (2018) specifies the importance of watching children thoughtfully and expectantly. This is one of the considerations teachers should take into account to ensure children's enjoyment with a sense of fulfillment in kindergarten. "Watching children without intervention" does not mean simply letting them do whatever they want, rather it means observing them carefully and promptly responding to them should they need help. Teachers should watch, talk to, and support children by understanding their developmental progress and autonomous learning. To answer the question about "what the mimamoru approach (watching children without intervention) is," it is essential to specifically describe Japanese ECEC teachers' childcare practices in detail; how they caringly observe children and their involvement with them.
In previous studies (e.g., Nakatsubo, 2016; Hayashi & Tobin, 2015), it is pointed out that Japanese ECEC teachers tend to take the mimamoru approach and observe children's play activities instead of frequent intervention. The practice of the mimamoru approach seems to be the expertise of ECEC teachers in Japan. However, it seems that, when comparing childcare practices in Japan and the US, there are specific differences in the way teachers support children, as well as the practice of the mimamoru approach.
When I observed the childcare practices of teachers at the McPhaul Center, I saw them responding to children when it was apparent they were about to get into a conflict situation. As Tobin et al. (1989) pointed out, teachers promptly intervened, asked children to vocally express what they wanted to their friend, and guided them towards solution of the problem. For example, when all children in the class were to start a group activity of fingerplay, one girl did not follow the instruction. Then, the teacher said to her, "If you don't want to join in, that's fine," and separated her from the other children but did not give her support by hearing her out.
In contrast, Japanese ECEC teachers do not promptly intervene in children's quarrels; instead, they carefully watch children with the uketomeru (all-embracing) approach. For example, suppose a child refuses to follow the instructions of a teacher or acts in a problematic way, ECEC teachers in Japan try to support the child according to the situation instead of separating the child from other children. In other words, ECEC teachers in Japan try to surmise the children's real feelings underlying problematic behavior and help them by embracing their feelings and behavior.
In this article, the uketomeru (all-embracing) approach is defined as ECEC teachers directly interacting with each child and trying to understand their thoughts and feelings from their facial, verbal, and physical expressions. Through the results of my six-month observational survey targeting a four-year-old class at the kindergarten attached to the Faculty of Education and Human Studies at Akita University (hereafter referred to as Akita University-affiliated kindergarten) and comments from the teachers, this report will discuss Japan's childcare practices by focusing on the support of teachers taking the uketomeru approach, which goes beyond the practice of the mimamoru approach.
1. Childcare practice of the mimamoru approach
The Courses of Study for Kindergartens (2018) specifies that teachers should observe children's activities carefully and warmly and provide appropriate support. The practice of the mimamoru (watching children without intervention) seems to be a common norm when referring to the characteristics of Japan's ECEC and the expertise of teachers. According to Hayashi et al. (2015), the practice of mimamoru has two functions. One is to provide children with sufficient confidence and security to try to solve problems on their own, and helping them promote social interactions. Another function is to make them recognize the existence of ECEC teachers. Nakatsubo (2016) pointed out four characteristics of the mimamoru approach that have practical significance valued by Japan's ECEC practitioners.
First, the mimamoru approach does not use intervention, but does not mean that the teachers will not get involved. Second, teachers control their feelings by showing or not showing their emotions to encourage children's autonomous problem-solving. Third, teachers position themselves out of the children's sight to encourage autonomous problem-solving. Fourth, if children cannot solve a problem alone, teachers will make a primary intervention through brief words and guide them to think further to solve the problem on their own.
As previously mentioned, when a teacher watched A and B in a quarrel during the preparation of school lunch, she just said to them "Lunch will soon be ready. Let's all eat together!" She kept watching them, hoping they would solve the problem on their own. Then, another boy who had noticed the quarrel between A and B came to them and said, "What are you doing? Lunch is ready!" Finally, A and B went back to their seats. At that point, their quarrel ended. However, when they started eating, the teacher came to A, put her hand on his back, looked into his eyes and smiled. You can see how the teacher not only watched (mimamoru) the children but also supported A by embracing his feelings and behavior (uketomeru).
By taking the mimamoru approach, teachers can encourage children's autonomous problem-solving. However, even if children can solve their troubles with peers alone, they may need to pull themselves together to move on to the next activity. To help them do so, teachers' warm support is essential, by embracing children's feelings and behavior (uketomeru). In Japan, it is said that understanding children is fundamental to ECEC. According to the "Evaluation based on the Understanding of Children" (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 2019), teachers should try to understand constantly what children are interested in, what they want to do, and how they feel in the context of their daily activities at kindergarten. Therefore, Japanese ECEC practitioners highly value teachers' support by embracing children's feelings and behavior.
Of course, understanding children is considered important in the USA as well, as I saw teachers being involved in each child according to their individual developmental process. However, when observing children at the McPhaul Center, the teachers' involvement was primarily "teaching and guidance." They told me, "we teach children to prepare for kindergarten and elementary school so that they won't have to face difficulties and embarrassment. Such differences in teachers' involvement with children may result from different ECEC principles between Japan and the US. Specifically, Japan focuses on young children's autonomous experiences that will enhance the holistic development of children in the context of their daily activities, while the USA focuses on children's school readiness with the primary objective of child education as preparing children for elementary school.
In Japan, teachers' support by embracing children's feelings and behavior is said to be essential. Do Japanese teachers really support children by the uketomeru approach in their ECEC practices? Let's look at the actual conditions of teachers based on the results of our survey at the Akita University-affiliated kindergarten and the narratives of teachers working there.
(To be continued in Part 2)
- Hayashi A., & Tobin,J.(2015). Teaching Embodied, Cultural Practice in Japanese Preschools. The University of Chicago Press
- Tobin, J., Wu, D., & Davidson, D. (1989). Preschool in Three Culture: Japan, China and the United States. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (2018). "Practical Guide for the Courses of Study for Kindergartens". Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd.
- Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (2019). "Evaluation based on the Understanding of Children". Child Honsha Co., Ltd.
- Fuminori Nakatsubo. (2016). Nursery Teachers' Expertise in Assisting Children's Autonomous Problem-Solving: Practical Significance and Depth of Childcare with Watching and Waiting. Kokugakuin University Faculty of Human Development Research, 7, 2-11.
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