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Friday, Sept. 21, 2001

MATTER OF COURSE

LET KIDS DO THE MATH

Prepare carefully for trips into the field


I'm still pretty new in my role as a Japanese mom. I send my children to a Japanese public elementary school, but as my own upbringing and education was in America I don't always know what I'm supposed to do. Nevertheless, after a year and half on the job I tend to think I've got the hang of things.

That is, until something comes along that reminds me how clueless I really am. Like snacks for a field trip.

Japanese schoolchildren are generally taken on field trips twice a year, usually in the spring and fall. These excursions are called ensoku, written with the characters for "far" and "foot." As the word suggests, ensoku are traditionally taken on foot to a place of natural beauty, perhaps a hike to a scenic spot not too far from the school.

From our school in central Tokyo, you'd have to walk for days to reach a place of natural beauty. So when our students go on a field trip, they usually go by subway to a metropolitan park. This seemed strange to me. What was the educational purpose? Sure, the kids might hunt around the park for seeds or insects, but that didn't seem to justify taking a full day off from classes.

As it turns out, field trips here do have a clear educational purpose -- but one different from that I had in mind.

I started out with American notions about field trips. In the United States, students go to places of supposed educational significance. A planetarium to learn about stars and planets. The site of a colonial settlement to learn American history.

Japanese students take trips like this, too, but they are called kengaku (study tours). My fourth grader's class, for example, will go on a kengaku to a garbage-treatment plant. In contrast, ensoku are mostly for fun. And the destination doesn't seem to matter as much as the process. Teachers use ensoku to teach students how to prepare for an outing, how to travel safely (and in a civilized manner) and how to organize their own activities.

Before a field trip, teachers devote several hours of class time to preparation. I asked my son what teachers could possibly talk about for that long.

"Oh, they tell us that we have to stay together and not cause meiwaku [trouble] to other people," he said. "They tell us what we need to bring and why it is important not to forget things. We divide into han [small groups] for the trip and decide what games we'll play and who will bring the balls."

Before the trip, kids bring home a handout called a shiori. Written so the children themselves can read it (i.e., in hiragana or using only kanji they have studied), the booklet outlines everything the students need to know about the field trip, including a detailed itinerary.

The shiori also lists everything needed for the outing, which the children are supposed to organize themselves. There are two sets of boxes next to each item. They tick one set when they pack the night before. They tick off the second set when they double-check their supplies in the morning.

The list for a day trip to a park was as follows: "Lunch, water bottle, snack, ground cloth, two garbage bags, handkerchief, tissues, small towel, rain gear (folding umbrella, raincoat) and this shiori."

A packed lunch from home is a treat for Japanese schoolchildren, who normally eat the hot lunch provided at school. Parents get up early to cook fresh food for the lunch, and kids wheedle for favorite items. One friend's fifth-grader always asks for soboro bento (rice with toppings of seasoned ground meat and cooked egg). Throw in a wiener, omit all vegetables and you've got the ideal ensoku meal.

At lunch time, kids spread out their ground cloths next to their best friends. My son reports that kids trade for coveted foods (and fling vegetables into the bushes).

Which brings me to the subject of snacks. At our school, teachers used to specify a price limit for the snack, usually 300 yen. I didn't understand why a price was specified, but I didn't give it too much thought. I just grabbed something from the cupboard and set it out for my son to pack.

But the afternoon before one field trip, I happened to stop by a neighborhood convenience store for milk. I was surprised to see half of my son's class prowling the aisles. One outgoing girl waved me down and showed me her basket. "Look at all I've got, and it's going to come to exactly 300 yen," she said proudly. All those kids were busily computing how to get the maximum munch for their money.

For the first time, I understood that the snack limit is set so that everyone brings about the same amount of candy. Most parents hand over the money and let the kids do their own snack shopping.

Right there in the 7-Eleven, I understood why Japan shines in those international comparisons of math ability. Even field trips require computation practice!

Lower down on the epiphany scale, I realized that my kid was supposed to be in that store with his classmates. As soon as I got home, I gave him money and sent him on his math maneuvers.

He learned quickly. When he came home from the field trip with a bag of traded candy, he gave me the rundown.

"You want to buy something cheap but plentiful that you can share with your friends," he said. "But the trick is to have enough money left over to get yourself something you really like."

It seems, however, that the ensoku snack ritual is endangered. I just got the instructions for my first-grader's next ensoku, and the section on snacks says taberareru dake (only what you can eat). I showed this to a Japanese mother, who decoded the message. Apparently, teachers feel there has been too much candy trading. So students should pack only a modest snack. And no more swapping.

If Japan slips in those international comparisons of math achievement, you'll know why. They changed the rules on ensoku snacks.



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