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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Open-minded schools adopt innovative approaches


Staff writer

As our society continues to urbanize, it is becoming increasingly difficult for children to be children. Long gone are the days when they were free to get muddy without being told off by adults, or to run about without the threat of speeding cars. In the concrete jungle in which more kids grow up these days, there is hardly room to allow for such childhood adventures.

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At Asaka Doronko Nursery School, kids can get as muddy as they like. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

Even more worrying, educators say that some children today lack such basic skills as the ability to turn on a faucet they never learn the mechanics of what older generations take for granted because more and more restrooms have automatic no-touch sinks. Understanding what death is, not through the simulated images children are exposed to in gory movies and computer games, is beyond children's reach as well, as extended families and community networks have become less common.

Two facilities for preschool-age children in the outskirts of Tokyo, however, are putting real-world experience first. At Asaka Doronko Nursery School ( www.doronko.biz ) in the city of Asaka, Saitama Prefecture, kids can get muddy all they want. Children aged several months through 5 run about the facility, barefoot, with dirt all over their bodies and clothes.

The publicly accredited, privately run day care has the look and feel of a countryside farm, even though it is less than an hour away by bus and train from the center of Tokyo. The old Japanese-style building with a long and wide engawa (veranda) faces a river, providing children with a wide-open view of the area and no office or apartment buildings to block it.

The grassy playground has a little hill in the center for children to climb up and down, and the ground is deliberately uneven. Toddlers there are used to slipping and falling. They demonstrated big falls again and again during a recent visit, splashing mud all over themselves each time but didn't cry once about it. The goats hanging out with them didn't seem to bothered by their tumbles, either.

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Aika Yasunaga of Asaka Doronko

"I really wanted to have goats in here," says Aika Yasunaga, the 34-year-old director of Doronko (which literally means "Get muddy"). "I know goats are relatively clean, and they live long enough so that children spending six years here can experience the birth and the death of a goat at least once."

Yasunaga, a former employee at the multinational bank Citigroup, says she decided to start a day-care business after being shocked by the poor quality of care she discovered at other facilities more than 10 years ago when she was raising her two children. One day, when she went to pick up her older son in a public nursery, she found him forced to sit on his knees in the seiza position as punishment for "climbing the tangerine tree," she recalls. "I guess the day care planted a tangerine tree to let children feel the seasonal changes and taste the fruit. But I think it's also important for kids to climb a tree and jump to the ground, to see at what height they get hurt.

"I thought it was wrong to avoid the risks of falls for children. I thought that children need to understand the danger themselves through experience."

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The building at Fuji Yochien was built as a doughnut to allow students plenty of room to run.

Before the April 2007 opening of Doronko, which epitomizes Yasunaga's ideals of day care that children should be allowed to play outdoors as much as possible and to create ways of playing on their own rather than fiddling with ready-made toys indoors she set up seven other nurseries in the Saitama area, that all prominently feature interaction with nature. Unlike Doronko, they are located in office buildings close to train stations, making it convenient for parents to drop off and pick up their children, and for the children to go on daily treks to the suburbs, to tend rice paddies or run around in parks.

At Fuji Yochien ( www.fujikids.jp ), a kindergarten with the Montessori philosophy (an educational method from Italy that emphasizes learning through all five senses) in the city of Tachikawa in western Tokyo, children can run about all they want thanks to a giant, doughnut-shaped wooden rooftop, which was created when the facility was remodeled a year ago. Famous art director Kashiwa Sato helped conceptualize this new unique architecture to facilitate the desire of kindergarten principal Sekiichi Kato to let children pick up basic manners and skills naturally.

Kato calls the circular building, with a huge sand pit in the middle, "a doughnut in the air," because of the airy atmosphere of the premises, especially when all its windows and doors made of huge glass panels are opened to let air, leaves and even birds through. The designers of the structure left a 40-year-old Zelkova tree untouched, and now it shoots through the rooftop for children to touch and climb.

The tap-water area in the playground has an old-style faucet, and the water that hits the uneven surface of the ground splashes the children. This is to teach them firsthand what it's like to get wet in cold water and remind them of the importance of turning off the faucet.

"Many kids today just stick their hands out, expecting an automatic sensor," says Kato with a laugh.

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Aika Yasunaga wanted goats at Asaka Doronko so that children could witness the birth and death of animals.

Also in the classrooms, each light bulb has a hanging cord at the children's height, so they learn how to turn lights on and off themselves.

As with the recent boom in Finnish approaches to education that focus on facilitating students' ability to counter real-life challenges (see below), parents are becoming interested in the idea of giving children firsthand experiences.

At the Doronko day care, Yoshimi Kinoshita, a mother of a 4-year-old girl, says she likes the way the center respects the wishes of each child, especially compared with other public day-care facilities, which she found too restrictive.

"When we once had a sports event at another public facility, I was really shocked because teachers in a hurry to make events run on schedule helped the kids when they were running an obstacle race," Kinoshita says. "I felt sad, wondering if there's any point in the race if kids were helped with the obstacles. I wondered if the event was really for the kids or for parents and teachers."

Just as she says this, a toddler girl with a yellow hat slips in front of me, splashing dirt, while a mud-covered pink vinyl ball hits my leg from behind.

"Don't wear anything fancy here," Kinoshita says with a grin. "I ruined my Prada once." It was a lesson I learned well from my day's outing at the school.



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