Every Thursday, I volunteer at Zenryuji Hoikuen. Hoikuen means nursery school or daycare. Each week I get to join lots of cute children in their playtime! The kids range in age from several months to six years old. Playtime has usually already begun by the time I arrive. The caretakers interact with the kids but mostly supervise. I am not given any instruction on how to interact with the kids, so I take a more hands-on approach. For example, when I arrive, it’s not uncommon for a child to run up to me, take me by the hand, and lead me to their area of the sandbox. Then they will ask me to partake in their imaginary food, play on their imaginary boat, or in one interesting case, tend to their imaginary cemetery. I love being around these creative kids. If you think learning Japanese is difficult, imagine being in a room full of children who are talking all at once and attempting to understand their child vocabulary. The children say a lot of interesting things, and I’ve learned new things by interacting with them.
Even on days when I am tired, I can’t help but grin as soon as I walk into the nursery and the children notice my arrival. My spirits are lifted as they yell “Kita!” and other welcoming phrases. Some of them have asked me what days I come to the nursery, and know to look for me every Thursday. After play time, the children clean up their toys, and I help them.
Due to low pay and high turn-over rate, there are not a lot of hoikushi, or nursery school teachers, working in Japan. For this reason, entering one’s child into a daycare is extremely competitive, and there are long waiting lists. Women sometimes sign up for the waiting list as soon as they find out they are pregnant! I knew this before I started volunteering at the nursery, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to have any discussions with the nursery school teachers about their work. I mostly interact only with the children, and my volunteer work is very self-directed.
It sounds like you had a lot of fun with your CIP! Also, it seems like it was a great opportunity as we generally tend not to have as much interaction with younger kids during our time here. I completely sympathize though with regards to the difficulty in communication. I’m impressed that you were able to overcome such hurdles so quickly!
Have you ever worked with other kids before? If so, do you find them to behave differently from Japanese children? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on if you think there are noticeable cultural differences even at such a young age!
It really was a fun CIP! I’ve volunteered at a day care before and have a lot of young relatives. I’m sure there are a lot of cultural differences, but I didn’t really see them manifest during playtime. It’s quite possible that they were so subtle that I didn’t pick up on them.As I said in my reply to David, however, they were pretty responsible about cleaning up when playtime was over, which surprised me. They didn’t have to be told twice to do anything.
This sounds both frustrating and rewarding. It is definitely more difficult to navigate through what Japanese kids are saying than adults because the kids are still learning Japanese too and they don’t speak perfectly. Would you say that childrens’ playtime in Japan is similar to playtime in America? I feel like in America the onus is never on the children to clean up after themselves but from what you’re saying it looks like a sense of responsibility is instilled from quite a young age. I may be reading too much into that one line, but I would love to hear your thoughts.
Good point! I thought I just didn’t understand them because I never learned the Japanese words that are relevant to little kids, but you’re right–English-speaking kids are hard to understand sometimes too.
I’d say playtime was very similar to how kids in the US play, but they were definitely more disciplined about cleanup! For example, we always wash our hands after we play outside. The children have been trained to cup water in their hands and pour it over the tap when they’re done, rinsing the soap off so the sink will be clean for the next person.