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A tiny place with a lot of love


Yesterday, I had a chance to experience 保育参加 (hoiku sanka) – joining my son for half a day at his care center. Although I knew how his day usually went, I discovered a lot of new interesting facts. First of all, let me explain what a day care is in Japan. It is a public or government-subsidized private institution that caters to kids of working parents. There aren’t enough in the country so the more points you get as a working parent, the likely you are at getting in. Parents who both work and their salary combined doesn’t exceed a certain number have a good chance of getting their child in, availability granted. We were lucky enough to get a place at a government-subsidized private day care. It is run by a corporation and they have a nice, updated approach at raising children. Each child has their own lifestyle rhythm and they try to support that with sleep and feeding schedule. They adapt a lot of Montessori concepts and all the toys are made from natural materials. Teachers also do a lot of DIY material from felt and paper. My son is there from 9 to 6 since he was 4 months old. For the first year, they even let me bring frozen breastmilk for him.

So this is how our day went. Shortly after my arrival, the teachers took the kids for a walk at the playground. They got dressed in groups, then went downstairs and waited for the rest of the class. When everyone was gathered, the teachers sat everyone down on the floor and told them the plan – where would they go, want would they do and who would join them (me in my case). Then, everyone went out and walked in pairs, 1 adult per 4 kids. Teachers showed little cute things around the neighborhood like a new sign on a ramen shop or flowers in the window of a cleaning store. Then, we crossed the big street on green light and made our way to the playground.  Just before arriving to the playground, we stopped by a local bento shop and the owner came out to greet us. The kids hi-fived him for a while, then he waved いってらしゃい(itterashai) – bon voyage and off we went. When we arrived at the playground, one of the teachers ran around the perimeter and checked for hazards. If there was any garbage, she would pick it up and throw away. Then, she made a call to the day care office and reported that all kids and teachers have safely arrived at the playground. She did the same phone call on the way back. The kids were gathered around and told the rules – wait for your turn on slides and swings, no pushing. If kids from other day cares come along, play nicely. Then kids scattered around running, jumping. They looked for sticks, stones, leaves and insects. Others went on swings and slides. Some played まてまて (mate mate) – wait-for-me game. My son and I love to draw on the dirt with sticks so we started drawing funny faces and other kids joined us. They were fighting for who gets to find me a better stick or hold my hand. Kids are so adorable. Of course my son took offence and clang to me like there is no tomorrow.

Then, one teacher started to blow soap bubbles and kids ran around catching them. They blew their own bubbles in turns but only small ones were coming out. Each was nevertheless praised for their efforts. Another teacher has spread a picnic blanket and took out a thermos with tea and paper cups. If you wanted to drink, you would need to take your shoes off, sit on the blanket, wipe your hands and face the teacher. Good manners and the importance of the tea ceremony is taught at an early age. ^-^

We played like this for a while, then it was time to return. We got back to the day care, went upstairs in groups, took our shoes off and put them in a special shoe box shelf. Kids can’t read yet so each box has a unique picture and they all know theirs.

We got back to our class, went to the toilet, washed hands and started to play. The room is separated into four stations: ママごっこ(mama gokko) – a house station, a building station with puzzles, blocks and mosaics, a train station with a wooden railway and trains and a reading station with a sofa and books. There is also a table station where kids eat, draw and play with clay and stickers. The house station has kitchen, drawers with pretend food, a vanity table with scarfs to wrap around and play princesses. The girls immediately went for the vanity table, brought a bunch of scarfs and asked me to do “Ariel”. It took me a second but I figured it out. They wanted me to tie a scarf on their heads so that it flows in the back like Ariel’s hair. They girl who grabbed a white scarf was of course pretending to be Elsa. ^-^ My son started to build a castle and everyone went for the blocks like there were no other toys. I had to play smart and involve everyone into play. 3 year olds are still easy to manipulate.

Teachers were always there for the kids. They didn’t budge in the second a conflict took place. They observed first and if the kids couldn’t rule it out, suggested a solution.

After a while, the lunch was ready for the first group. They served meals in groups, adjusting to the lifestyle of each kid. Some get sleepy earlier so those eat first. The kitchen prepared lunch for me as well – a chicken and veggie stew with bread, tomato and cucumber salad, tea and a slice of apple. Kids have to eat what they have before they can ask for おかわり(okawari) – seconds. My son still takes a lot of time so the teacher talked to him, explained about what’s inside the dish, asked him to take one bite and he got to choose what was on the spoon. My son agreed, tried the stew and then had some. He usually eats well at the day care but always with the help from the teacher. By himself, he is taking ages. I am of course to blame. In Russia, kids are being forced to eat. I grew up like that and it’s wired in my brain. A kid has to eat a lot. So I feed him because this way he eats a lot. If I let him eat by himself, he won’t have much.

After the lunch, the first group went to bed. The beds are portable and brought in from the closet into the play area. Some sleep in the reading station, some in the train station, others in the house station. The beds are called cots and the linen is stretched over it. The blankets are brought from home.

This time, my son and I went back home right after lunch because of our 3 year old well-baby checkup later that day. What I learned from my experience is that their days are very busy. With all the little routines, walks, eating (they eat twice) and sleeping, there isn’t that much time left to get bored (my biggest fear is that my son is bored at the day care, not having enough stimulation). There are also occasional puppet theatres, concerts, sport days and mixers when they get to hang out with younger and older kids.  On rainy days, the biggest room is turned into gym where kids spend their energy running and jumping. In summer, they play with water in the water room. The teachers are always singing, reading, braiding their hair and helping them learn how to go to the toilet, wash hands, tie shoes. They find time to write funny episodes in each kid’s diary, what they ate and how long they slept. Sometimes, I feel they are being better mommies than I am. ^-^

I love everything about our day care. It’s a tiny place with a lot of love and attention to the details. I enjoyed spending time there and those little discoveries that I made (how independent my son is, how well he communicates with other kids, how warm and cozy it is in their class and how delicious the food is) made me exhale and relax. I know he is having a fab time there. That makes me feel a little less guilty and a lot more hopeful that maybe he is going to turn out OK even with both parents working.


By the book? Not so much

I have recently purchased an electrical bicycle for an easy commute with my toddler and it made me see yet again that for a country that loves rules so much, some of them are being ignored on a constant basis. When it gets to safety on the road, not many are willing to sacrifice their comfort. Taxis in Japan is a unique phenomenon on their own but taxi drivers are not the most radical offenders on the road, mothers are. Japanese moms on bikes simply don’t care. They never stop at STOP signs, they never slow down. I am now one of them and it made me notice even more just how many rules they break. Some don’t even look to the sides when they cross the street.
Last year, the ministry of land, transport, infrastructure and tourism has tighten the bolts for the bicycle drivers putting in place a penalty system similar to what they use for car drivers. Yet, the rules are being broken anyway. Why is it that being somewhere on time is more important than getting there in one piece? Some of the kids sitting in the back or front don’t even use helmets and some mothers ride bicycle while being pregnant or with their little babies strapped to their chest, their little heads bobbing around!! If they are so liberal with the safety rules why is it that they can’t go left or right when it gets to something significantly less important? Why do they abide notoriously ridiculous rules like dressing your freezing child into nothing but a school uniform (shorts!!!) in winter? Why? Because the school has a dress code? Because everyone else do it? If you are so by the book and in sync with the system, why don’t you follow the safety rules as well? Why do you put your child and yourself and other pedestrians in danger? On several occasions my son was almost run over and always by a mom on an electrical bike. It’s such a mystery to me.
Discipline is great but so is a little insubordination. My rule of thumb – use good judgment and ignoring the safety rules just because the accidents are rare is the sign of a poor judgment to me. Maybe accidents are indeed rare but the nuisance to other people – well it happens every single day. I’d choose to ignore dress code rules over safety rules any day.

Hope for the best but be prepared for the worst

This morning, I brought my son to the day care right when the alarm went off and the principal announced that the earthquake evacuation training is in place. They have been doing that 2-4 times a year but now that my son is big enough to understand what’s going on, it started to really influence him. He began to add earthquakes to his role-playing. He likes reading books about earthquakes and destroy Lego blocks constructions by shaking them. I have read a book called “Playful parenting” by Lawrence J. Cohen that explains why children often involve their fears into their games. They want to recreate the situation they are scared of but be in charge of it, be the one who controls the outcome. This sort of role-playing helps them accept the situations, make their peace and move on. Two weeks ago, we went for the next round of vaccinations and my son started to give vaccine shots to me every day since. He is in charge. He is the one administering the pain. It helps him move on.
But right there, in the middle of the organized chaos at the day care, my thoughts were scattered. I thought how cute and funny the kids looked in their yellow and silver padded hats but also how scared some of them were. My son included. He was smiling but I know he was on the verge of crying. He was sitting in the group of kids, in his yellow padded hat and looked at me for guidance. I wanted to stay but the principal insisted on me leaving. I felt awful about leaving my son in such a horrid state. I even cried when I left. I don’t want him to deal with the scares of this world, not yet. I hope the real earthquake will never come.. I hope I will be near him if it does..
These little happenings in the midst of our daily lives are really important triggers that help us recalibrate our thoughts, refocus on our priorities and correct our route. I am no longer worried about the little things. I am alert and grateful. Hello, Wednesday.

Let it snow and then don’t please!


Just yesterday, my friend Elizabeth and I were discussing how mild this winter is. It wasn’t snowing last winter and this one looked pretty similar. All it takes really for the snow to start falling is to mention how it doesn’t snow at all and voila! Here we have our typical Tokyo snow – you enjoy it for 5 minutes out of your window upon waking up in the morning and then you deal with the apocalyptic consequences for the rest of the day. The trains stop, the highways are jammed and you work alone in the lonely office (or pretend to since no one is here). I brought my son to his day care in the morning and everyone met me with the sympathetic “大変でしたね!” greetings. Guys! Its just a few centimetres of snow and you absolutely lose it! And it happens every time it rains heavily or snows. Tokyo is a big high-tech city yet it behaves like a cranky toddler – throws a tantrum in the middle of the busiest rush hour. ^-^ Hello, Monday!