Before Kids Start First Grade, Their Educations Are Well Underway

Makoto Hattori / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Children in a class for 5-year-olds make fruit juice at Rissho Kid’s Kirari Sagami-Ono in June.

Early childhood is a time of rich brain development. In kindergartens and preschools, children rapidly develop cognitive, social and emotional skills that are fundamental to their later achievements as adults. Unfortunately, many elementary school teachers tend to overlook these early childhood developments. We mustn’t underestimate the ability of first-graders who have just entered elementary school.

An example of this potential can be seen at Yokohama Municipal Hatsunegaoka Elementary School, where the first-grade students of Class 3 took the initiative to solve a problem related to their dark and unwelcoming restroom. They referred to it as a “haunted house,” and some children were hesitant to use it alone. During a class discussion in January this year, their homeroom teacher, Masaya Aizawa, 38, asked if there was anything they could do to improve it. The children brainstormed and decided to paint the restroom walls to create a safer and more comfortable environment.

Painting restroom walls is no easy task, as it requires a design that everyone can accept, and it is also necessary to consider safety and sanitation factors. Aizawa believed in the children’s capabilities, especially because half of them had experience with wall painting from the adjacent kindergarten, which had thriving wall art activities. Even the children without such experience had seen wall paintings every day on their way to school.

Once the children determined what to do and took necessary precautions, they quickly put their plan into action. Remarkably, Aizawa didn’t give specific instructions, yet each student contributed according to their abilities. The morning after the meeting, over 20 out of the 29 children brought in their design ideas. Instructions on how to collect milk cartons to use as paint containers were also posted.

The children opted for a clean, calm and pleasant design instead of a playful and amusing one using anime characters. The wall painting, which depicted the school building, a rainbow, a cherry blossom tree and a flying whale, was completed in March. The children expressed ideas on their reflection sheets, such as, “We accomplished something wonderful because we did it for our friends and the younger students,” and “We couldn’t have done it without working together.”

Principal Shinya Konomi emphasized that the school does not reset children’s learning when they enter. Instead, it provides an environment where children can showcase the skills they have acquired earlier. He explained that the teachers always inquire, “Have you done it in kindergarten or preschool?” to build upon the children’s existing knowledge.

It’s important to recognize that children learn a great deal before they enter elementary school. Yet, sometimes, what they’ve learned in their early years seems to be forgotten or disregarded. For instance, at kindergarten and preschool sports events, children use stick-shaped batons designed for adults. But when they become lower-grade elementary school students, they are often made to use ring-shaped batons designed for small children. Similarly, children who served their own lunches in kindergarten and preschool are often told they need help from sixth graders to do so in elementary school. Such transitions can cause confusion and undermine the children’s confidence, leading some to lose interest in school altogether.

Kindergartens and preschools do not just let children play aimlessly. Teachers thoughtfully design the environment to engage children’s interest and encourage learning through play. They create corners for picture books, playing house, drawing, crafts and so on, organizing them in a way that promotes easy play and cleanup. Everything from toy boxes to daily schedules is labeled in hiragana to spark children’s interest in letters.

Some kindergartens and preschools adjust their environments every day to match the children’s evolving interests and concerns.

At Rissho Kid’s Kirari Sagami-Ono, a private preschool in Kanagawa Prefecture, staff members keep paper in their pockets to write down what the children say and keep track of their interests and concerns. For instance, a 5-year old girl remarked after making fruit juice with different fruits such as watermelon, pineapple and tangerine: “Each fruit made a different amount of juice. What should we do to make the same amount?” Instead of ending the activity after the children drank their juice, the teachers provided more fruit for juice-making on subsequent days. The children continued to experiment with juice-making, fostering their curiosity and problem-solving abilities.

In kindergartens and preschools, children learn through play, developing independence, cooperation, moral understanding, social engagement, critical thinking and an interest in quantities, shapes, letters, and communication with each other. According to Yurie Mikami, the director of Kirari Sagami-Ono, children can develop an interest in quantities, engage in social interactions, and nurture their thinking abilities through juice-making.

Therefore, if you visit a kindergarten or preschool, you will be amazed at the capabilities of children. Some children focus on trial and error on their own, while others collaborate to enhance their play. Some even engage in activities similar to what is known as integrated learning in third grade and beyond at elementary schools.

Hence, it’s crucial not to underestimate children’s abilities. When assigning them new tasks, consider the possibilities of what they can achieve independently. Just as the teachers at Hatsunegaoka Elementary School are doing, ask children: “Have you ever done it before?” “Have you ever read this book?” “Do you know this song?” If they have prior experience with a task, let them take the lead and see what happens. If they don’t, work together to figure out the way.

To gain a general understanding of first-graders’ abilities, it is essential to visit kindergartens and preschools and observe the children actively engaging in play. As you spend time watching them, you’ll start to recognize that play is, indeed, a form of learning. This will provide you with a more precise comprehension of the skills children acquire.

Furthermore, you’ll come to realize that learning through play is a highly effective approach. In fact, the Yokohama City has begun working with teachers at elementary schools, kindergartens and preschools to explore ways to learn the problem-solving process through play. If the concept of “learning through play” feels somewhat unfamiliar, you can reframe it as “learning through active engagement.”

Teachers often assume that children cannot learn anything until they are taught it. However, in kindergartens and preschools that provide appropriate environments, children are immersed in activities and learn a lot of things on their own. So why not make a more conscious effort to improve the learning environment in elementary schools? It will surely enrich the children’s learning and reduce teachers’ workload.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Makoto Hattori

Hattori is a staff writer in the Education News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.