A NEW NURSERY NORM

Playtime pioneer

by Setsuko Kamiya

On a cloudy morning a couple of weeks ago, 26 noisy 3-year-olds at the Kamimeguro Nursery in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward were cheerfully throwing themselves into their exercise class in the hall. One after another, the little boys and girls challenged themselves to leap a vaulting horse, jump a rubber rope, balance across a beam and whiz down a slide.

Looking after them were three day-care staffers, including 25-year-old Dan Ehara, who stood by the children sliding down the slide and walking along the low beam — which, to them, was a perilous bridge over a river where a crocodile lay in wait.

“Be careful not to fall guys! And don’t rush your friend walking in front of you,” Ehara said to the children on the beam, as he simultaneously lifted his arm up and down, acting as gatekeeper of the slide.

Then, the kids on the beam shouted: “Dan-sensei! Do the crocodile!”

Taking a moment off from his gatekeeping duties, Ehara instantly turned himself into an imaginary reptile and started growling: “Grrr! Watch out, or I’ll eat you!”

The children burst out laughing, while some intentionally fell off the bridge to be caught. A few even ran off into Eha- ra’s arms from excitement.

And then, from the top of the slide, came another cry of “Dan-sensei!”

“OK, OK,” said Ehara, as he wiped sweat from his brow and went back to gatekeeping.

Though he was constantly on the move, there was a warm smile on his face every time Ehara spoke to the children. Obviously, Dan-sensei is everybody’s favorite.

The half-hour class seemed like a pure fun-activity time, but according to Ehara, who is in his second year as a child-care specialist at this nursery, everything was structured so as to encourage the use of the different muscles that the children need to develop at their age.

“In fact, providing care that suits each child’s character and speed of growth applies to every aspect of nurturing,” he said.

During the average of eight hours that the children stay at the day-care nursery, Ehara faces countless bridges of his own to cross as well. How, for instance, to get children’s attention when their minds are focused on something else? How to make them sit down so that he can read a story to them? How to get a child who is fussy about food to eat something new?

“I’m constantly thinking of how to make the children try to accomplish something, while also making that activity a fun experience for them,” he said, humbly adding that everything was still a challenge for him.

“But when things work out and the child succeeds in doing something, he or she becomes excited about it. And that also makes me happy, as if I were the one who made the achievement,” he said. “There’s a lot I receive and learn from children, too.”

Ehara is one of just seven men among the 424 nursery teachers working in 21 day-care centers in Meguro Ward. However, the fact that men make up only around 1.5 percent of the staff is not peculiar to that ward. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, out of 318,418 people working for authorized day-care centers in Japan in 2002, only 4,039 — or around 1.25 percent — were men. Though the figure is small, observers say that over the last few years more men have been choosing this profession, and that trend is likely to continue.

Although Ehara had always liked small children, and didn’t have anything against child-care as a profession, it wasn’t as if it had always been his dream career. That realization came after actually experiencing it on the job, he said.

Four years ago — two years after he graduated from high school and after returning from language studies in China — Ehara was looking for a job. One day, he came across a part-time job offer at a day-care center in Minato Ward and jumped at the opportunity.

At first, Ehara simply thought that the job would be a good way to find out what the work was really like. But he found that he really enjoyed taking care of the kids, who also seem to accept him as a great playmate. He was actually the first male nursery teacher they had encountered.

However, what made him decide to become a full-time child-care specialist was the shock he felt when some children cried in his presence. He soon realized that this was especially the case with those children who had single moms, since “they were scared of me because they weren’t used to men.” Gradually, though, he found that these children got used to him, and eventually accepted him — which made him very happy.

“I felt it would be meaningful for children to interact with a father figure in the environment where they spend most of their day,” he said.

Highly motivated, Ehara went to vocational school for two years, took the national exam and obtained his license to become the full-timer that he is today.

Yoko Ogawa, the 50-something headmaster of the Kamimeguro Nursery, who has more than 30 years’ experience as a child-care specialist, has observed the positive impact Ehara has on children.

“I enjoy watching the children play with him, because they seem to have great fun moving around in a more lively and active way. He’s really popular among the children, and that’s a good thing because it also makes the parents feel comfortable about the children’s time in the nursery,” she said.

Ehara himself realizes that the children won’t throw themselves with all their might at his female colleagues the way they do at him. And sometimes he recognizes that he may have more dynamic views than others when it comes to not being overprotective of the children when they are playing. Overall, though, Ehara feels that gender difference doesn’t influence the quality of care. “I really enjoy what I do, and I’m very lucky to have a career that I’m happy with,” he said.

Kamimeguro Nursery actually stands out among Meguro Ward’s day-care centers in that it has another full-time male staff member and a male part-timer helping out. This is simply because it is the only one of the ward’s nurseries that can spare the space for a men’s locker room and toilet. In Japan, men have been eligible to become nursery teachers since 1977, but many facilities have been designed on the assumption that men would not be among the staff.

“I guess society has long considered child rearing to be a woman’s role, and that’s probably why men didn’t take this job until recently,” Ehara said.

“But I feel that the number of male nursery teachers should increase, even to the point where half the staff of a day-care facility are men — just as a family has a mother and a father.”