A day at the Buddy Sports kindergarten in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, starts with a morning run, with the children usually jogging about 3 km before class starts at 10 a.m.
It’s tough, especially for younger children who aren’t yet used to the strict Buddy Sports style. If they fall behind their peers, they are told to pick up the pace. If they start to cry, teachers will tell them to stop.
This is the morning ritual at the physical education-oriented kindergarten, known for its demanding style that some in the media have dubbed the “new spartan.”
Under its mantra — “try your best” — the children aged 3 to 6 are expected to push themselves, be independent and overcome fear and pressure.
Even when 3-year-olds cried their eyes out at a three-day ski camp, the teachers didn’t let them quit. Instead, they taught them how to ski and how to get back up when they fell.
Some onlookers criticized the teachers, saying they were engaged in a form of child abuse. But they changed their tune after seeing the children skiing happily, according to Principal Takeshi Suzuki.
Apart from the morning run, which Suzuki explained is aimed at basic muscle development, the kindergarten teaches children some 10 different sports, including gymnastics, basketball and tennis. Older kids at the kindergarten climb to the seventh station of Mount Fuji, a trek that takes about five hours, Suzuki said.
“These days, many parents are overprotective of their children,” he said, noting this mindset changes at sports camps and other sports training events, where kids aren’t allowed to be babies.
“I want them to experience success, to be able to believe that they can do it if they try,” said Suzuki, who founded Buddy in 1981. “That will give them the strength to overcome the difficulties they will face later in life.”
Buddy is among increasingly popular kindergartens in Japan known for strict sports or academic regimens.
Although tough teaching methods and ordered training like this go against the mainstream learn-through-play approach of early childhood education, an increasing number of parents are choosing such kindergartens, hoping to nurture special talents in their children.
According to surveys conducted by education service provider Benesse Holdings Inc., 43.3 percent of parents said in 2015 they want kindergartens to conduct academic education, up from 37.5 percent in 2005. About 4,000 parents with children aged up to 5 took part in the surveys.
“Parents of preschool children are becoming more interested in the early education of their children,” said Junko Takaoka, research manager at Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute, which is under Benesse Holdings.
Takaoka said that as more mothers these days continue to work after giving birth and don’t have time to take their children to after-school activities such as music or swimming lessons, they are looking for kindergartens that provide such services.
Due to the shrinking number of children, more parents are willing to invest in the education of their offspring, she said.
Kindergartens are catering to these changing needs of parents by offering distinctive programs. As kindergarten is not compulsory under the Japanese school system, parents have a variety of preschool education styles to choose from.
According to education ministry data, the number of children enrolled in kindergartens had declined to 1.34 million in fiscal 2016 from 2.29 million in 1975.
Buddy is attracting parents who want their children to develop athletic abilities, as it counts among its alumni noted athletes such as marathon runner Yuki Kawauchi and soccer star Yoshinori Muto.
Suzuki, Buddy’s principal, said the number of applicants has been on the rise in recent years, and many are on its waiting list.
By the time they graduate, every single child at Buddy — which currently has seven branches in and around Tokyo — will be able to perform headstands, back flips on the bar and jumping five-box vaulting, Suzuki said. Children must perform all three in order to graduate, and none has failed so far in its more than 30 years of operation.
“This means that all children can do those things if you teach them properly,” he said.
Tokyo Izumi Kindergarten in Adachi Ward is another popular school. It has been offering special education programs focusing on Japanese-language lessons and music since the 1980s.
Toshio Koizumi, principal of Izumi Kindergarten, said every child has ability if properly trained.
“If you educate children during their early childhood, then there won’t be those who fail,” Koizumi said.
At Izumi Kindergarten, class starts with three minutes of meditation while classical music plays in the background. After that, the children recite Rongo (the Analects of Confucius), haiku and four kanji idioms.
During music lessons, children wear blindfolds to help their concentration while identifying chords played on a piano. By the time they graduate, most children have acquired perfect pitch, Koizumi said.
“Children learn from mimicking others and repeating things,” he said.
The kindergarten draws children not only from Adachi Ward but from 20 different municipalities, including some in Saitama and Chiba prefectures, Koizumi said, adding that the school’s waiting list has about 100 names on it.
Education experts, however, question the wisdom of a strict education regimen during the early stages of childhood.
Hirotomo Omameuda, a professor at Tamagawa University well-versed in early childhood education, said that learning through play and activities initiated by children themselves is more important in early childhood education.
“If children keep receiving orders and instructions, they could become passive, unable to learn by themselves in the future,” Omameuda said. “Rather than telling children to do things, we need to let them do what they are interested in, as each individual has different (abilities).”
Through playing in a sandbox or with wooden blocks, children explore and discover things, he said.
“This is very important. It may not be as exciting as what parents want it to be. But through play, children gain a willingness to learn things in their later lives,” he said.
Takashi Muto, a pedagogy professor at the Graduate School of Child Studies of Shiraume Gakuen University in Tokyo, also questions whether children at these new spartan kindergartens are enjoying the process of learning and training.
“It’s good to try hard when they are little. But the important thing is whether they can enjoy the process of learning and making an effort, and not just practice like robots,” he said. “They can’t keep trying hard unless they enjoy the process.”
Muto also said that while some children have no trouble following such strict training, educators must keep in mind that there may be others who find it more difficult to follow.
“There were children who quit those kindergartens in the past because they could not keep up,” Muto said. “It’s really difficult to take care of such children who are branded as a failure in their early childhood.”
Omameuda of Tamagawa University pointed out that the social skills children can acquire through playing, such as attentiveness and working with others, have more lasting effects on their later lives than strict academic skills.
“If you train children, they will be able to do those things,” Omameuda said. “But whether such abilities will last is a different story. … It’s not that simple.”
The professor said there are studies showing that the academic abilities of children who were trained in their early childhood and those who were not are about the same in elementary school.
“There are not many studies that prove a beneficial effect of preschool (academic) training,” he said.