Kids who learn by doing what comes naturally

by Liane Wakabayashi

The melting snow has transformed the playground of Hiratsuka Yochien into a muddy winter wonderland, but the kids follow their own pace. Some plunge ecstatically into the puddles, some carefully make their way to the chicken coop, while still others keep warm in the library.

When one boy finds himself being throttled with a plastic toy by another child, other children come running to his aid.

No whistle marks the end of the morning’s outdoor playtime. It simply peters out as more and more children make their way into the classrooms to investigate what the teachers are up to.

Since its inception 50 years ago, Hiratsuka Yochien, in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, has organized activities under the philosophy of opportunity and freedom of choice. But while children here experience more liberty than they would at most preschools, they must also solve their own problems. Taking initiative is part of the growing-up process, the school believes, so as the kids join the upper ranks, they must take on greater responsibilities.

There are seven classes with an average of 20-25 children each. Two teachers are assigned to the class for the youngest students (ages 3 to 6), but the older classes have only one. This way, the children learn to take care of each other when the teacher is busy. To make this easier, all classes are divided into teams, starting with pairs for the smallest children. As they get older, their groups grow in size to include about seven children.

“For the younger children, it’s tough. The kids have to think for themselves what to do,” observes Naomi Iwasaki, mother of two half-American boys who attended Hiratsuka Yochien. But for the older kids, it’s also a challenge: They must supervise the younger ones and come up with ideas for their own projects.

Like other parents, Iwasaki sees beyond the school’s warped wooden floors and light green walls, begging for a fresh coat of paint. To them, Hiratsuka Yochien provides children with a solid education in dealing with real-life challenges.

“Now that my children are older,” Iwasaki says, “I see the leadership skills they learned. They know how to take responsibility.”

Hiratsuka Yochien fills a vast property that is home to several old wooden buildings, a vegetable garden and a giant 100-year-old camphor tree that towers over the yard’s numerous other trees.

In the playground, the kids run fast, freely and energetically. A row of cherry trees flanks a large schoolhouse. Surrounding these, there are trunks and stumps and branches that have been twisted and nailed together for the children to climb on.

Steel playground slides, swings, climbing bars — Hiratsuka has these too, but not as they’re traditionally used. The slide is hidden under the camphor tree. The seats and chains on the swing set have been removed.

“Playing is important in this school,” Principal Michihiko Hiratsuka explains. “Children learn through relating to each other. But with a swing, only one child can play at a time.”

The soft-spoken principal believes in naruyuki makase — leaving things to happen naturally. So when they’re not building mud pies or swinging from trees, the children are free to help take care of the rabbits, mallard ducks and chickens, or work in the garden.

Now, despite the thin veil of snow still clinging to the vegetable patch, the children are harvesting kabu (turnip), komatsuna (Chinese cabbage) and daikon. These will be added to their daily miso soup, which the children eat along with lunch brought from home.

In a few weeks, when the wind eases up, the children will board a bus for an outing to Ichigao, a rural spot on the Tama River in Yokohama about an hour away from Hiratsuka Yochien, to fly their handmade kites.

As the weather warms, the children will plant their own rice seedlings, then return periodically to weed and eventually harvest the rice. They even have planned summer overnight outings with their parents and teachers.

“Young children need to discover the world for themselves,” says Hiratsuka. “They learn through nature, through their physical bodies and by playing with other children.”