National Children's Centers cater to body, spirit

by Angela Jeffs

In July 2000, after 15 years heading the International Section of the Children’s Castle, Teri Suzanne left the play and educational center in Aoyama, Tokyo, and became a freelance bilingual specialist. Two years later she was employed as program adviser to the 14 National Children’s Centers of Japan’s Independent Administrative Institution.

“Most people know little about NCC, or Kokuritsu Shonen Shizen no Ie,” she says. “From Hokkaido to Kagoshima, they’re one of Japan’s greatest hidden assets, the value and potential of which need to be realized by the international community.”

Scattered throughout Japan in areas of exceptional natural beauty — along coastal areas, in mountain regions and near rivers and lakes, the centers offer families, schoolchildren, youth groups, volunteer and teacher-training organizations, educators and even company employees opportunities for discovery, adventure and challenge.

Originally built to provide hands-on outdoor experiences not possible in public schools, many centers have also created unique outreach programs for single-parent families and students who find it difficult to leave their homes to attend school. Parents who come to the centers for support and counseling are amazed to see children who find even getting up in the morning a challenge succeed in rock climbing, orienteering or white-water rafting.

Fearful that the centers may be in jeopardy, Teri worries for future generations. “Todays’ kids, let alone adults or even teachers, so rarely get the opportunity to experience hiking upstream in a river, or walking barefoot in a stream. Fears of getting dirty are carried into the classroom, where kids prefer to use stick glue in order to stay clean.”

She believes these children’s centers are a pivotal educational resource. Yet, following an announcement that Japan is slipping educationally, being only fourth in world math ratings, the Education Ministry has stated that schools should focus on more study, not less. “If this new reactionary trend expands, prefectural education boards and parents will pressure teachers, who in turn may dismiss the importance of taking students to these centers. In effect, you can say goodbye to the arts and what’s left of physical exercise.”

Children, she believes, need a well-rounded education of mind, body and spirit, not one based on rote learning and exams. They also need to experience the responsibilities and challenges of group living that are possible at the centers.

Majoring in art at the University of California, Los Angeles, Teri was never a political animal. Now her cause is for “justice and integrity in the education of all children.”

She first came to Japan as an exchange student. Arriving again to study for a master’s in bilingual education, a taxi driver spent an entire journey singing the praises of his firstborn son. “In a strange twist of fate, I finally agreed to meet his son in Gotanda. I tried to put him off by being late and wearing the most horrendous outfit, only to find that he had a dazzling smile and was incredibly handsome.”

Once married, Teri spent seven years in the States, where she taught and developed curricula for the Japanese Bilingual/Bicultural Program in San Francisco. Impressed, Washington called, offering her a free Ph.D. program. “But I was pregnant and had to refuse.” By the time they called again, she was pregnant a second time. “It was just not to be.”

Moving back to Japan in 1980, she was appalled at how badly English was being taught. “I learned Japanese using my hands while making traditional Japanese doll-making and puppetry.”

After two years, she quit her job teaching at one of the international schools to develop an English-language product based on Japanese children’s songs and action English. “I translated 125 songs and created cassettes, videos and books. Sadly the publisher’s door-to-door sales force hadn’t a clue how to sell them because the technique was unheard of at that time.”

Known to many as “Queen of the Scissors” — and currently an instructor at the RBR Center for Creative Arts in Moto-Azabu — Teri was luckily making waves with paper-cut book illustrations. Exhibiting work commissioned as book illustrations at the Nihonbashi Takashimaya Gallery in 1985, a man walked in and said, “We need your help!”

“It was September and Children’s Castle was due to open in November. I went in to give advice and was hired on the spot. I started work Oct. 1st. After the death of the founder and president, Yoshimi Takeuchi, I knew I had to move on.”

While exceptionally rewarding in professional terms, life on the personal front was less easy. There had been a divorce. Then suddenly her ex-husband died. The reality of being a single foreign mother at times was difficult, but “my daughters were always a source of strength.”

Leaving Children’s Castle, she opened an office and continued speaking around the country on her experiences, parenting and the importance of creativity, including her freehand scissor art. “I emphasize scissor work because children are not using their hands sufficiently. They have trouble focusing, with poor fine and gross motor skills and low self-esteem. In general, people have the wrong idea of what children need to develop as healthy rounded human beings.”

Teri was surprised when she was asked to help develop the National Children’s Centers. “I was hardly aware of their existence.” Now all that has changed, and with the education minister’s pronouncement, it becomes a matter of urgency to make them as well known and well used as possible.

Some 300 to 400 people use the centers daily, with guests asked to pay for their meals and linen, but accommodation free. “There’s nothing like them anywhere else in the world. They must be protected as a valuable resource.”

Right now the centers cater to Japanese exclusivity. “But they don’t want this. Staffers will bend over backward to help, even pick you up by bus from the station.”

Teri wants the international community to be aware of the existence of NCC. “I sent out information packs to major international educational facilities last year, with little response. If there is sufficient interest, we would open the doors for an orientation. The centers are there. Use them. It’s only by using them that together we can secure their future.”