One morning in June, my kids left for school without their usual leather backpacks. Instead, they each carried a knapsack with a water bottle, a ground cloth and a handful of my sentakubasami. Clothespins? Yup. Standard equipment for the Zenko Shasei Taikai (All-School Sketch Festival).

Once a year, my children’s entire school walks together to a verdant park at the edge of our school district to draw and paint for half a day. Like so many events at the Japanese elementary school my children attend, the shasei taikai is a bit of a mystery to me. We didn’t do anything like this when I went to school in the United States. It seems odd to devote an entire morning to an art activity. And odder yet that the entire student body goes together. I decided I needed to go see what this event was about.

The park is one of the larger green spaces in central Tokyo, an urban oasis with wide-open play areas and a pond with ducks and turtles. Benches shaded by wisteria vines. There’s even a waterfall I thought was real until I went through the park one evening when the pump had been turned off for the night. The park felt full once our 300 students settled in. Everywhere I turned there were kids in white school hats getting out watercolor sets.

I found my second-grader in a dusty plain at the top of the park. He and his three buddies had staked out their territory by spreading out their ground cloths together. Each had a sturdy gaban (drawing board). To keep the wind from lifting work in progress, the children had fastened their papers to the boards with clothespins. (So that’s what they were for!) Scattered all around were clusters of classmates. Kids must sit with their grade, but they can draw whatever they want from the assigned vantage point.

My other son was at the bottom of the waterfall, the designated spot for fifth-graders. He was perched on a boulder, painting the water tumbling over rocks. Later I found the sixth-graders by the iris garden and the fourth-graders on a bridge over the pond. I never did find the first-graders, but I’m told they were there.

I’m always happy to see my kids painting, as we never do art activities at home. But I didn’t see the point of taking the entire school out for a half-day of art. I wondered if this was just one of those events that is held because it’s a tradition, regardless of its educational relevance today.

I had assumed that all Japanese elementary schools have shasei taikai, but that’s not the case. Some schools don’t because there isn’t a suitable location nearby. Other schools may send students out to draw and paint, but just in the schoolyard or separately by class.

It’s hard to find time for an event like this, especially since teaching hours were reduced in April to accommodate the new five-day school week. Art, in particular, suffered heavy cuts. That’s why proponents of shasei taikai, including the Japan Art Education Association, stress how the event fulfills teaching goals in subjects other than art.

A sketching outing meets specific goals in art education as laid out in the Education Ministry’s curriculum guidelines, including “learning to utilize art materials to creatively portray one’s own feelings” and”bringing a work of art to completion while appreciating the unique characteristics of one’s own art work.”

But the event also fulfills goals for the newest subject in Japanese schools, sogo teki na gakushu (integrated learning), like “gaining an appreciation of nature,” “choosing and creatively developing one’s own theme” and “becoming involved with the local area and environment.”

The sketch day even meets curriculum goals in do toku (ethics), by teaching kids to “act safely and politely in public” and “protect nature and wildlife.” I have to say, the children were well-behaved. There was little horsing around, and most of the children spent their entire time in the park working more or less quietly on their compositions.

Personally, I find it challenging to go anywhere with just two children. So I couldn’t imagine trying to move 300 kids at one time. I assumed teachers would prefer to go out separately by class, but I was wrong about that, too. It’s actually easier to go all together, the principal told me, because the entire school staff can help supervise. Even the shuji (custodians) came along.

But there is another reason for going as a whole school, the principal explained. It helps children understand diversity of viewpoints. When students look at one another’s finished paintings, they may understand for the first time that everyone sees things in different ways, she said. And by looking at the scenes painted by students in other grades, the children appreciate the variety of nature and beauty in the park.

That sounds great, but I had my doubts whether children could grasp such abstract concepts just by looking at each other’s paintings. So I asked my younger son what he learned when he walked the halls to look at the paintings on display.

“Well, Nishijima and I were sitting right next to each other, looking at the same statue, but our pictures weren’t the same at all,” my 7-year-old observed. “That’s because everyone sees things differently and everyone draws differently.”

Wow. I tried his brother. “You know, I’ve played in that park a million times,” my 11-year-old said. “But I never really noticed the quiet section of the pond until I looked at the sixth-graders’ sketches. The iris leaves look really cool against the stone bridges in the background.”

OK. I’m convinced. The All-School Sketch Festival is a wonderful and worthwhile event, and I hope it continues. I’m even willing to overlook the fact that my kids never returned my clothespins.

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