More than just child’s play


Until I became a mother, I had never heard of a playgroup. Three babies later, I can say that establishing a thriving playgroup has been one of my greatest achievements in recent years.

It is not hard to find a playgroup here in Japan. Most of the neighborhood jidokan (children’s halls), for example, offer gatherings for mothers and preschoolers. However, when my family relocated to Japan after a stint in the United States, I was looking for something a little different — a playgroup that would support my toddler’s developing English.

Perhaps if we had been living in downtown Tokyo, in the heart of the expat community, I would have found such a group already in existence. However, there was nothing in Chofu, where I live, so I decided to start my own English playgroup. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I got in touch with a few other foreign wives in my area who also had small children. And I contacted our city’s international association and the local university to find potential members. I arranged an initial meeting, but I was worried. Would anybody actually come?

To my delight, eight women and their children showed up, and the Chofu English Playgroup (CEP) was born in the summer of

While it can initially take some effort to launch a playgroup, it is much easier to attract members once the playgroup has been established. We currently have about 20 members, and several others are on the waiting list. Some of them travel to Chofu from other areas of Tokyo.

The only prerequisite for joining our group is that the mother must speak reasonably fluent English. About half of the members are in international marriages, and the rest are Japanese women who have lived overseas. Occasionally I get a call from a non-English-speaking mother who likes the idea of exposing her children to an English-language group. While it can be hard to turn people down, I have to keep our original aim in mind. CEP is not a volunteer conversation class. Many of the children use Japanese as their first language, but their mothers are comfortable speaking English.

In the U.S., the playgroups I belonged to met at members’ houses, but given the size of the average Japanese home, this is impossible. Fortunately, I found a large tatami room at the local Women’s Center, where we meet each week. Our main goal is to actively engage and involve our kids in English, so we do a selection of songs, storytelling, finger plays and games, both traditional and modern, plus an introduction to seasonal crafts. To vary the routine, we have monthly outings to places of interest, and annual family events such as picnics and a Halloween party. The occasional ladies’ night, when we mothers gather at an izakaya or for karaoke, is a wonderful stress-buster.

The birth of my third child last year ensured my continued involvement in the playgroup. As with any group, there are leaders and there are followers, but I have several others whom I can depend on to help share some of the burden. In turn, delegating responsibility helps the others feel more involved.

Ultimately, whatever effort I put into CEP is twice repaid. I have developed a diverse network of friends to exchange information with and to socialize with. It can sometimes be hard being a bit “different” in Japanese society, but the women in CEP readily accept each other’s varied cultural backgrounds and celebrate that diversity. The children enjoy this playgroup, but it is no secret that the mothers benefit just as much.