Frowning with concentration at a low table, a clutch of overall-clad toddlers set about their task: stamping potatoes into paints to create rainbow-bright artworks.
As is to be expected, among them are several grown-ups, their job being to keep the peace and generally make sure that the paint ends up on the paper (as opposed to their faces).
Despite appearances, these adults are not qualified child-care staff — but parents who are involved in one of Tokyo’s first cooperative English-Japanese preschools: Honey Tree Tots.
For many parents, dealing with their own offspring is more than enough work. So the thought of paying to be in charge of a room full of other people’s babies and toddlers is perhaps not the most appealing of ideas.
But Honey Tree Tots has a refreshingly positive approach. The school, which opened in Nakameguro last February, aims to tap into what the founders describe as the increasingly lost spirit of community life in cities.
The way it works is simple: For every five days that a child attends the school, the parent is “on duty” for two of those days, with a ratio of one adult to every two to three pupils at any time. Such parent participation is something that the school takes very seriously, and every new parent is asked to attend a training session led by a licensed hoikushi (daycare worker), covering issues ranging from safety to discipline.
The curriculum, based on a Montessori school program, is colorfully varied with indoor and outdoor activities — including classes ranging from Dance in French to Fun with Food, which involves a licensed nutritionist teaching children about food and preparing healthy dishes for lunch.
Anna-Marie Farrier, the school’s founder and also a food columnist at The Japan Times, explains that the project was inspired by the premise that “it takes a village to raise a child.”
“We are a parent-run, parent-taught, and parent-staffed preschool,” explains Farrier. “We are trying to create a ‘village,’ or a supportive community of parents and children in Tokyo.
“Even when I was a child, there used to be more neighborhood interaction with children, and there would be adults in the community in addition to the parents who would look out for the child.
“In Tokyo, this is starting to be less common and I felt that it was important for children to have that ‘neighborhood’ environment where they can feel accepted, comfortable and feel free to be children.”
The result is an environment that strives to be fully bilingual in English and Japanese (with extra languages such as French also thrown in from time to time, depending on the nationality of participating parents).
The school is open to children aged from 2 to 5, with younger children allowed to accompany their parents before joining the cooperative after their second birthday.
Although some parents may be daunted at the prospect of having to take on the role of teacher, Farrier is adamant that everyone has something to offer the children.
“Since we are a cooperative preschool, we really benefit from the many skills and talents of our parents,” she says. “Every parent has something to offer, whether it be language skills, craft skills, photography, creative skills or even just playing soccer with the children.”
Describing how the end result is as varied as it is often fun, she adds: “On days that parents are on duty, they are often asked to be in charge of leading an activity — like crafts or story time, or teaching the children how to waltz — whatever is your forte.”
The school is housed in a cosy first-floor space on a quiet backstreet not far from Meguro canal, with a facade of glass, boxes of toys and a colorful tree mural covering the back wall.
On the day I visit, the toddlers are seated at a small table and are enjoying some potato-print painting, an activity that is being undertaken with surprising patience.
Among the parents supervising is Sandy Nishimura, a lab technician from Yokohama who is on duty with her 2-year-old daughter Airi.
“I enjoy spending time here with other moms and kids,” she says. “It’s a unique idea being a cooperative and it’s also very interactive. It suits us well.”
Anna Dirksen, a Canadian mother, first attended the school in March and is with her 2-year-old Neala and 4-month-old baby Willa.
“I admit I found the idea of teaching very intimidating at first,” says Dirksen, who works in communications for a United Nations think tank. “But the training day was very useful — and it’s giving me useful skills for parenting at home, too.”
According to Dirksen, the unusual cooperative concept of the school is appealing to both parents and children.
“It is a really good education for both of them. My elder daughter has the opportunity to be in a bilingual environment and we both have the opportunity to communicate and try out new ideas,” she says. “I normally come here three times a week and it’s great for me as it’s superflexible and so it goes well with me working from home.”
She adds with a smile: “Although I have noticed that your own children tend to be better behaved when you’re not on duty and they’re with other parents.”
To join Honey Tree Tots, monthly fees range from ¥16,200 for five days a month to ¥56,160 for five days a week. For more information, visit www.honeytreetots.com.
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