A Shinto priest in charge of a Kyoto nursery school is taking an unconventional approach to early education, seeking to “see what cannot be seen” in children to help nurture their development.

Itsuki Murota took the helm of the Iwaya Nursery School in Yamashina Ward in 1980, when he was in his mid-20s, and began to recognize changes in children around 1995.

“Children who couldn’t sit quietly or join groups began to be noticeable,” Murota recalled. These children would become quiet when told, but scolding could not settle fundamental problems, he said.

Children have feelings of isolation or discontent they themselves do not recognize, he said. The problem can’t be addressed merely by banning undesirable behavior such as fighting.

Through trial and error, he decided that education in the nursery school, operated by the neighboring Iwaya Shrine, should focus on mental growth.

As one step, Murota, who became chief priest of the shrine in 2002, adopted an experimental method in which nursery workers subjectively analyze children’s actions and write their conclusions.

People do not live only in the visible world, Murota said, stressing the importance of many people admitting to the presence of both visible and invisible worlds being “within the bounds of common sense.” The approach is like “praying to God after doing all you can.”

Religion is socially necessary if prayer is defined as religion, he said, while emphasizing nursery schools run by religious entities should not use their educational services for the sake of proselytizing.

The Iwaya Nursery School marks events that represent milestones in children’s life as well as seasonal changes. For example, children are dressed up to participate in the Shichi-Go-San (Seven-Five-Three) festival, a traditional rite of passage for 3-, 5- and 7-year-olds.

The ancient Japanese saying “Children are in the god’s domain until 7 years old,” is a denial of early education, Murota said.

“We used to recognize that children are unpredictable because they are the gods’ offspring,” he added. “Children thus were allowed to live as children, rather than as immature adults.

“While it is important to ensure a period of time when children mutually grow up, care providers should grow by accepting and supporting children going around as children” so that a relationship of mutual growth between care providers and receivers can be established, Murota said.

Reflecting his educational philosophy, the nursery school is located in a deep forest with a river and paddy fields, offering a variety of opportunities for children to play in nature.

“People used to pray for something and care for others around them in communities in Japan,” Murota said.

“To revive communities, we need to consider how to create a network between prayer and care in an invisible world while living in a visible world.”

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