The education ministry has announced a plan to double the number of after-school child care centers over five years by using more classrooms at primary schools. The plan is another attempt to create a support network so that more women can work. Doubling the number of spots — from 10,000 to 20,000 — will open up more opportunities for children and mothers.

At the same time, in a parallel move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced a plan supervised by the welfare ministry to expand day care centers for primary school students whose parents are not at home when the school day ends. This second plan would increase the number of spots for some 300,000 youngsters over the next five years. Both plans are steps in the right direction.

According to the survey, 21,482 day care centers with 890,000 schoolchildren registered to attend were already in place in May 2013. These centers supervised by the welfare ministry offer playtime and other activities to students after school finishes for the day.

Child care centers supervised by the education ministry, in contrast, tend to rely on local volunteers to help children do homework and engage in activities. The education ministry oversaw 10,376 such centers nationwide in 2013. Clearly the two ministries need to work together.

Primary school students need a range of activities — sports, games, interaction with adults, and help with homework. The two ministries must work closely together to ensure primary school students have essential input and stimulating activities. Studies have shown again and again the importance of early education in determining people’s future lives.

The centers also need to recruit not only volunteers from the local community but also well-trained staff for the centers. Graduate and undergraduate students from education departments might also help assist at the centers, and start the challenging process of learning how to interact with children. The ministries should ensure that volunteers and paid staff alike are recognized for their important contributions.

The centers greatly relieve the burden on mothers with primary schoolchildren. Many mothers have been forced to quit work after their children start primary school because there are no places for the children to stay once the school day ends. Child care centers for preschool children stay open late enough to enable most mothers to have a job.

Most importantly, though, the centers should focus on the key goal of keeping students engaged actively in meaningful activities. Integration and coordination between the two ministries would allow budgets to be used efficiently to provide longer hours, more services and dynamic activities for children. Developing these centers is an urgent task that should be given higher priority by both ministries.

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