In the news: Japanese kindergartens that infuse play with elements of math and science

The kindergartens mentioned in the following article are Komyo Kindergarten in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto; Naruto University of Education Attached Kindergarten, Tokushima prefecture

Ken Yamauchi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series, continued from last week, focuses on preschool education.
KYOTO–A boy in the class for 5-year-olds at Komyo Kindergarten in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, builds a dodecahedron with 12 square sheets of origami paper, as he explains to his classmates what he is doing. One of his peers, who has been attentively observing the process, suddenly says, “Give me some,” and snatches away a few sheets of the paper from the speaker.
Now short of the material he needs to make a dodecahedron, the boy quick-wittedly changes his plan and begins to fashion a cube, saying: “Oh, well…Let’s make dice!”
The private kindergarten is among a handful that have infused their children’s play with elements of mathematics–including diagrams and numbers–to develop their comprehension and interest.
Such techniques have been instituted mainly under the leadership of Gado Tanaka, a Kyoto University engineering school graduate who became principal of the kindergarten in 1989. The kindergarten has awakened children’s scientific interest by incorporating mathematical programs into its curriculum, which was designed in accordance with their levels of intellectual development during their three years at the kindergarten.
Watching the boy shift his plan from making a dodecahedron to constructing a cube, Tanaka delightfully described the incident as “demonstrating that [the boy] has acquired a considerably high-level understanding of geometry for his age.”
“It’s not like he just learned how to make something out of origami,” Tanaka said. “It was based on his experience: It was he himself who deduced what sort of objects he could make based on how many sheets he had.”
According to the principal, origami is a very good educational activity that children can enjoy with their parents, as even elementary origami-folding techniques include mathematical elements such as diagrams and numbers.
In that light, it is better for children to develop the ability to explain to others how to make origami objects, rather than just learning how to make highly complicated objects by themselves, Tanaka said.
Another of the kindergarten’s distinctive efforts involves making confectionery.
Confectionery making itself is not a unique educational activity, as many kindergartens have introduced programs of this kind.
At Komyo, however, groups of five children in the 5-year-old class are instructed to bake seven cookies for each group in a confectionery making event that is usually held shortly before their graduation. The task is meant to prompt the children to discuss how to share the two cookies that remain after each member takes one cookie.
“How can we divide these two [cookies] into five pieces?” one of the children asked the other members of the group, while another suggested a solution, saying: “Why don’t we bake three more cookies?”
With this type of problem solving activity, the kindergarten expects to be able to naturally foster the children’s understanding of numbers.
When grouping children at the kindergarten for playtime, lunchtime and other occasions, the number of members in each group is limited to five or six for the 3-year-olds’ classes. If a group has more members, children of that age have difficulty recognizing the number of fellow members, the teachers say.
Around age 4, children become aware of the number in their group–thinking, for example, “One is absent today, so there are fewer of us than yesterday.”
“Nobody can calculate as well as a calculator. And it’s not too late for kids to learn [about calculation] after entering primary school,” the kindergarten principal said. “I believe education for toddlers should put priority on cultivating their intelligence through real-life experience.”
When I visited the kindergarten, the children of the 3-year-old class were assembling cubic “jewelry boxes” using cardboard prepared by their teacher.
Such experiences will lead them to create polyhedral objects–a technique that could put adults to shame–although from the children’s point of view they are just enjoying playing.
In another class, I saw children absorbed in knitting.
Knitting has a positive effect on the development of children’s numerical understanding as they count stitches.
According to Tanaka, many of the kindergarten’s graduates eventually went on to major in science at university, although “it’s not clear if the kindergarten’s curriculum really affected [their decisions to do so].”
Children’s play contributes to teachers’ database
TOKUSHIMA–Certain objects tend to inspire children to play with them in certain ways. A kindergarten in Tokushima is compiling a database on this topic, based on information that its teachers have accumulated by observing children at play over the years.
At Naruto University of Education Attached Kindergarten, children playing in the sandbox started connecting PVC pipes and bamboo tubes. They pumped water into them and began making sand mountains and streams with a shovel. Then they saw buckets nearby, and the sandbox turned into a mock footbath.
Noriko Nitta, 51, was watching their progress.
“We casually placed the pipes, shovels and other things near the children,” Nitta said. “When we sensed that it was likely to become a mock footbath, we brought buckets and tubs for them. If we see a pretend dinner coming, then we’d prepare spoons and cups, maybe some nuts and leaves, too.”
But it is Nitta’s years of experience that has enabled her to foresee what kind of play children might do next and to prompt them to do it.
“In kindergarten you can learn things, like what kind of flowers bloom when, but it’s been trial and error for me to acquire skills to guide children’s play in evolving into another kind of play,” said Chiaki Katsuura, 34, who teaches at the kindergarten.
To give substance to this child-care technique, which is difficult to pass on, the kindergarten in 2004 started recording how children can be led toward certain types of play and how teachers are involved in the process. The kindergarten is paying particularly strong attention to specific conditions, such as certain places, play equipment and events, that encourage creative play. The kindergarten calls them play-inducing tools and is in the process of analyzing them.
In one case, tulip stalks from which the flowers had fallen were given to children as play-inducing tools. A 5-year-old girl playing house used them for pretend cooking and found that they were streaky inside when she split them in two. Another girl said, “I’ll have the asparagus,” applying her imagination. When a teacher pretended to smell the dish with the stalks, it prompted the girl to say, “It’s got a seasonal vegetable in it. Can you smell it?”
This fiscal year, which is the sixth year since the kindergarten began keeping records of such tools, it started assembling a database of the compiled records. This enables teachers to find out what each kind of play each play-inducing tools inspires children to do, and it is expected to give teachers clues for instructing children.
(Feb. 11, 2010)

EDUCATIONAL RENAISSANCE / Play with diagrams, numbers fosters kids’ interest in scienceKen Yamauchi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series, continued from last week, focuses on preschool education.
KYOTO–A boy in the class for 5-year-olds at Komyo Kindergarten in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, builds a dodecahedron with 12 square sheets of origami paper, as he explains to his classmates what he is doing. One of his peers, who has been attentively observing the process, suddenly says, “Give me some,” and snatches away a few sheets of the paper from the speaker.
Now short of the material he needs to make a dodecahedron, the boy quick-wittedly changes his plan and begins to fashion a cube, saying: “Oh, well…Let’s make dice!”
The private kindergarten is among a handful that have infused their children’s play with elements of mathematics–including diagrams and numbers–to develop their comprehension and interest.
Such techniques have been instituted mainly under the leadership of Gado Tanaka, a Kyoto University engineering school graduate who became principal of the kindergarten in 1989. The kindergarten has awakened children’s scientific interest by incorporating mathematical programs into its curriculum, which was designed in accordance with their levels of intellectual development during their three years at the kindergarten.
Watching the boy shift his plan from making a dodecahedron to constructing a cube, Tanaka delightfully described the incident as “demonstrating that [the boy] has acquired a considerably high-level understanding of geometry for his age.”
“It’s not like he just learned how to make something out of origami,” Tanaka said. “It was based on his experience: It was he himself who deduced what sort of objects he could make based on how many sheets he had.”
According to the principal, origami is a very good educational activity that children can enjoy with their parents, as even elementary origami-folding techniques include mathematical elements such as diagrams and numbers.
In that light, it is better for children to develop the ability to explain to others how to make origami objects, rather than just learning how to make highly complicated objects by themselves, Tanaka said.
Another of the kindergarten’s distinctive efforts involves making confectionery.
Confectionery making itself is not a unique educational activity, as many kindergartens have introduced programs of this kind.
At Komyo, however, groups of five children in the 5-year-old class are instructed to bake seven cookies for each group in a confectionery making event that is usually held shortly before their graduation. The task is meant to prompt the children to discuss how to share the two cookies that remain after each member takes one cookie.
“How can we divide these two [cookies] into five pieces?” one of the children asked the other members of the group, while another suggested a solution, saying: “Why don’t we bake three more cookies?”
With this type of problem solving activity, the kindergarten expects to be able to naturally foster the children’s understanding of numbers.
When grouping children at the kindergarten for playtime, lunchtime and other occasions, the number of members in each group is limited to five or six for the 3-year-olds’ classes. If a group has more members, children of that age have difficulty recognizing the number of fellow members, the teachers say.
Around age 4, children become aware of the number in their group–thinking, for example, “One is absent today, so there are fewer of us than yesterday.”
“Nobody can calculate as well as a calculator. And it’s not too late for kids to learn [about calculation] after entering primary school,” the kindergarten principal said. “I believe education for toddlers should put priority on cultivating their intelligence through real-life experience.”
When I visited the kindergarten, the children of the 3-year-old class were assembling cubic “jewelry boxes” using cardboard prepared by their teacher.
Such experiences will lead them to create polyhedral objects–a technique that could put adults to shame–although from the children’s point of view they are just enjoying playing.
In another class, I saw children absorbed in knitting.
Knitting has a positive effect on the development of children’s numerical understanding as they count stitches.
According to Tanaka, many of the kindergarten’s graduates eventually went on to major in science at university, although “it’s not clear if the kindergarten’s curriculum really affected [their decisions to do so].”
Children’s play contributes to teachers’ database
TOKUSHIMA–Certain objects tend to inspire children to play with them in certain ways. A kindergarten in Tokushima is compiling a database on this topic, based on information that its teachers have accumulated by observing children at play over the years.
At Naruto University of Education Attached Kindergarten, children playing in the sandbox started connecting PVC pipes and bamboo tubes. They pumped water into them and began making sand mountains and streams with a shovel. Then they saw buckets nearby, and the sandbox turned into a mock footbath.
Noriko Nitta, 51, was watching their progress.
“We casually placed the pipes, shovels and other things near the children,” Nitta said. “When we sensed that it was likely to become a mock footbath, we brought buckets and tubs for them. If we see a pretend dinner coming, then we’d prepare spoons and cups, maybe some nuts and leaves, too.”
But it is Nitta’s years of experience that has enabled her to foresee what kind of play children might do next and to prompt them to do it.
“In kindergarten you can learn things, like what kind of flowers bloom when, but it’s been trial and error for me to acquire skills to guide children’s play in evolving into another kind of play,” said Chiaki Katsuura, 34, who teaches at the kindergarten.
To give substance to this child-care technique, which is difficult to pass on, the kindergarten in 2004 started recording how children can be led toward certain types of play and how teachers are involved in the process. The kindergarten is paying particularly strong attention to specific conditions, such as certain places, play equipment and events, that encourage creative play. The kindergarten calls them play-inducing tools and is in the process of analyzing them.
In one case, tulip stalks from which the flowers had fallen were given to children as play-inducing tools. A 5-year-old girl playing house used them for pretend cooking and found that they were streaky inside when she split them in two. Another girl said, “I’ll have the asparagus,” applying her imagination. When a teacher pretended to smell the dish with the stalks, it prompted the girl to say, “It’s got a seasonal vegetable in it. Can you smell it?”
This fiscal year, which is the sixth year since the kindergarten began keeping records of such tools, it started assembling a database of the compiled records. This enables teachers to find out what each kind of play each play-inducing tools inspires children to do, and it is expected to give teachers clues for instructing children.
(Feb. 11, 2010)

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