Sunday, October 24, 2010

Japanese kindergarten

Last week we decided to move our 4 year old son Ray from international kindergarten to Japanese kindergarten, called Hills Gakuen. Crazy you say? Cost was not the issue, but a lot of other factors were.

It is not that I am against international schools. in fact, we put our oldest, George, into international schools the whole way, and he is now at Yokohama International School, the top international school in Japan. I fully expect to send Ray there from grade 1 onward.

For example, many people feel the Japanese elementary school system focuses too much on rote, at the expense of creativity and individualism, and the students turn out to be cookie cutter worker ants, mindlessly obeying Japanese protocol, incapable of free thought, and doomed to work soullessly in the hive until they are replaced by the next batch.

your average Japanese office worker?

Hmmm...I don't entirely disagree. However, when it is done right, the Japanese kindergarten system is an amazing thing. Instead of trying to force children to memorize without understanding, it promotes learning through music and movement, repetition and pattern, and allows kids to be what they are - kids. Kids have boundless energy, and rather than chastise them for not sitting in their chairs all day long, a good kindergarten lets them use their bodies as learning tools - incorporating songs, dances, drills, and other play to get children to want to learn and understand. this physicality will help their bodies develop and form the foundation of good health for the rest of their lives. This approach is far better than showing that they can do worksheets just like their older siblings.

In kindergarten, I think it is most important that children enjoy school, not that they sit and do endless worksheets of letters and numbers. The most important practice they can have for elementary school is SOCIAL, not academic. This means that they should develop the habits of getting along in groups, playing well together, and being polite. Practicing a bit of tooth brushing after meals/snacks and washing hands after restroom is good, too. In a Japanese kindergarten, there will already be a class leader, whose job is to help all the students master the required skills and get along together. This is a step of maturity for the boy or girl who is ready to look after the others, and starts them on the right path of being responsible for the success of others, which is a key leadership attribute.

Far too often the international kindergartens, under pressure from overachiever parents, want to show that the 4 and 5 year old students can write letters and numbers and do worksheets. I personally think that is OK for some kids, but not nearly as good as having the kids enjoy school, have fun, and develop strong core social skills. Music and art should be learned by doing, and their bodies should be as active as possible. Letters (and worksheets) can come later.

In short, I am very glad we found such a good Japanese kindergarten. It offers good social training, active learning, and a lot of fun for the students. it's perfect.

What does this mean in the context of martial arts (this is a martial arts blog, after all)?

Practicing forms and forms and forms is not a substitute for being able to fight, and nor is it a proxy for the critical character development that good expression in the martial arts helps develop in all of us. Even if we never get into an actual fight (and I hope none of us ever have to), we can use the character development, energy and respectfulness we learn in the dojo EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Teach your children well. Don't settle for second best.

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