As I posted some time ago, we were fortunate that my oldest daughter was able to enter a city-approved nursery school. We were even more fortunate to have first choice on a new housing plot that wasn’t even technically on the market when we were shown it by the real estate company. To make a long story short, we built a house less than a five-minute walk from the biggest, and oldest, nursery school in our city. It’s run by the local Buddhist temple, has around 120 kids from infant to 6 years old, and is very, very well organized. Cost? Depends on your income, but in our case we pay roughly the equivalent of $650 a month for the oldest daughter. Our youngest daughter had to go to a private, non-approved nursery another 10-minute walk away, but thanks to the “point system” lottery to determine eligibility to enter nursery schools, our youngest was also lucky enough to enter the same nursery school as my oldest in April of last year. Needless to say, I probably should have posted this about 11 months ago….
The most difficult, yet incredibly organized aspect of the nursery school is the routine we are obliged to go through each and every morning. First, we have to make sure that all the paper diapers are labeled with our daughter’s name. Some parents actually buy a stamp with their kid’s name on it, just for the diapers. And of course paper diapers in Japan come with a boxed area in which you write your kid’s name. We also have to make sure we bring three small handtowels and two bibs each morning. We have to bring two plastic bags, both with our daughter’s name on them (we use magic marker). One bag is for her used clothing, and the other is for her used diapers. We also bring a small notebook for the teacher, with a list of what our daughter has eaten for dinner the previous night and for breakfast that morning, as well as whether she’s pooped, her temperature, and any other pertinent information we want the teacher to know (especially if she’s caught a cold or if she’s taking medicine, which is often).
Moreover, each Monday we have to bring a small futon (sold as a set that includes something to lie on and a cover or two) and, in principle, we bring the futon home each Friday to be cleaned. Every morning, we hand in the notebook, put the handtowels and bibs into little cubbyholes, set up the bag for her dirty clothing in a clothesbasket, put new paper diapers and/or cloth diapers into another basket, set up the bag for her diapers in a bucket in the toilet room, and make sure to write down the time we arrived and the time we expect to pick her up on an attendance sheet at the door to her classroom. We also have to make sure we take off our daughter’s socks and put them into their own cubbyhole (kids at the nursery school go barefoot inside the school, and sometimes go barefoot outside, in the event of a firedrill).
Fortunately, our oldest daughter has grown out of bibs and diapers, but we still have to bring a notebook every day and a futon every week. She also has two towels, one of which she hangs up on a sort of clothing rack with hooks, for use at snack time. She also brings a plastic cup, a pair of chopsticks, a toothbrush, and a covered bento (“lunch box,” although it’s really nothing like a typical American lunch box), which has nothing but white rice (the school provides the rest of the meal, but we have to provide the rice).
Every evening when we come to pick up the kids, we take the bag of dirty diapers out of the bucket and the bag of dirty clothing out of the basket, and pick up the notebook, which usually has some comments from the teachers on the day’s activities. For our youngest daughter, we generally expect to see at least one dirty shirt and one dirty pair of pants, and sometimes two, depending on how messy she was at lunch and snack time. Our oldest daughter now carries all her things in a backpack, but we still have two towels, cup, chopsticks, and empty bento box to clean every night.
At first, it seemed like an awful lot to do in the morning, especially when we’re trying to run to catch a train to work. Also a lot to do at night to prepare the kids’ bags for school (we got in the habit of doing this first thing upon arriving home, just before dinner). Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the system. Even though the teacher-student ratio is high enough to grant the nursery school “city approved” status, there are still too many kids for the teachers to do all this without parents’ help. There are a set number of kids per classroom, a number that increases as the kids get older and become more capable of taking care of themselves to some degree, but it would still be daunting for a teacher to change diapers three or four times a day without some sort of organized system for clothing and diapers. The system also helps teachers to toilet-train the kids, something for which my wife and I are extremely grateful.
In general, the nursery school system is designed to help kids gradually learn how to do things for themselves, while also learning how to take turns being responsible for group activities. The nursery school encourages the kids to gradually get their own clothes for changing after lunch and after art or outside activities, to go fetch their cups and chopsticks for lunch and snack time, to wash their hands and brush their teeth on their own, to help the teachers hand out rice and drinks at lunch (to-ban, “on duty”). All the meals and activities are planned ahead of time and given to us on a printed schedule near the end of the month, and every time there’s a school activity, there are loads of photos lined up in the main hall for us to buy if we want copies.
Like other schools in the educational system, the nursery school has a PTA of sorts. It’s really a “parents support group” (ai-go-kai, or “love protect group”) that helps to organize and run the festivals in the spring and fall, as well as the annual spring cleaning, the visits from a traveling petting zoo, and other random events. My wife volunteered to be an officer (yakuin, “role member”) once my oldest daughter started going to the nursery school, and she’s been an officer ever since (three years now). My initial reaction was, “Hey, we’re paying for this, so why should we have to bring all this stuff every day and then clean the school for nothing?” But over time, I’ve come to realize that this is not only a part of Japanese communal culture, but it’s also a good way to meet other parents, learn more about what my kids are doing while we’re at work, and get more involved in the local community. It seems like every other weekend has been already planned out for us nearly the entire academic year, but as our kids get older, I suspect we will have more and more to get involved in.
(Left to right: how to put together a kid’s futon set for nursery school).