When we moved to Japan, one of the first things that stood out was how good the food at convenience stores was…really. (This has nothing to do with what this article is about, but is certainly still worth mentioning). Once that soaked in for awhile, another thing caught our attention. When out in town, it wasn’t unusual at all to see elementary school aged children going to and from school by themselves. We aren’t talking walking a short quiet path from home to school either, these kids were on trains, waiting in line for the (public) bus, or walking down sidewalks next to busy roads. Coming from the U.S., this really caught us off-guard. How were these young children confident enough (moreover, safe enough) to make this daily journey on their own? Ability aside, in the U.S. parents would flat out be arrested for letting their 7-year-old walk along a busy road or take public transit to school.
Fast forward a few months, and we headed to Tokyo for an outing with plans to check out a play park in Shibuya Britt had learned about from one of her friends. We are always on the lookout for good places for the kids to explore, but this place was something new. Haru-no-Ogawa, is often referred to as a “mud park,” but in reality it is a lot more than a place for kids to get dirty. Run completely by volunteers, it’s a safe place where adults are present, but nearly completely hands-off and stationed on the sidelines. When we walked in, kids were pulling out tires, wooden boards, and other equipment from a well-stocked shed to make forts, build bridges, or simply to roll down muddy hills. There were trees, complete with rope swings, to climb, and (of course) big piles of dirt to turn into mud. Here we were, in one of the most metropolitan areas in the world, and there was an absolute oasis dedicated to letting kids being kids…all with available (but not direct) supervision.
The first thought that went through my mind was how the place was a lawsuit waiting to happen. I couldn’t even fathom this being okay in a big city like Boston, San Diego, or Houston for that matter. However, in a split second I realized I was experiencing one of the (many) cultural differences with regards to raising kids in the U.S. vs. Japan. Somehow, the Japanese were able to create a place for kids to play and push the boundaries in a somewhat controlled environment. If someone got hurt, so be it! That child would likely learn something from the experience and think twice the next time they came up upon a similar situation. How’s that for cause + effect? As someone who deals with children with injuries fairly frequently, I know that a cut, scrape, or even a broken bone is far from the end of the world. In some ways I’m convinced it’s just part of growing up. So why as American parents are we so quick to jump in?
This freedom didn’t used to be so unique. Even 20 or 30 years ago it was much more common for parents in the U.S. to let their kids go free. Heck, even when I grew up (not trying to date myself here) there were many, many evenings where I only knew it was time to come home when the street lights came on. As our kids get older, I’ve begun to realize how important this freedom is to kids. The ability to take risks, by themselves, and deal with the consequences seems to be absolutely essential. But it doesn’t come intuitively for Britt and me. Being present, but taking a sideline, can certainly be a challenge.
This has been a recurrent theme in some of our conversations over the past 5 years. No parent takes their children’s education lightly, but with 14 years of post-college school/training between the two of us (including Britt’s Masters in Education), we have a unique perspective on both early childhood education, as well as the opportunity cost that higher education demands. Simply put, we are firm believers that kids need time to be kids – without parents messing everything up for them (at least for a little while). Yes, we realize this is one of those annoying blanket statements which is MUCH easier said than done.
Regardless, this has been a subject that we have always wanted to serve up, but has proven difficult to articulate. Recently, we stumbled upon an article in The New Yorker written by Alexandra Lange that did a fantastic job teasing out some of these themes, particularly looking at the differences in Japanese vs. American child rearing. The article perfectly summed up our thoughts on this issue and, not surprisingly, much more clearly articulated exactly what we wanted to than we ever could have. Now that will very soon be moving from Japan, the challenge for us is how to best implement these strategies back home (in a way that won’t get us arrested). There are certainly places in the United States where this is still the norm, but sadly outside rural communities it is becoming increasingly uncommon.
We have no affiliation with The New Yorker…heck, we don’t even have a subscription. However, if you are interested enough in this subject, we encourage you to give The New Yorker article a read as well. We really think that it won’t be a waste of your time, and whether they know it or not, your kids will thank you! If you have been working on this as well, please let us know! Any thoughts or ideas are always greatly appreciated. Cheers to continuing to be a work-in-progress on all fronts (parenting included).
Haru-no-Ogawa Adventure Park:
- Hours: Daily, 1000 – 1700 (closed Thursdays)
- Admission: Free!
Play Hard. Have Fun.
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