An Afternoon at a Kindergarten in Japan

The kindergarten or 幼稚園 youchien  is one of my favorite parts of being a teacher, although I’m usually only there once a week in the afternoon. I’ll explain what a kindergarten is like, and what I do there.

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I also talked about the kindergarten briefly in an earlier post–you can see it here.

In the US, you can choose to go to preschool for 2-3 years before entering elementary school; and then elementary school starts with Kindergarten–it’s like being in “zero-th Grade.” In Japan, elementary school always starts from the 1st grade, for a total of 6 years. You can go to the kindergarten for up to 3 years prior to that. Before entering kindergarten, even younger kids can attend a 保育園 hoikuen, or preschool.

I help teach classes at the middle school in the morning, and then head off to the kindergarten for lunch. The kindergarten is biking distance from my middle school, and I can get there in about 5 minutes.

The afternoon:

The first thing I do when I get to the kindergarten is to take off my shoes at the teachers’ entrance, which is by a small parking lot and separate from the “main” entrance where parents and students usually enter from. I slip into my indoor shoes, which are just a pair of shoes I keep in my locker to wear at the kindergarten only (because I don’t want to be carrying one pair of indoor shoes between all three of my schools).

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My locker is on the bottom, second from the left. I keep a pair of indoor shoes in there. The sandals on the right are “bathroom slippers” that you switch into when you use the bathroom.

I then proceed to the principal’s/head-of-kindergarten’s office, and she looks at a paper and lets me know which classroom I’ll be in for the day. There are (I think) 3 classes for each age level–年少 nenshō (really little kids, 4 and under), 年中 nenchū (4-5 year-olds), and 年長 nenchō (5-6 year olds). I work with the two older groups of kids, and that means I see the same classroom once every six weeks. Each class has a cute name (like a flower or an animal), and wear matching colored hats. I think the hats are primarily for protecting them from the sun when they go outside, but they also help the teachers make sure they’re lined up with the correct activities when they go on a trip or play outside. Students also wear uniforms at the kindergarten–they all have the exact same uniforms, so the girls wear pants too, not skirts like in elementary and middle school. These uniforms are just matching shirts and pants; I think they’re designed for all the wear-and-tear that’s going to happen…

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One of the kindergarten buildings as viewed from the school yard.

I tend to arrive at the school at slightly different times depending on how long it takes me to leave the middle school, so sometimes kids are still playing outside or doing an activity, while other times they’re preparing for lunch or already eating. Whenever I arrive, as soon as kids see me I’m greeted with choruses of “Stephanie-sensei! Stephanie-sensei!” and kids asking me what classroom I’m going to be in for the day. Then when I tell them which one, the kids from that classroom jump and celebrate, haha. It’s impossible not to love coming here when you get that kind of reaction just for being there!

Eating lunch:

The six classes I visit all follow approximately the same structure for lunch. First, students all go to the bathroom and wash their hands. Then, they sit at tables, where they’ve laid out their lunch napkins, chopstick cases, and little cloth bag to hold everything. Each class has around 20 kids, making for four tables of 4-5 kids each. If I arrive around lunch time, I help the teacher scoop rice, soup, or whatever the lunch is for the day into bowls on a table at the front of the classroom. Kids come up one table at a time, stand in line, and pick up  a bowl. Some kids eat hardly anything and some kids want a lot of food. They’re allowed to ask for more or less, but they have to eat all of it. If they don’t finish by the time lunch time is over, they have to sit at the table at the front with their food until they finish eating, no matter what the rest of the class is doing.

Special needs children also attend the kindergarten and participate in most of the activities. These children are accompanied by a teacher of their “own,” who also eats with that kid. If I’m visiting a classroom and there’s a regular teacher and a special needs teacher, there could be three of us in the classroom at the same time.

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These are the school lunch supplies I bought–a napkin to put under bowls, mini chopsticks in a case, and a Hello Kitty x One Piece-themed pouch bag to put it all in. I haven’t been using them, though, because washing them when they get dirty is a pain, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference whether I eat with a napkin or not.

Just like at the elementary and middle schools, kids can’t start eating until everyone is sitting down with their utensils and food in front of them. For the nenchō (5- and 6-year-olds), the teacher then calls up the tōban 当番 or kids who have daily lunch duty (it changes every day). Those four kids come stand at the front, and the teacher shows them what to say. Then the students say exactly the following:

1. 今日の給食は… “Today’s lunch is…” (and then take turns saying the different things on the menu that the teacher assigned them to say). The class waits while the teacher is assisting them, and they stay fairly quiet.

2. Next, the teacher tells them how long they’ll have to finish eating. Students can’t “tell time” yet, but they know the numbers on the clock, so the tōban students say together, 今日は7までに食べてください。”Today, please eat by the 7″ (12:35). Then, the rest of the class answers in chorus, はい、分かりました。”We understand/Yes, we will!”

3. Then, the teacher plays the adorable school lunch song on the piano, and the students sing along with it, repeating after the teacher, who inserts the names of the foods in the school lunch.

4. Once the song has finished, the teacher says, さぁ、手を合わせましょう。”Alright, let’s put our hands together.” ご一緒に。”Together, now.”
Everyone: いただきます。”Thank you for this meal/Lit. “I humbly partake.”
Teacher: どうぞお上がりください。”You may eat now/Please partake.” (It’s such polite language, but it’s really cute when the kids say it)
Everyone: ありがとうございました。”Thank you very much.”
Teacher: どういたしまして。”You’re welcome.”

I found a video of this all playing out, with a lunch song and saying things together before eating. It’s not my school (I’m not allowed to, sorry!), so there are differences: the lunch song is different, they say a different “script,” they’re drinking from their thermoses instead of from milk cartons like we do, and they don’t have uniforms…but it’s the same idea. Click here for YouTube clip.

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At this point, everyone can pick up their chopsticks and start eating the meal. It usually takes a little longer for the teacher to sit down and start eating, and before she eats she says, 先生もいただきます。”The teacher will eat now too.” Students: どうぞお上がりください。”Please partake.” Teacher: ありがとうございました。”Thank you very much.”

If it seems like a lot to say, don’t worry, because when you’re there saying it every week you’ll remember it.

After lunch:

What we do after lunch varies according to the day and the weather. If it’s raining or really, really hot, we don’t play outside, or only play in the sandbox. Sometimes we play indoors with various toys, or the teacher might read a book. Of course, since I’m there, we might play a game in English, too. My job at the kindergarten, because I don’t “teach” a class, is to use English around the kids in general. I often forget I’m at work there, though. Some games that have worked well for me have been simple “do what I do” (walk! run!) while saying English out loud (you don’t even have to play like “Simon Says” for it to be fun), “How are you, Mr. Wolf?”, Duck-duck-goose (which I changed to “monkey-monkey-gorilla” on the recommendation of some JET website), and more recently, Four Corners. I didn’t know what to do here at first, but since I’m only in each class once every six weeks, I don’t really run out of games. I also read them Dr. Suess’s ABC book once (the previous English teacher left it)–it was a little long, but it sounds funny, so they enjoy it even though they don’t understand it. They would say the words after I read them without me really prompting them.

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That covered area is the sandbox. It has different “ground” than is found in the rest of the schoolyard. During the summer, it’s covered in big green leaves, and works really well to shade against the sun.

Most of the kids go home in the early afternoon, but there are also classes of kids who stay a bit later. I hand out by the sinks giving out foam soap when the students say あわせっけんください “Foam soap, please!” and then go have snack with them in a similar (but simplified) format to lunch time. After helping sweep the classroom, I head home!

The kindergarten is one of my favorite parts of my job. The kids are full of energy, and it’s so easy to get them excited about something or get them to laugh. You don’t have to make them “practice” English–when you say something in Japanese, they say it back to you without needing to be prompted because they think it’s hilarious. Outside of even my job (to use English with them), I feel like I learn a lot from the things they say and do. Even though I’m tired on Fridays sometimes, I’m glad I get to finish off every week with the kindergarten. Today also marks the last day of my first (school) year of teaching English in Japan!

Song of the Day: Fukase (from Sekai no Owari), “Take Your Way” (Japanese)

6 thoughts on “An Afternoon at a Kindergarten in Japan

  1. I look forward to each of your posts about your experience in Japanese schools, but this one is especially interesting to me. Having lived in Japan in 1953, my brother went to kindergarten there and I have loved hearing his stories about it over the many years since–yes, I know that’s ancient history! Here is a post you might enjoy about K graduation, 60 years ago.
    Best wishes to you as you continue your teaching.

    http://www.annbkennedy.blogspot.com/2013/02/march-19-20-1954-nigawa-kindergarten.html

    1. That post was really interesting, thank you! I’m glad this post could be interesting to you. I like that there were pictures with your entry, too! I can’t remember the exact order of the proceedings at the graduation ceremony at my kindergarten this spring, but I think the one described in your post is even more “fancy” (like with one of the girls doing a traditional dance for everyone). Thanks so much for sharing!

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