Childcare and COVID realities in Japan

Interview with Seishin Childcare Group Non-profit Organization








Could you introduce us to the  Seishin Childcare Group Non-profit Organization?

Our Non-Profit Organization was founded in 1975 in Hitachinaka City (Ibaraki Prefecture northeast Tokyo, population 2.9 million).  We operate the following centres:  Takaba Childcare Centre (340 children); Seishin Childcare Centre (270 children); Shimba Nursery Takaba (30 children); Simba Renaissance Kids (19 children); Simba Emino Nursery Shakujiidai (120 children). 

How has the pandemic affected the childcare centres – kids, parents, operations?  How are you dealing with these challenges?

The COVID lockdown began in April. At the end of May, the emergency lockdown was lifted but in Nerima Ward the lockdown continued until the end of June. During the lockdown period (from beginning of April to end of June), about 70-80% of the children did not attend.  The children of frontline and essential workers continued to attend.

In accordance with the guidelines of Nerima Ward, we assessed whether we could hold events.  To avoid reducing content that would hinder the development of children, we did events with social distancing, limiting attendance (2 people per family) and shortening the length of the event. For children’s play environment, we also implemented distancing to avoid getting too close. For pool use, staff followed the guidelines and supervised children to take turns to limit 10 children in the pool at one time.  

In terms of our daily routines, together children and guardians had to do hand washing, temperature checks, and limiting 4 children per table when eating, and aiming to sit with the same children and not mixing at the table.  

Because there were cases where guardians’s jobs were uncertain, for example we were conscious and caring of the emotional volatility of parents during informal talks. We also spent considerable time talking to support and comfort parents.  Some issues were: some felt they were not effective in child rearing because they couldn’t take part in the outside world and had lost their sense of security.  There were some guardians who emotionally shared.

How has COVID affected children?  Have you seen any changes?  How as parents, teachers, and managers, are you adapting to these changes? 

Children have not been greatly affected in terms of daily routine. They enjoy playing with friends. However, for our Sports Day, as one of the virus prevention measures, we divided up the Sports Day by age groups. It was difficult because we would like the parents & children to see the development of older age groups.  We feel that opportunities for learning that comes from children interacting with other children is being deprived (they cannot see example of older children to which they aspire to be like.  This is important for their development.

Also, we feel the opportunities for food education is reduced:  such things as cooking, experiencing food prep and touching food, experiences with food. It’s unfortunate that children cannot help with ‘toban katsudou’ (rotating small groups) to help with serving food.

In regards to staff, staff exchange during usual opportunities like dining together or meeting, including going back to their hometowns have been limited.  It has been difficult for staff to replenish themselves timewise, and to recharge.  So it cannot be denied that there are some staff who feel a sense of isolation.

According to Takahashi-san, the Manager of Simba Emino Nursery Shakujiidai, in order to support children, the centre provided counselling to parents before COVID.  In urban centres, when they looked at the causes of ‘bad behaviour’, the source of the problem was the family/parents.  Now with COVID, can you give some concrete examples of how you have adjusted to the reality to support children in your centres?

During the Emergency Measures period, the kind of supports we provided for families:  remote early learning consultations; introduced play activities online such as ‘top spinning; reading and listening to storybooks; exercises, origami, and singing.  We created opportunities to come and pick up the (spin) tops and to meet with parents & children at the centre as a pilot for short periods.  During those times, we chatted about any kinds of problems in behaviour and issues of concern and gave advice.  

As stated before, parents had anxiety about their job situation and about raising their kids.  In order to make it easy to do individual consults, we schedule those parents who have come for consults for follow-ups the next month.  We provide support in terms of building a long-term relationship.

There are many guardians with mental/emotional problems. We support them to help them not feel insecure about raising their kids while daily watching the children. Because there are many single parent families, we give ideas and tools on how not to feel isolated when raising your child on your own, how you can change your mood and see things differently.  In regards to the behaviour of their children, we help them to understand the triggers of behaviour and development in an objective way by taking written records.  

Currently, we let parents know that their children are growing and developing by doing physical exercise and play and interacting with other children.  When they pick up their children at the end of the day, they happily greet them.  

If you could look back from the future, what do you think we will learn from COVID?  How do you foresee Japan society changing?  In your childcare centres, what kind of changes would you like to see? 

COVID has made us conscious again that it’s only natural that society will change. No matter what period in history, we are full of hopes and dreams.  It’s important to open up your own path that aligns with you.  

It’s become the era when we clearly now see the underlying essence of each job or action that we do. It is important to ask ‘for what purpose? Why? For who? Are we doing the things we choose to do.   Thanks to COVID, things have become clearer (on what they mean to us).  It’s become clear that through communicating and connecting with each other, we can feel safe and stable in our hearts. We are experiencing the fight with an invisible virus, and though it is vague even today, we now realize the importance of protecting our own physical bodies.  For Japan in the future, it’s important that we create new values that promote diversity even more and freedom-based creativity that is not based on preconceived notions.  

In the childcare world, wearing masks has become the norm, we’ve cancelled events, and continue to do social distancing, do various virus prevention measures.  We continue to expand new practices for children. We feel that it’s necessary to research how this will affect children’s development in the future. At the same time, it is now the era where we have to rethink early childhood education itself.  Along with increasing the diversity of the employment conditions of early childhood educators, it may be good to make childcare hours flexible. In order to break down children into smaller groups, we want to implement childcare that factors in children’s interests in small groups. For staff, it’s important to acquire skills so that they can mentor and support parents/guardians while taking into consideration their situations.

Thank you very much.