Let the good times roll

By on November 29, 2008
What do a Japanese dentist, a Sri Lankan investment banker, a Ghanaian diplomat and an Irish teacher have in common? You would think not a lot; but you’d be wrong. These are the parents of the Komaba International Playgroup – a group of women with children in or around the same age who meet twice a week in the suburbs of Tokyo. The reason they bring their little bundles of joy to the group is simple; they gather to enjoy a bit of music, a bit of dancing, a couple of senbei (rice crackers), some good old fashioned gossip and a lot of craic, Irish style. If you have found yourself in Tokyo with children under the age of five, you’ll probably have been like me and wondered how best to meet their developmental needs. They are not yet of primary school age, but they’re certainly at the point where they need some sort of ‘social group’ or regular organized activity.
The options
There are numerous international schools available in Tokyo, which promise pedagogical systems of brilliance, churning out lots of baby Einsteins before the last of their milk teeth poke through. There are also the Japanese hoikuens (daycare), which are great but so small and in such demand that, short of being a single mother working a sixty hour week while also caring for at least four elderly grandparents, you’ll never get your kid in. Then there is the yochien (kindergarten). This too is great, but has its problems, chief among them being that you’ve got to make that work-of-art lunchbox every day. After all this lunchbox-related stress, the yochien only keeps the kids for two hours. But if you live in the Komaba area and frequent the lovely new park, Shin Komabanokoen, you may have heard murmurings of a somewhat lesser-known option – the Playgroup. “Yes, it’s right there.” “Yes, it’s here with the gaggle of kids.” “Yes, it’s free!” So if you are averse to spending millions of yen on what is essentially a playschool, the new playgroup might be for you.Baby steps
Necessity truly was the mother of invention in this instance. With five children under the age of three, the founder – myself – had to be selective about childcare options. An Irish mother of twins, twice, and an older toddler, despairing at the distinct absence of casual playgroups and the cost of the ‘international’ alternative, I decided to take charge of the situation and set up my own playgroup. The underlying principle of any such group is that the mothers/carers stay with their kids and play. Importantly, the first thing everyone does is sign a waiver, agreeing to accept responsibility for their own little munchkin during the course of the activities. Then we sing, dance and laugh a lot.

To date, we have learned English action songs, read picture books, sang some French ditties and mastered a smattering of Japanese tunes. We’ve organized a paper craft day making all sorts of decorations for the fancy-dress Halloween party; we’ve had birthday parties; and we’ve gone on the occasional jaunt to the park across the road  where a carefully planned ‘baby basketball’ session turned into a full-on water-fight (much more fun!) at the drinking fountain. And, of course, there is always snack time, when a much-anticipated senbei, or a few slices of apple and a cup of mugi-cha (roasted barley tea), becomes the centre of attention. In short, anything goes.

The bottom line
But here’s the real beauty of the Komaba International Playgroup. Because this is a group of mothers simply looking for some way to entertain their kids a few times a week, the Playgroup is essentially free. Komaba Playgroup mothers contribute just 100 yen towards snacks. If there are extra materials needed, we all chip in. But in essence, it costs nothing!

Child benefit
Not only does the Komaba International Playgroup serve to entertain and occupy the children, providing them with a group of regular playmates and a forum for learning new songs – English, French and Japanese to date – they truly are the Internationale of the quartier. But here, we like to think that the mothers count too; those poor hard-working forgotten souls who get far too little sleep and even less thanks for all their hard work. Here, we get to drink cups of tea, eat cake (usually homemade) and prance about singing baby songs and poems in various languages while chatting and gossiping with like-minded mothers in a similar boat. Who could ask for more as we hoist the maternal mast and set sail on another rainy Monday morning?

So, if you are mulling over the various childcare alternatives but are reluctant to fork out half your monthly income on one of the more traditional options, why not seek out a playgroup close to you. And if you can’t find one, then set one up yourself. Stop whining about the cost of international schools, forget about trying to import your great-grandparents to up your score on the hoikuen entry point system. Just do it yourself! Establish a playgroup in your own area and let the good times roll.

About Dana Killalea