George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Child's Play: Japan's Groundbreaking Child-Development Web Site

When the conformist Land of the Rising Sun forges ahead in education innovation, we'd better pay attention.

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    It may come as a surprise that Japan, a nation often characterized asvaluing conformity and group obedience over individual creativity,produces one of the best Web sites on innovation in child developmentand education.

    Child Research Net (CRN) publishes articles and commentary on wide-ranging topics that relate to children, from genetics, evolutionary biology, anthropology, robotics, and technology to obstetrics, parenting, child care, and school curricula.

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    Along with commentaries by researchers, teachers, parents, and students, the siteincludes surveys on such important topics as students' use of mobile phones (morethan 90 percent of Japanese high school students use one) and computers (over four-fifthsof students have computers at home, but they use them surprisingly little).

    CRN is more than a compendium of research, however. On a recent visit, the sitefeatured a report from a conference held on children, evolution, and brain science,including a keynote speech that discussed how Charles Darwin recorded his own children'sgrowth and development while creating his theory of the evolution of thespecies. Apparently, when his son was born, Darwin instructed his family not to speakto the baby, who proceeded to babble in "baby talk," leading Darwin to speculate onthe innate nature of oral language. (Do not try this at home.)

    Launched in the late 1990s, CRN is a nonprofit organization supported byBenesse, a major Japanese publisher of curricula and teacher materials. Translatedfrom Japanese into Chinese and English, the trilingual site espouses a multidisciplinaryview of child development and education, called kodomogaku, or childscience. Learning is viewed assomething that is not solely theprovince of educators and is broadenedby the latest knowledge inneuroscience and psychologists. Asthe site proclaims, children "areboth biological and social human beings." This interdisciplinary view reflectsthe approach of CRN's director, Noboru Kobayashi, an eminent pediatricianwho is president emeritus at Japan's National Children's Hospital and aUniversity of Tokyo professor emeritus.

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    I have been an occasional adviser to CRN, beginning in 1999, when I participatedin a "playshop" for 150 Japanese parents, organized on the startlingnotion that mothers and fathers there do not play enough with their children. Asconfirmation, several fathers said it was the first time they had drawn, madepaper costumes, or sung with their young kids. The playshop project resembledmany family programs children's museums, science centers, and other nonprofitorganizations offered in this country. Throughout its work, CRN has spread a fundamentaltruth about education, in Japan and around the world: Parents area child's first and most important teacher.

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    Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.