TOKYO -- Teachers here say an increasing number of kindergartners are playing less actively, which they say is a sign that the children are burdened with too many extracurricular lessons.
Shiraume Kindergarten in Kodaira, a suburb of Tokyo, places emphasis on letting children play various games, both indoors and out. But from about five years ago, the teachers started to notice that a growing number of the children were not joining their friends in the games. Some seemed absent-minded and others grew aggressive.
In particular, such behavior became more prominent after summer vacation. When the teachers asked the children what was wrong, they found that most of them had attended intensive courses that teach preschoolers such things as how to read, write and count.
The kindergarten holds playroom classes three times a week for 2-year-olds. When it invited parents to hear explanations about the classes in October, several parents said they wanted their children to be allowed to leave early once a week because they had to attend swimming lessons. Many of them also took drawing and piano lessons.
"The number of children who learn more than one subject [outside kindergarten] has grown rapidly in the last year or two," said Kazuko Murata, director of Shiraume Kindergarten.
"From the impression I got at the explanatory meeting, about 70 percent of the parents want their children to learn to swim, play the piano and draw."
Swimming is a common physical education activity in Japanese schools and artistic abilities are widely cultivated inside and outside school.
Students who cannot keep up with their peers, even in extracurricular activities, are often made to feel inferior.
"I think the parents are feeling pressure that if their children don't learn these things, they will become dropouts," she said.
Takako Kai, director of Shirogane Kindergarten in Tokyo, also says the number of children she sees who don't play with others has increased recently.
In addition to lessons in swimming, piano, English and drawing, which are widely practiced among the preschoolers, many of the parents make their children go to "cram schools," which prepare them for examinations to enter prestigious elementary schools.
In September and October, when the examinations are held, many Japanese children are absent from kindergarten and those who come are often absent-minded and listless.
Ms. Kai noticed that such children tend to turn nervous and restless just before summer.
She believes the changing attitudes in the children are a manifestation of stress caused by a feeling of being driven into a corner.