Drop-In Play Centers: The Physical Settings

A drop-in play center provides an indoor play space for parents and their young children. A center comes with a playroom with a range of toys, big and small, appropriate for children of different ages. Some play centers have several rooms or sections organized according to theme or children's ages. For instance, a center may have areas for books, crafts, blocks, and playhouses. Centers usually have an area set aside for breast-feeding and cribs for children to take a nap. Some have children's washrooms, a low sink, or a diaperchanging table, though many mothers change diapers on the floor, using a

Figure 9.1

Mothers and infants at a drop-in play center Special change pad. This practice is not unhygienic, as center users remove their outside shoes when they enter, as is true in homes and many public buildings in Japan. Sometimes a play center also has a play yard, a kitchen, and an eating area for its users.

The size and layout of play centers vary. Play Center a did not have a kitchen, a café area, or a play yard. During lunch, long, low tables and chairs for children were brought out. Adults sat on the floor. Users brought their own lunches. The center provided hot water free of charge to prepare bottles for babies. There was a counter where adults could pay some money and make tea or coffee for themselves. Play Center B had a spacious kitchen/café area with tables and chairs. Users could bring their own lunches, cook something, or order food from neighboring restaurants. This center had a large play yard and a garden. The center also had a multipurpose room that was rented out for special events. Near its office was an area where used children's clothes and gear were sold. Both Centers a and B had message boards where messages from users, notices of various events related to child rearing, and announcements from child-care facilities were posted. Play Center C had a large central room consisting of several areas, including a kitchen, a table area, and an area with toys and structures. There also was a separate room with cribs and futons where children could take a nap. The center did not have an outside play space, but there was a park nearby.

The Role of Staff Members

The presence of regular staff members makes drop-in play centers special. My informants most frequently described a play center as a “homelike” place, which distinguished it from other public play spaces, such as parks or the children's centers called jidōkan, which were run by local civil servants who did not interact with visitors in the play area. Mrs. Kanda, a staff member in her sixties, told me, “in this area, many mothers live far away from their natal homes. There are many new mothers who have never cared for young children. They may be unsure about how to raise their first child. We wanted to create a space where mothers could feel relaxed [hotto dekiru].

Staff members act as facilitators who encourage mothers to interact with each other. For example, when they see a new member who seems to have difficulty interacting with other mothers and children, they introduce the new person to a group of regular members and try to open up a conversation involving that new person. Staff members are aware of the importance of the Role they play in making connections among parents. Mrs. Kanda told me, “staff members warmly welcome mothers and connect [tsunageru] them to each other.” Their efforts are recognized and appreciated by the users of the drop-in centers. Mrs. Sumi, in her mid-thirties and the mother of a twentyone-month-old boy, told me, “it is nice that staff members introduce mothers to each other.” To get the conversation going for a newcomer, staff members might mention where a regular member lives, her child's age, or in which preschool an older child is enrolled. The mother of a twenty-three-month-old boy told me, “i felt i fit in very well when i came to this center for the first time. And i am deeply into this place, feeling very comfortable.” Such a warm, comfortable atmosphere is created by the efforts of attentive staff members. Several mothers contrasted their experiences at a drop-in play center with those at a children's center where no staff members were present in its play space. Mrs. Hirota, a stay-at-home mother of three, told me, “i use a children's center near my house, but a group of frequent users hang out together in the play area all the time. It is not easy for me to blend in.”

Interviewees often pointed out that play center staff also provided knowledge and useful advice regarding child rearing. Mrs. Sumi stated, “i learn a lot from staff members here.” Mrs. Miyashita, a thirty-six-year-old mother of a twenty-three-month-old boy, told me that before coming to the center near her house, she had not had a place to go when she had problems related to child rearing. Her mother lives in a city two hours away from her.

Staff members may also connect a mother to child-rearing support providers such as doctors and social workers. A staff member at one play center told me, “we watch hundreds of children and sometimes notice developmental problems before their mothers do. We try to gently guide them to specialists if necessary. Sometimes we encourage the mothers to discuss the issues we see at the three-year-old health examinations.” Mrs. Murai, another staff member and the mother of two adult children, said, “Our drop-in center is close to a family support center where specialists work. Some mothers who consult with us want to have formal answers to their questions regarding child rearing, and we refer them to the specialists.”

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