Opportunities for Learning and Exploration

Some drop-in play centers also offer various programs and classes for learning, though it is not a requirement for the play centers to have special events. The frequency of events and classes varies greatly from center to center. Some programs focus mainly on children's development, such as story time, crafts, music, yoga, and rhythmics. Others that target mothers teach child-rearing methods in a formal setting. Breast-feeding specialists, medical doctors, and nurses may be invited to offer classes and consultations. In March 2009, at Play Center a seven events were held, and at Center B, eight events. Some events on child rearing encourage the participation of mothers and sometimes even fathers. Play Centers a and B also hosted a program to train people to become care providers in Family support services.

Some of the classes and programs held at drop-in play centers provide child care, and it may serve as a gentle introduction to mothers on entrusting their children to non-family members for the first time. A mother of one boy (twenty-three months old) stated, “i enrolled in a variety of classes and programs with child care at a drop-in center. When i was in a class for the first time for two hours, i was nervous and not sure how my son would react. My son was fine, and that encouraged me to start using temporary drop-off child-care services occasionally at a day-care center near our residence.”

Mothers gave mixed evaluations of drop-off child-care provided by non-family members, and several stated that they were afraid of using services that involved leaving their child with a non-family caregiver. Their responses— in particular those of mothers who were full-time homemakers—are not surprising in contemporary Japan; Holthus (2011) notes that even parents who have their children enrolled in day-care centers expressed a reluctance to hire private (non-family) babysitters. Unlike drop-off care, however, interviewees thought child care provided during classes at drop-in centers was “less scary,” As it was provided at the same facility where they attended the classes. So if a child had a problem—for example, he or she cried for a long time and kept asking for his or her mother—the mother was nearby to take care of it.

Some centers offer events and classes for mothers that are unrelated to child rearing, such as movies, crafts, and yoga. Some of these classes provide opportunities for mothers to use their skills. A former yoga instructor, for example, taught yoga classes at a drop-in center. She told me, “i am interested in returning to work and have submitted a plan to teach a maternity yoga course at a play center.” At one play center, a group of mothers cooked and served meals to the center's visitors at a lunch café several times a month. Some of the group's members were interested in setting up a café in the future, and the center provided a chance for them to hone their skills. Play centers thus also serve as spaces where some mothers can explore future work possibilities.

It is worth noting that nonprofit organizations that manage drop-in play centers consciously make use of mothers' skills and encourage them to participate in the provision of child-rearing support. A mother often stops using a drop-in center regularly when her youngest child gets enrolled in a child-care institution, but she then may take on a new role as a volunteer at the center. Mrs. Funada, a mother of two children aged five and three, told me, “i used to come to this center often before my younger child started attending a kindergarten. Now that he is in kindergarten, i have more time for myself. As i owe much to the center, i started volunteering to give something back to it by doing what i can.” Several mothers who have computer skills helped to set up a web site or produce documents for drop-in play centers. A staff member at one center told me, “it is a good idea to make use of mothers' talents; let them do what they are good at. It is important to give them opportunities to excel. Mothers who visit drop-in centers are not without skills. They often have had various experiences, but they do not have opportunities to make use of them.” Indeed, the majority of mothers have had some professional experience prior to childbearing, yet they tend to quit their jobs to rear their children. Drop-in play centers therefore can open up possibilities for them to assume a role different from that of mother and thereby gain a different sense of fulfillment and connectedness.

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