by Kayo, Fumio
Developmental psychology is my area of interest. I mainly study, more specifically, child’s play from a psychological viewpoint. I have conducted experimental researches and surveys but have also been engaged in visiting various day nursing centers and conducting on-site observations and analyses of children’s make-believe play, games ,and explorative activities to look for Santa, demons, ninja, etc.
I have thus come to closely watch how children pass their day at the nurseries and, for the past few years, become increasingly intrigued by their daily-life activities -- eating, changing clothes, taking naps and so forth. My own children had gone through the same stages of growth and I, as a parent, had had such a hard time helping with bathing them, changing them, feeding them, and putting them to sleep. I remember one snowy night when my daughter just would not stop crying and, in desperation, I wrapped her up in a blanket, and jogged around in the neighborhood in the middle of the night carrying her in my arms. My son, while I was changing his diapers, urinated right on my face quite a few times. Upset by the tiniest thing, they would sweep everything on the table off to the floor, and spit anything unfamiliar straight out of their mouths. What a mess they used to make! I often had to muster all the strong will I had before giving them a shampoo. It is evident, therefore, that, at day nurseries where a number of children pass the whole day together, taking personal care of them should take up a large portion of the nursing staff’s daily tasks. It is particularly significant today when children spend longer hours at the nursery than ever and, also, when it is increasingly more difficult for children to live their daily lives in regular patterns.
I was asked by a day nursery a few years ago to produce a video to show the realities of the nursing staff’s work. The experience made me deeply troubled and I wondered why those aspects of personal care-taking of children had been slighted, or even ignored, in the studies of child “development”? Perhaps, developmental psychologists on the whole simply refused to see the times had radically changed and were still stuck to obsolete ways of thinking?
Was it perhaps, I asked myself further, that the understanding of erect bipedalism, tool-making, and language as the three major features of humans was reaching its limits after all? This rationalistic view of humans that had been commonly accepted since the nineteenth century was probably not wrong but was focused merely on the functional aspects of humans. Was it still sufficient in view of today’s biological ideas of evolution? While troubled by these questions, I gradually came to see the significance of one of the ecological features of humans, along with polyphagia and the perennial mating season, that the human baby is born naked; it only has thin skin around its neonatal body, so need to put on something like clothes, which is unique among mammals.
It is because humans are born naked that we have to acquaint our physical selves with various substances that exist outside our skin in the course of growth. Thus children have to get used to the different feel of substances they encounter in daily life; materials of clothes, tableware, and bedclothes in their domestic environment, as well as substances such as soil, water, grass, etc. in nature. They spend every day of growing up discerning some substances and materials as foreign matter and finding others as congenial as their own bodies. When they go to sleep, for instance, the series of activities from changing into night clothes to slipping into and becoming physically united with the bedclothes is an act of submitting their bodies to different materials. Even a grown-up finds it hard to fall asleep if bedclothes feel rough to the skin. Children, therefore, make various efforts to physically familiarize themselves with different materials; fiddling about with the edges of blankets or mattresses, and, if there is another person close by, sticking a finger into his/her nostrils, ears, or other “orifices.” Sometimes they go as far as licking the feet of another child lying near by. When they eat, too, they certainly display a wide variety of “fiddling,” with the food in the mouth, with chopsticks, forks and spoons, napkin, and chair and table. The grown-ups taking care of them tend to find these actions simply pointless and frustrating, but they must bear great significance for children. Some nursery teachers must have suspected certain significance in them, as an increasing number of nursery centers are replacing plastic or aluminum plates and bowls with chinaware. As for the endeavor to have children experience natural substances such as water, soil, grass, etc. so that they feel familiar with them, it definitely will require a tremendous amount of labor and care on the side of the staff, but also will bring forth the proportional amount of joy and happiness as a result.
In the daily life of grown-ups, too, once you get used to driving a car, for instance, you feel as if the car were an extended part of your body. A bough touches the side of your car and you feel as if you own body was stroked: it is a “mediated perception” in which you perceive the external world through the medium of the car. Some people may even physically feel it if the wall of their house is touched by a stranger.
Upon these realizations, I began to see a vast area of potential studies that I had never even imagined. We, human beings, can “put on” and “take off” various things because we are born naked, without fur like most other mammals. We can, in other words, modify the border between us and the surrounding environment by our own will.
This “will,” however, is not inherent. We have to acquire it as we grow up. It seems, therefore, necessary to closely study when and why children find certain substances congenial and others foreign or offensive, in parallel with the processes of their growth. Today when the environment of children’s growth is being much talked about, this may be a particularly relevant and important topic of research.
This is such a vast and tremendous area of research and simply beyond the capability of an individual researcher to tackle. It’s a pity but true. So I have decided to pick out one substance and study how children find it congenial or foreign. I first thought of taking up water as the research subject. Some infants do not like to play with water. They fear water so much that a splash of water on their head or face can make them burst out crying. But as they grow older, they gradually grow out of the fear, and most of them come to have fun playing in swimming pools. I thought I would study this process of change.
One day, when I was still thinking over how I should set out on this water project, Hasegawa Masahiro, a friend of mine and nursery teacher showed me a shiny doro-dango or mud ball. Making shiny mud balls was a traditional pastime among children of this country for a long time. The tradition is now dying out, however, and the skill will be completely lost before long. I suddenly decided to take up this play for my study, and develop, clarify, standardize, and hand down the technique of making shiny mud balls so that anybody of future generations can make them.
I was totally engrossed in making mud balls when one realization came upon me; the kind of realization that occurs, I suppose, to those who actually devote themselves to making them. I realized that I was feeling a strong attachment to the ball I was making. Then I observed the same tendencies among children. After having played around with a ball of mud for a long time, they seem to begin to feel as if the ball is a physical part of them. They seem to find it hard to let go of it. But then they seem to have somewhat different feelings about it once they have left it somewhere safe for a while. Their affection toward the ball seems to emerge from their sense of physical unity with it, while, after having a certain distance from it, they begin to see it more objectively. In their view, the mud ball has slightly changed in value. The attachment thus appears to be constantly and subtly changing. The observation seemed to suggest that this change may involve the process of “putting on” and “taking off.” Bowlby’s “attachment theory” in mother-and-infant relationships stresses the unity of the two, but the theory originated in placing too much importance on personal relationships. Winnicott’s transitional object theory also does not deal at all with the transformational processes of “putting on” and “taking off.”
Upon these realizations, I changed my mind. My somewhat vague idea of studying children’s play with water shifted toward mud balls as a subject of research. I thought it would be more fun, too, I confess.
This is how my struggle to make shiny mud balls started. In that struggle, however, I managed to involve the five-year-olds at the day nursery I regularly visit in enthusiastic mud ball making. The experience taught me how mud ball making can lend spice to the children’s day at the nursery. It also was valuable for me as I could combine psychological research and nursing care practice in one project. I wonder what I am going to see beyond the observations and studies of the relationships between children and mud balls. This is an unknown play-field yet to be explored.
By means of seeking to know why the human baby is born naked, I am hoping to take part in endeavors to come up with views on child development and child’s play that are in conformity with the realities of child care.