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Japanese elementary schools supply “unicycles, bamboo stilts, hula hoops and other equipment that promotes balance and core strength,” reports the New York Times. Kids play, fall and get back up without protective gear or adult supervision.
During a recent morning recess at Kyuden Elementary School in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo, children raced to a rack of more than 80 unicycles with brightly colored wheels and began riding around the sand and gravel playground.
Some children were just learning, clinging to monkey bars or the shoulders of friends. Others sped fluidly across the playground for more than 20 yards at a time. Pairs of girls twirled around, arm in arm and perfectly balanced. Several girls rode unicycles close to four and a half feet tall.
Children learn on their own or to teach one another to ride unicycles, says the vice principal.
Riding unicycles is part of a culture that urges elementary school-age children to do things on their own, including taking the subway or walking around city neighborhoods.
“I see kids being challenged and encouraged to do things that I have never seen kids encouraged to do in the U.S.,” said Matthew Thibeault, an American who teaches at a middle school affiliated with Toyama University on the west coast of Japan, “and a lot of equipment that would be considered risky.”
In such a world, injuries and other physical setbacks were actually welcomed. If you got a splinter you could pass an afternoon, and attract a small devoted audience, seeing how far you could insert a needle under your skin—how close you could get to actual surgery. If you got sunburned you looked forward to the moment when you could peel off a sheet of translucent epidermis that was essentially the size of your body. Scabs in Kid World were cultivated the way older people cultivate orchids. I had knee scabs that I kept for up to four years, that were an inch and three-quarters thick and into which you could press thumbtacks without rousing my attention.
In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, a 1930 book set in England’s Lake District, children ranging in age from seven to (maybe) 11 or 12 want to sail to an island and camp out for several weeks. Their father, a Naval or Merchant Marine officer, telegraphs his permission: “Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown.”