Category Archives: Montessori / Kindergarten

Preschool playgrounds in Japan

In my experience of Gunma, Ibaraki and Saitama, most preschools in suburbia Japan, have some form of outdoor play area. Most of them have at least a slide and/or swings, and some are a full on playground with a combination of equipment.  Thankfully, our preschool is one of the latter.

The main piece of equipment in my kid’s preschool’s playground was designed and made by Dino World in Fukui prefecture, hundreds of kilometres away. It is a combination piece for kids in the preschool age range. The Dino World brand is part of the Dinosaur museum in Fukui, which is said to be one of the best dinosaur museums in the world. We have yet to visit, but at least a little part of the museum has come to us. 🙂

Apart from the Dino World combination unit, there are swings, monkey bars, horizontal bars, tunnels and a sand pit. Hours of fun guaranteed.

Has anyone a post like this for another country? I’d love to see what preschools are like around the world.  What are the playgrounds like in your kid’s preschools?

Preschool playground

Free Resources for Setsubun

(Written January 2015) February 3rd is Setsubun in Japan, which marks the end of winter. A common tradition associated with this ancient festival is mamemaki or beanthrowing. Most families carry out this fun tradition at home, but you can also visit a temple or shrine to do it with a crowd. In Tokyo, there are temples that have famous people, often sumo wrestlers, throwing the beans from a dias out to the excited crowd. Most preschools and children community centres also mark the day with some fun crafts and activities.

The purpose of the festival is to rid your house of demons and welcome good luck for the coming year. Hence, we chant oni wa soto, fuku ha uchi “demons out, good luck in” as we throw beans out the door or at the head of the household who dresses up as a demon. To this end kids often make oni masks for the ceremony and/or for playing dress up.  If you eat the same number of beans as your age it is believed you will have good health for the year. You can read more about the festival on the KA International Moms website or on Wikipedia


Yesterday, in preparation for the festival next week, the kids and I talked about setsubun. 5 year old remembers it from the last 2 years and (just turned) 4 year old is learning about it in school. They make masks and holders for the roasted beans.  We will make them at home too. We practised some origami to hold the mamemaki roasted beans, there’s a link below to make your own. The beans are easy to come by in Japan at this time of year. Many shops sell commercialised mini-packs of roasted beans or nuts some with flavours. I bought ours from a home delivery shopping service, Coop. We will make demon masks next week. I wanted to share some of the setsubun and mamemaki teaching, craft and activity resources available online. Whether you are living and/or teaching in Japan, or a Japanese living abroad, or just looking for something to do with the kids on February 3rd, you will find something fun among these free setsubun art and craft resources. Most of these ideas are most suitable for toddlers and preschoolers.

Japanese Oni ; devils, demons, trolls or ogres

Japanese demons are depicted with 1 or 2 conical horns on their heads. They are often red in colour. They usually wear tiger skinned pants.

Oni Masks

 You can draw your own, or you can use the free print outs in the links below to make a mask for setsubun. There are a number of ways you can turn the free print outs or a hand drawn oni into masks. First colour (where necessary) the demon and cut it out. If you want to make a mask that covers the face you can stick a rectangular strip of paper to each ear and tape the open ends around an elastic band.  For a “mask” that is worn above the face, as per photo in mamemaki section, you can simply stick the cut out to a head band or even a cap or make your own band out of paper.

Oni Colouring pages

Free print-outs

Huge selection of coloured setsubun print outs:

Oni Origami

An easy origami Oni (Demon) for toddlers and preschoolers

Mamemaki holders

Mask that sits on the head and mamemaki holder made out of a milk carton cut in half

Mask that sits on the head and mamemaki holder made out of a milk carton cut in half

Milk carton setsubun mamemaki holders
One of the most popular and easiest kid’s craft for mamemaki holders is cutting a milk carton in half, piercing a hole in each side and using pipe cleaners as a handle. In the right hand (your left!) of my son in the photo to the left.

Paper cup setsubun mamemaki holders
One of the more original mamemaki holders I saw was on Hiragana Mama’s blog; a decorated paper cup.

Origami mamemaki holders
This year we are using origami boxes. This origami box paper craft is one of my favourite practical uses of origami.  You don’t need origami paper as this easy to make box uses rectangle shaped paper such as an A4 sheet of paper.


These are just some ideas and resources you can use to enjoy the Japanese February 3rd end of year festival by chasing away demons.  You can read about our setsubun last year, 2014,  here.

Tabletop learning games for preschoolers -reviewed and ISO suggestions

I grew up in a family that sat down together every Saturday night to play board / dice / tile / card games. It was a lovely tradition and I have very fond memories of that family time. Naturally, I wanted to introduce this family tradition to my own children. When my son had just turned three a very generous friend passed down some English language and universal games suitable for small children, that her own children had outgrown. We started playing as a family every Saturday night. They enjoyed it so much that I have since found time to slot it into our daily routine. After dinner, one of the kid’s chores is to clear and clean the table, before I sit down with them to play a game. On evenings my husband is home early, he joins in to.

Below is some of the learning games my 4, 3 and 1 year old enjoy courtesy of afore mentioned extremely kind and generous friend, or that I have bought online. I would like to add to the collection.  English language and Western style games for toddlers and preschoolers are not that readily available here in Japan, but the Japanese Amazon website has some (at a much higher price than in Ireland!). has a particularly good choice of Orchard Toys toys and games, which happen to be our favourite to date. My Mom has also volunteered to pick me up a couple, that I can’t get here…. if I could only figure out which ones to get!  I’d love to hear what board or card games you like to play with your kids, please share your suggestions.

**This post contains affiliate links to** as of June 9th 2017 is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

What tabletop games do/did you play with preschool age children? 


Here are some of the ones my preschoolers and toddler enjoy:
(disclaimer each of these games have small parts; toddlers, babies and children with oral fixation will need strict supervision).

Greedy Gorilla from Orchard Toys

Photo from
Photo from

The game comes with 1 greedy gorilla, 4 playing boards like menus with 24 matching healthy food cards and 8 junk food cards. If you place batteries in the gorilla it burps as you feed the gorilla the unhealthy food cards.  The recommended age for this is from 4 years old, but I can tell you my children have been enjoying this from much younger.  My 20 month old delights in feeding the gorilla, which due to its frequent use is slightly broken and burps for every food card you give it! Apart from playing the standard way, as a bilingual family, I like to use this game and its pieces for additional English learning activities. We use the food cards for naming and identifying, grouping and counting, and the menus for vocabulary reinforcement and reading practise.

The game helps develop 

  • Hand / eye co-ordination
  • Fine motor skills
  • Vocabulary
  • Reading
  • Matching
  • Memory skills
  • Observation
  • Following instructions
  • Taking turns
  • Positive perceptions of healthy eating

To purchase on (affiliate link):

Shopping List by Orchard Toys

Photo from
Photo from

The Shopping List game comes with four shopping lists, four shopping trolleys and food cards. The object of the game is to match the cards to your shopping list and place them in your trolley. Just like with the Greedy Gorilla game, I have found this game very useful for additional learning activities. For example, in an alternative version I get the children to fill the cart with food they like by asking me, the shopkeeper, “Can I have X please?”.

The game helps develop skills in

  • Hand / eye co-ordination
  • Fine motor skills
  • Vocabulary
  • Reading
  • Matching
  • Memory skills
  • Observation
  • Following instructions
  • Taking turns
  • Winning and losing

To purchase on (affiliate link):


Farm Dominoes by Tobar

Farm Animal Dominoes by Tobar

The classic game of dominoes needs no introduction, but these wooden farm animal dominoes are a great version for young learners.

The game helps develop skills in

  • Hand/ Eye Co-ordination
  • Fine Motor Skills
  • Recognition
  • Concentration
  • Observation
  • Taking turns
  • Winning and Losing

Honey Bee Tree Game by Early Learning Centre (ELC)

The recommended age for this game is from 3 years, but again my toddler has enjoyed this even from 6 months old. The object of the game is to remove the leaves on the tree, without letting the bees fall. The player with the most bees at the end, loses.

The game is GREAT for

  • Hand/eye co-ordination
  • Fine motor skills
  • Problem Solving

It also develops core skills such as

  • Concentration
  • Following instructions
  • Taking turns
  • Winning and losing

Zingo by Thinkfun

There are many versions of Zingo. The one we are enjoying now is the Sight Words version.

From the website
From the website

This really fun version of the classic game bingo is a big hit with all three of my kids. The game comes with 72 sight word cards, 6 double sided bingo cards and a zinger. One year old loves the Zinger which dispenses the cards and has a slot to re-insert them. It keeps her entertained for longer than any other toy in the house. Like the Orchard Toys above, this game has many different uses, for example, I use the sight word cards to make sentences with my 4 year old.

The game helps develop skills in

  • Sight word recognition
  • Hand / eye co-ordination
  • Fine motor skills
  • Vocabulary
  • Reading
  • Matching
  • Memory skills
  • Observation
  • Following instructions
  • Taking turns
  • Winning and losing

Phew! That took much longer than expected. They are the main learning games we are enjoying right now.  Other games we enjoy together include

  • Card games such as snap,
  • Memory card games such as Thomas Memory Match Game,
  • Peppa Pig Jumbolina,
  • Classic board games such as ludo,
  • Pavillion’s Farm Bingo,
  • Spotty Dogs by Orchard Toys
  • and some Japanese tabletop games too.





6 easy activities with Valentine’s Origami hearts for preschoolers

Reposting from last year as it has proved very popular both with my own kids and as a blog post. 🙂


These simple origami hearts, suited to young children and Origami beginners, were a big hit with my toddler and preschooler today. You can find the instructions and a printable version on Origami Club here, a photo of the instructions is also pictured below. The instructions are in Japanese, but each step comes with a visual that is easy to follow. Four year old was able to complete this from the visual instructions with no assistance, three year old needed some help. All you need is Origami paper or symmetrical paper that holds a crease.

Instructions for Origami hearts were taken from
Instructions for Origami hearts were taken from

After making some hearts, I came up with a few games using the hearts, that incorporated numbers, letters, reading and writing practice. We used recycled origami paper from other crafts to make 30 hearts.

1. ABC Origami hearts

When you finish folding the heart the front parts open up so you can write on the inside of the heart. We wrote a letter of the alphabet on the left hand side of the inside of 26 hearts.


2. ABC match

Next, using our large ABC foam mat, we did a physical activity with the hearts. The kids got a heart each, opened it to see what letter they had, then matched it to the letter on the ABC foam mat. Once they correctly placed a letter they took another and raced to place it. They really enjoyed this activity.


3. Word heart match

On the right hand side of the inside of the hearts I wrote various 3 and 4 letter words. I then put out a picture card with 3 worded hearts, one of which matched the picture. The kids had to match the correct word to the picture.

4. Claiming hidden hearts

Kids love to find hidden things, right? Hide the hearts (with words if you’ve done activity 3 above) around a room and have the kids find them. For older children, have them read the words inside the heart to claim that heart.


5. Counting hearts on hearts

This one is based on a very easy activity on I (heart) counting with numbers one to ten. For our version I drew 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 hearts onto 6 origami hearts. Get the kids to count out the hearts and then place the right heart on the right number.

6. Heart Cards

Finally, we turned the hearts that didn’t have too much writing on them into Valentine’s cards, by writing a message on the inside.

This filled up a whole afternoon with fun and number, letter, reading and writing practice to boot! And thanks to these activities I got my first ever Valentine’s card from my four year old, written by himself, unaided and unbeknownst to me IN ENGLISH* “I love you Mammy”. (*English is his 2nd language so usually cards are in Japanese… or squiggles!)

Rocking Christmas Tree


I love the activity magazines you can buy for kids in Japan. I find them great distraction for the kids when we’ve been confined to home for a few days in a row due to weather or, as in present circumstances, due to sickness. This month I bought the Christmas special for preschoolers. It comes with paper crafts, mazes, writing practise, stories, spot the difference among other puzzles, two games you make from the materials they provide and a DVD. The DVD has “lessons” with Doraemon, Anpanman and Pokemon, cartoons such as Robocar Poli, My Little Pony and Mofi, different types of quizzes and “specials” with current popular characters such as kyoryuger, ania animals and mon colle knights. All for 730 yen, around 7 euro.
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One of the games in the magazine is a Rocking Christmas Tree. The tree and its paraphernalia come flat in the magazine with perforations to mark where to push the shapes out. The instructions for assembly are also in the book. Upon removing all the pieces, they are numbered to show you where to match two pieces. You don’t need tape to make the tree or the game pieces; they are made in such a way that by pushing one end into the other and opening flaps they stay in place easily. Another page presents the pieces of the game, which also needed to be separated at the perforation marks and shaped into triangles. The Christmas Tree when assembled rocks from side to side. The object of the game is to place pieces on the tree without knocking other pieces off by tipping the tree too much to one side.


It was really fun to make with my 4 year old and 2 year old. 4 year old was able to make the game pieces himself without assistance. He struggled with the shelves of the tree that need to be added as it can be quite tricky to push the edges through and open the flaps at the other side. 2 year old needed a lot of help; she even found pushing out the perforations quite tricky. However, they thoroughly enjoyed playing the game once we had it all assembled. They played the game together for around an hour, longer than I had anticipated. 1 year old was itching to join in the fun, but once she got her hands on the game pieces they went straight in the mouth. What is it with one year olds and paper?!

The School Bazaar at a Japanese preschool

Today, we had another first. 4-year-old’s first (pre)school1 bazaar. Like most school events, it involves parent participation. We take turns manning a booth; which is actually a mini shop within each classroom. I was on duty in the “toys” room, first thing this morning. I was a little nervous about it last night, not knowing what to expect. It was actually good craic and the time flew by.

As an early morning seller, I was given a ticket to buy one thing in advance of the bazaar opening to the public. I went straight to the room that was selling school uniforms. My 2-year-old will turn 3 in January and will therefore start preschool next April. My son will be going into his 2nd of 3 years, so I need doubles of everything. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of larger sizes on sale. My 2-year-old is very tall for her age and the only thing I could buy her that would fit was the preschool’s winter hat. (Pictured top right of the first photo). I got it for a third of the price it would cost new. The two ladies that were on duty on me in our booth, were also at the uniform booth. We got talking and before we knew it, it was time to man our stand. We were all first-timers so we were a little giddy heading to our room.

I was very surprised by the quantity, quality and diversity of the goods on sale in our room. With the exception of the 2nd hand uniforms, everything is unused. Each household is asked to contribute at least one new/ unused item from a range of categories such as food, clothing, utensils and homemade crafts. I soon learnt that the bazaar attracts people from the neighbourhood, because of the good offers. Within 10 seconds of opening our “booth” we had a sale, a couple of minutes later our second and after that it was a steady flow. There were plenty of “obachan”s, term of endearment for women of a certain seniority, armed with their own shopping bags and loose change galore. When I got to shop again later that morning I got some bargains myself. Much to my delight at 11am they half the price of everything, except school uniforms. Half an hour later I was delirious when they reduced pretty much everything to 10 yen (about 8 cent). For 2000 yen (about 18 Euro) I was able to buy all the goods pictured below, including the uniform hat, plus 3 lunches not pictured and the snacks mentioned in the next paragraph.


A stand was opened outside at 11am when the kids finished preschool. While the bazaar was running, they had been brought on a walk with their teachers. For 100 yen they got to choose 3 treats that were placed in the homemade shopping baskets pictured below. A big hit with the kids. 4-year-old wasn’t overly excited like he normally is when there is something on in school, so I figured there was something up. A couple of hours later, well I’ll save you the details… he has a tummy bug. Thankfully, it didn’t start till after the bazaar, because it turned out to be a fun event not to be missed.



1. Yochien (幼稚園)is usually translated as kindergarten, but this is an uncommon term in Ireland, where the principal sort of preschool is a Montessori. In other countries it’s called other names, so nowadays I try to refer to it as preschool. Preschool is not compulsory and the children can start as young as 2 years old for 4 years, but the average is 3 years, starting at 3 years old. The hours are usually 9am to 2pm if you drop the kids off and upto an hour longer for children who come by yochien bus. The school year is April to March.

Meet the pets!


Our latest addition to a long line of wildlife pets is Kaeru-kun. Kaeru (カエル) is the Japanese for frog, and that’s exactly what he is! It is a popular hobby of young children in rural Japan to find and catch all sorts of wildlife. They keep them in pet tanks which can be bought at home and/or gardening stores.

Kaeru-kun joins 4 pet crickets and 2 pet grasshoppers.



Thankfully, beetle season is over, but in the height of summer we had 12 beetles at one stage.  This is one of the biggest beetles we had on my husband’s hand.


I am also grateful that zarigani fishing season is over. Zarigani is similar to a crayfish and they are abundant in rivers in the countryside. Here’s a zarigani the kids caught last summer. At least these monstrous things aren’t brought into the house, they release them back into the river after catching.


There are other insects and animals kids in Japan like to catch, but at the moment my son is most interested in crickets and grasshoppers. He spends much of his preschool day out in the fields with his teacher catching all sorts of things. Some they let go off, some they keep, some he passes on to his classmates.  They are cheap pets, because the crickets eat cucumber and the grasshoppers eat grass. We have to research what to feed the frog and how to get our hands on it. If you are familiar with frogs a few tips would be most welcome!

Easy paper and wool Halloween wreath for kids

This one is time-consuming, but it was worth it for the reaction of my kids to the finished product. They were so excited and delighted that I couldn’t get a good photo as they wouldn’t let the wreath out of their hands. I had planned for us to make three, but one was enough as I ended up doing most of the work! They lost interest as it was time-consuming, but they came back to it when it was time to put the finishing touches to the wreath.

We made the mini spider wreath using brown and orange wool, pipe cleaners, goggly eyes and part of a paper plate. I recycled material used for a previous craft, paper plate spider webs and bought both wool and pipe cleaners at the 100 yen store.

I cut a rim out of the discs I had cut out of the paper plates for the spider web craft. I wanted the wreath to be small as I knew the larger size would be too much for my 2-year-old, and has it turns out for my 4-year-old too. Simply wind the wool around the circular ring. It takes longer than I anticipated, even working with a small frame. We used two colours for a bit of fun.

The kids then added pipe cleaners by wrapping them around the spider, two each side to make 4 legs each side. You could glue or stick them, but I find with young children the easier the better. We added two eyes from a pack of 30 I bought for 100 yen at Meets, a 100 yen shop. 4-year-old cut an elastic band and I weaved it into a piece of wool I had intentionally left hanging around the spider’s bum! The next step would be to stick it to the front door,but be warned your kids might not let you get your hands on it again. Tonight our spider wreath is sleeping with our wildlife pets at the kid’s request!

Very easy paper and rice craft – spider web

This is a very easy activity that even babies can enjoy and you only need 2 things for it. The kids enjoyed this one more than yesterday’s paper plate threading craft. This one is particularly convenient for people who have cooked sticky rice warming in the rice cooker. I have seen this craft on other websites, but usually with glue as part of the preparation kit. For people in Japan you do not need glue for rice craft here as the rice itself acts as a glue. In fact, rice glue which is made from kneading rice, called sokui (続飯) in olden days, was the most common type of glue found in Japan for hundreds of years from the Nara period. During those times people stopped using hide glue, because butchering was prohibited with the introduction of Buddhism. Today rice glue is still used for many things due to its strong adhesive power.

You will need

  • Paper
  • Rice

Optional for more precision

  • A pencil
  • A drawing compass
  • A ruler

I used a pencil, compass and ruler to outline the cobweb for my children before they started sticking rice to it.  The easiest way to draw the web is to draw a line from one corner of the paper to the other on both sides, so that you make an “x”. Then draw a straight line from the top middle of the paper to the bottom and from the left middle to the right, so that you make a plus sign. I had a drawing compass so I drew a big circle with that.

Outline of web in progress

I then drew more circles within that circle as you can see in the example below. My 4-year-old and 2-year-old used this as a guide to where to place their rice; which is the next and last step – just place the rice on the web and it will stick! My 1-year-old joined in, granted it she didn’t stick to the lines, but she had great fun sticking rice to the paper… and eating a bit too! This is a safe activity for small children, but if you use the glue version it will not be suited to babies and younger toddlers.


While my kids were making their rice webs I tried the glue version using raw rice. It is more difficult and messier and I don’t think it is as suited to small children.


Just a note on the drawing compass; I got it in the 100 yen shop and was both surprised and delighted that I didn’t have to screw the pencil in like the ones I’ve used before! These come with a mechanical pencil built-in, with lead refills for the mechanical pencil.



Easy paper plate craft – spider webs

In an attempt to pass on some of my Irish culture to my half-Japanese kids, we are making a Halloween  craft every day of October. Today, we made two different patterns of spider webs from paper plates, both good for improving fine motor skills. We also did some spider rhymes and fingerplay. This is a follow on from yesterday’s paper spider craft. Halloween isn’t celebrated as much or in the same manner as at home in Ireland, but these particular crafts were inspired by a Japanese preschool activity I saw.

You will need;

  • A scissors
  • Tape
  • A puncher (optional)
  • Thread or wool
  • Paper plates


For the simple version, you just need to cut triangles into the paper plate at different intervals. I taped one end of the thread to the back of the plate and let my preschooler and toddler just start weaving the thread around the indentations. These paper plates were recycled from another activity, hence the writing on them! I think wool would work better, but I had none to hand.

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To challenge my 4-year-old a little more and keep him engrossed we used a slightly more difficult pattern, pictured below. I cut the centre out of the plate for him and then he enjoyed punching holes at intervals around the plate.  He stuck the thread to the back of the plate and then proceeded to thread the holes and make a web. Thread is probably better for this one as the holes were quite small.

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My one year old wanted to join in the fun, but she’s still too small for this particular craft, so while big brother and big sister made their webs, we did some fingerplay. All my kids enjoy “Incey Wincey Spider”.  You can find the words and hand actions below. I took this from Five Little Monkeys, Over 50 Action and Counting Rhymes by Zita Newcome.


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We also did the “Little Miss Muffet” rhyme with the finger play actions from the same book, pictured below.

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This activity is also suitable for children who are on bedrest or for Moms on bedrest to do with their toddlers or small children.