'Risky' sport teaches Japanese schoolkids independence

Children at Kyuden Elementary School riding unicycles during recess. It is part of a culture that urges elementary school children to do things on their own, including taking the subway or walking around city neighbourhoods
Children at Kyuden Elementary School riding unicycles during recess. It is part of a culture that urges elementary school children to do things on their own, including taking the subway or walking around city neighbourhoods. PHOTO: NYTIMES

TOKYO • During morning recess at Kyuden Elementary School in Tokyo, children raced to a rack of over 80 unicycles with brightly coloured 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 across the playground over a distance of more than 18m at a time. Pairs of girls twirled around, arm in arm and perfectly balanced.

Some girls rode unicycles that are nearly 1.4m tall. No one wore a helmet or kneepads, and the few adults present left the children alone.

One of the school nurses, Ms Kumiko Hatanaka, said that in three years of working at the school, she has treated only one or two injuries caused by unicycle riding.

Riding unicycles is part of a culture that urges children of elementary school age to do things on their own, including taking the subway or walking around city neighbourhoods. Most elementary schools across Japan offer unicycles for children to ride during breaks on the playground.

The Ministry of Education, as part of its recommendations for physical development, recommends that schools supply unicycles, bamboo stilts, hula hoops and other equipment that promote balance and core strength.

Kyuden's vice-principal, Mr Katsuhiro Ominato, said that the children never receive formal instruction, but are left to learn on their own or to teach one another. Some of the most passionate riders - nearly all girls - are members of an after-school club where they prepare for an annual parade, keep the tyres pumped full of air and make sure the unicycles are neatly hung on their racks.

"I see kids being challenged and encouraged to do things that I have never seen kids encouraged to do in the US," said Mr Matthew Thibeault, an American who teaches at a middle school affiliated with Toyama University in Japan. "And a lot of equipment that would be considered risky".

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline ''Risky' sport teaches Japanese schoolkids independence'. Print Edition | Subscribe