Toto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window
Title: Totto-Chan – The Little Girl at the Window
Author: Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
Publisher: Kodansha International
First Published: 1966
Available: Kinokuniya Bookstore
Parent Reviewer: Etan
Recently a friend shared her upsetting experience about her son’s nursery school. The principal kept complaining about her son’s hyper-activeness, a source of distraction to the class. The friend was troubled and even thought that her child was autistic. Fortunately, she transferred her three-year-old to another nursery and this time was told that the boy is indeed normal and happy – so no worries. In fact, she was advised by the teacher in the new nursery to permit the boy to develop at his own pace.
My friend’s account reminds me of Totto-Chan, a Japanese girl whose early childhood educational journey takes a turn for the worse when she is expelled from a traditional school for being a source of ‘distraction’. Fortunately, she settles in Tomoe, an unusual school that has railroad cars for classrooms, with pupils given the freedom to work on preferred subjects at their own pace. This school includes interesting ‘rituals’ during break time with “something from the ocean and something from the hills’, sleep-over sessions at school, vegetables as Sports Day prizes and farmers doubling as teachers.
The story is set in Tokyo during World War II where the headmaster Sosaku Kobayashi adopts an unconventional approach to education with fun, love and freedom as the basis to learning. Kobayashi is exceptionally attentive to the needs of every child especially those who are physically handicapped like Takahashi (the dwarf) and Yasuaki (boy infected with polio). This is evident in his efforts to create sure-win sports events for Takahashi, and organising swimming in the pool without swimsuits so as to help children like Takahashi to lose their self-consciousness, and also get rid of any inferior complex they may have as a result of their shortcomings.
I am particularly impressed by the incident where the headmaster patiently allows Totto-Chan to independently attempt retrieving from a manhole her purse that she dropped while in the toilet. The headmaster does not react like most adults would when faced with such a mess or the potential danger for the child. It is a personal reminder how our reactions as overly protective and cautious parents can contribute to a lack of independence and confidence in our children.
This is a simple book that sheds light on how easy education can be if we only allow more freedom for children to explore and unlock the knowledge in their environment, noting that learning is best acquired through liberal applications of love.
In real life, the Totto-chan of the book has become one of Japan's most popular television personalities - Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. She attributes her success in life to this wonderful school and its headmaster.