The Imaginative “Likening” of Things Kyohhei Kitamura


One morning I was dropping my five-year-old son off at daycare. Noticing a large iridescent cloud in the sky, I immediately pointed to the cloud and told him to look at it. Then he gave me a response I had never imagined: “Wow, I want to eat clouds!” I laughed and said, “No, no, no, you can’t eat clouds!” He said, “But you know, Tartan walks over the rainbow and munchs on clouds. They look so delicious!” he said happily. Tartan is the younger sister of Nontan in the popular picture book series “Nontan” written and illustrated by Sachiko Kiyono. When I checked the series later, I found a scene in “Nontan: Fluffy Tartan” in which Tartan walks on a rainbow and eats cotton candy made of clouds. I spent the rest of the day thinking about whether I would have had this kind of sensitivity when I was about the same age, and felt sorry that I had made such a trivial and realistic response.

Some time ago, I spoke about children’s play with a teacher at a kindergarten that provides childcare in a forest, surrounded by nature. According to the teacher, the children used to play by climbing up onto and down from tree branches that had fallen in a storm, likening them to “jungle gyms.” I was also told that a fallen tree became a bridge for going across, giving birth to a game they called “tightrope walking.” The children were also sliding down a steep slope in the forest, a spot which was not even a path, as if it were a “playground slide.” I was amazed to see the children sliding down the slope one after another. My children would immediately ask for wet wipes if they got even the slightest bit of mud on their hands. I am constantly made to reflect upon my daily parenting.

Children who spend days in the forest are constantly in contact with nature, including the earth and trees, and spend their time feeling the presence of living things. Instead of taming nature for our own convenience, we can fit human beings into nature. In this kindergarten, where children are at the mercy of nature’s threats such as torrential rains, scorching sun, and strong winds, and have no choice but to adapt their bodies to nature, “symbiosis with nature” is not just an idea but also a practice. Imagining clouds as delicious food. Playing with fallen tree branches and steep slopes as playground equipment. Looking back, when I was a child, I could not stop making associations whenever I saw something interesting, and the boundary between not only self and other but also “thing and thing” seemed to be blurred.

When I go to various children’s parks to do fieldwork, I am overwhelmed by the gorgeous playground complexes that have been built in recent years. When I was a child, there was only simple playground equipment, so when I see spectacular equipment, I get excited; even adults want to play with/on them. So I always try to play with my children on equipment that does not have an age limit. However, most of the luxurious and magnificent playground complexes are extremely safe and functional, and rarely offer the sorts of joys and surprises I had imagined. They are designed to provide clear lines of sight so as to avoid bumping into other people and hazards. We can imagine what lies ahead and what will happen when we use such playgrounds. Of course, it is wonderful to be able to play safely. On the other hand, however, I sometimes have the impression that we are “being played.” It would be better to say we are playing in subordination to the function of the object. I don’t feel that unexpected ways of play develop, and I don’t feel my imagination is being fully exercised. It is as if the body is simply being “moved” according to the desire of the object itself.

One thing that does not give that impression so much is the octopus playground equipment. Members of the Future of Humanity Research Center once went to Tatsumi Forest Greenway Park for a photo shoot (as mentioned in a relay essay I wrote last year). The octopus’ playground there has a series of narrow slides of various inclinations that spread out in all directions, allowing visitors to climb up and down. There are also multiple meandering tunnels, making it impossible to predict who might be coming from the other side. Children play in cave-like holes away from the watchful eyes of their parents, chase each other and run through tunnels, and crowd together and begin to interact with other groups of children the longer they stay in the “octopus”. There is no set way to play, and the shape of the playground, which enables children to be out of view, creates unexpected encounters and surprises. The octopus equipment does not have many of the prescribed routes and regularities of play that are often found in larger playground complexes. Each time children use it, their movements and play change and diversify, and no one plays in the same way. I remember feeling that it had great potential as playground equipment.

Inclusive playground equipment has increased considerably in Japan in recent years. Such equipment is designed to be inclusive of children who have difficulty playing “normally”, and many of them facilitate playing safely and enjoyably regardless of age differences or disabilities. In some Western countries, the installation of inclusive playground equipment is mandatory, and these efforts are quite advanced. The ingenious designs and ideas for inclusive playground equipment are impressive. However, it seems that the equipment is not always played with in the way the designers intended. In one park, at the edge of the sandbox there is a second small sandbox raised to about the height of an adult’s waist; it was intended for wheelchair-bound children to enjoy. Yet the raised mini-sandbox had been turned into a bath or thrilling jump platform, where non-disabled children climbed onto the platform and jumped off, aiming to land in the soft ground sandbox, hence utterly ignoring the intentions of the designers——not a very complimentary thing to do!——. Children do not always use things in what adults think is the “correct” way, because they are in individual dialogue (= communication) with things.

Playground equipment that allows for such active communication may be said to have a quality we can call “room (yohaku).” There are, of course, many playgrounds that do not have such “room.” Playground equipment that is designed to completely circumscribe children’s movements has no “room,” making it difficult to create a variety of ways of playing. Such playground equipment does not allow children to use their imagination in play. They can only move as if they were “being played.” However, when children use playground equipment that has the quality of “room,” their imagination always has the opportunity to subvert the equipment creators’ “text.” The function of playground “things” is not to dominate children’s play, but to inspire their imaginations in play: if there is no “room” in A, the human imaginative function of “likening” A to B may not work. When an object with “room” and children’s innate imaginative “likening” of things meet, ways of playing develop one after another, involving the children spontaneously, then and there. I have witnessed such miraculous play being generated on several occasions. I would like to continue to explore through fieldwork what conditions must be met for such play to come about.