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Thirty years ago, Maya and I lived in Northern Japan where, from December to April, snow covers the ground, and the average temperatures are below freezing.

We taught English at five different kindergartens each week. The one that I remember most vividly was called Takadate. Every Wednesday morning when we drove up, all the children were playing in the playground, shirtless. It was the same no matter the season. The children had huge smiles on their faces, and were completely engaged in running, jumping and playing hard.

The headmaster, Mr. Nomura, told me that playing outside without shirts made the children more resistant to illness. He showed me attendance records going back several years to prove his point.

After we got to know him a little better, Mr. Nomura said, “Tom, I want to tell you a secret, but you can’t tell anyone.” Curious, I promised that I wouldn’t say a word.

“You know that our students wear no shirts outside all year?”

“Yes, I noticed that.” I replied.

“The whole state knows about our kindergarten because our students don’t wear shirts.”

I said, “And it makes the children stronger, too.”

He nodded. “Yes, but it does something even more important.”

“It makes you famous?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, “but most importantly, it sets our children free.”

“Please explain.” I said, not sure if my Japanese was good enough to keep up with him.

“Well, parents used to bring their kids to school in layers and layers of clothes. The children had so many clothes they could barely move. They didn’t want to go out to the playground because it was too much work to put on all of their sweaters and jackets. And then, when they went to the playground, they couldn’t move! They just stood around and got cold.”

“Well, it is pretty cold here.” I said.

“Yes, but if a child can run and play, they make enough heat to naturally warm their bodies. But no matter what I said, the parents would bring their kids to school in too many clothes. So I had to come up with a crazy idea so the parents would change. I showed the parents research that proves that children who play outside without shirts are healthier. A few parents really liked the idea, and that was enough to convince the other parents. No one wants to have a weak child.”

“So the real reason the kids are shirtless in winter started as a way to stop parents from putting too many clothes on their children?” I asked.

“Exactly. When the parents saw their kids playing shirtless outside in the snow, they began to believe that the less clothes their children wore, the healthier they would be. It was a crazy idea, but it worked!”

Thirty years later, I still agree with Mr. Nomura. A free child is a healthy child.

by Tom Frost, Head Teacher at Hábitat Learning Community®

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