Children Talks: Essential Japanese Vocabulary For The Playground
How To Keep The Peace And Make New Friends
What can you say to calm a kerfuffle on the slide? To show other parents that you're not letting your child run amok? Learn these handy Japanese phrases to smooth out your interactions at the playground or wherever young kids play.
Playgrounds, playrooms, and anywhere that children run around are great places to make friends, but they can also be intimidating when you have a language barrier. And it’s even more difficult when you’re wearing a mask and trying to stay at a distance of more than two meters. What can you say to other children who are a little too rowdy? What should your child say if they accidentally run into another? How can you encourage turn-taking? A few simple phrases can help with most tricky situations. There are lots of benefits to learning a bit of Japanese vocabulary for the playground!
To help children build social capabilities
Especially valued in Japan, skills for getting along with others are essential to child development. My two-year-old son is at the perfect age to start learning from social interactions, but the coronavirus pandemic has limited his opportunities. Casual, outdoor settings such as a playground are now our best bet for friend-making but I have noticed that some Japanese caregivers and children appear to be uncertain of how to communicate with someone visibly “foreign” like me.
I have had success in breaking the ice by proactively saying a few words in Japanese
I have had success in breaking the ice by proactively saying a few words in Japanese to signal that I understand the language at least a little, making people around us more comfortable to engage further. Since my son isn’t talking much yet, I take the opportunity to narrate what he might say to others, such as greetings or basic niceties like dōzo (どうぞ, please go ahead) and arigatō (ありがとう, thank you). In addition to showing others that we can interact in Japanese, this also helps my son to start picking up the most important social customs.
To “perform” parenting
Although I’m not an authoritarian parent, as a non-Japanese mother who stands out in public, I feel a bit of unspoken social pressure to demonstrate to other caregivers that I’m directing my toddler’s behavior…or at least trying! This sometimes leads me to a little parenting “performance.”
I primarily speak English with my son, but around Japanese speakers, I often repeat my words in both languages. For example, if he cuts in the line for the slide, I say, “let’s take turns! junban ne (順番ね)!” This is less natural than our normal interactions, but by sprinkling in some Japanese, I signal to other children and caregivers that I am in fact trying to right the wrong and being mindful of our shared environment as a responsible parent.
be aware that some Japanese caregivers prefer to correct children privately, so it’s wise to avoid calling out other children’s behavior
To encourage harmony
As in any country, Japanese caregivers have a range of approaches to raising children. Some parents like to be fully involved in playing with their children on the playground—which makes it easy to interact if you likewise stay close—and others tend to be more hands-off. As the mother of one of the younger children on the playground, I occasionally need to caution older kids who are not mindful of littler ones. Be aware that some Japanese caregivers prefer to correct children privately, so it’s wise to avoid calling out other children’s behavior.
However, phrases like ki wo tsukete (気を付けて, be careful), abunai (危ない, dangerous) and dame (だめ, not good) are ubiquitous anywhere children are found and are usually quite acceptable to use with any children. Like most people, I find it awkward to draw a distant parent’s attention to their kids’ behavior, but if necessary, a sentence like sumimasen, abunai no de chūishite kudasai (すみません、危ないので注意して下さい, excuse me, that’s dangerous so please caution them) raises the issue without being pushy.
Basic language for children
This isn’t the place for a full grammar lesson, but it’s worth pointing out that the polite grammatical forms typically taught in Japanese language classes aren’t necessarily the ones you use when addressing children. For example, the polite question isshoni asobimasenka (一緒に遊びませんか, do you want to play together?) can become simply isshoni asobu? (一緒に遊ぶ?). Also, adding ne (ね) to the end of some phrases increases the friendliness factor. So for example, the caution ki o tsukete (気を付けて, be careful) becomes ki o tsukete ne (気を付けてね) and is magically less strict. But the most important thing is to not worry too much about grammar and just be friendly. Memorize a few of the phrases below to start interacting on the playground!
Playground Japanese sentences to guide your own child, interact with another child, or get an adult’s attention
In addition to basic greetings like konnichiwa (こんにちは, hello) and parenting-related small talk, these phrases will help you open communication. The natural language of play can overcome barriers between children, and even the smallest efforts can help break the ice among adults.
|Japanese||Rōmaji||English||When to use|
|Friend||To refer to other children. Adults can add “o” to refer to other people’s children|
|Literally “older brother” and “older sister”||To address any child that seems to be older|
|赤ちゃんだよ、気をつけてね||akachan dayo, ki o tsukete ne||That’s a baby, so be careful||To caution a child around a little one|
|押さないで、お友達だよ||osanaide, otomodachi da yo||Don’t push, that’s a friend||To explain to your child not to push their friends!|
|気を付けてね||ki o tsukete ne||Please be careful||To advise caution gently|
|一緒に遊ぶ？||issho ni asobu?||Do you want to play together?||To invite another child to play or to share a toy|
|To tell your child to say something, but most often used to demonstrate social customs like greetings|
|やめなさい||yamenasai||Stop!||A rather forceful command—stereotypically used by the police… and parents!|
|危ないよ||abunai yo||That’s dangerous!||To caution children from doing something dangerous|
|だめ||dame||That’s not allowed/not good||Probably the most common word you’ll hear on the playground! Used for any situation where English-speaking caregivers are likely to say “no” or “not good” or “stop”|
|投げないでね||nagenaide ne||Don’t throw (something)||To direct your child not to throw|
|順番ね||junban ne||Take turns||To encourage children to take turns|
|順番待ちましょう||junban machimashō||Let’s wait and take turns||To encourage children to wait and take turns|
|どうぞ||dōzo||Go ahead or here you go||Use for situations like, “sure, go ahead of us on the slide” or “here, you can use our toy,” etc.|
|Are you ok? Is it ok?
Yes, it’s/we’re ok.
|A very useful multipurpose word to ask if someone or an action is ok, or to answer that it’s ok or you’re ok|
|上手||jōzu||Well done! Very good!||To praise a child, for example, “great job on the monkey bars!”|
|ありがとう||arigatō||Thank you!||Use early and often!|
|すみません||sumimasen||Excuse me||To get someone’s attention or to apologize for something minor like being in their way|
|ごめんなさい||gomen nasai||Pardon me/sorry||To apologize|
|すみません、危ないので注意して下さい||sumimasen, abunai no de chūishite kudasai||Excuse me, that’s dangerous so please caution your child||To politely draw a parent’s attention to a problematic situation|
Phrases in action
Here’s a sample dialogue between Megan and Yutaro along with their one-year-old toddlers on the playground.
Megan (to Yutaro and his child):
こんにちは！ – Konnichiha! – Hello!
Yutaro (to his own child):
こんにちは言って！ – Konnichiha itte! – Say hello!
(to Megan and her child):
一緒に遊ぶ？ – Isshoni asobu? – Do you want to play together?
Megan’s toddler tries to go in front of Yutaro’s to climb the slide.
Megan (to her own child):
お友達だよ。順番ね。- Otomodachidayo. Junban ne. – That’s a friend. Let’s take turns.
Yutaro (to Megan and her child):
大丈夫です。どうぞ。- Daijōbu desu. Dōzō. – That’s ok. Please go ahead.
Megan (to Yutaro and his child):
すみません。ありがとう。- Sumimasen. Arigatō. – Excuse us. Thank you.
Megan (to her child as he climbs):
気を付けてね！- Ki wo tsukete ne! – Be careful!
Yutaro’s child throws a pebble
Yutaro (to his child):
危ない！投げないでね。- Abunai! Nagenaide ne. – That’s dangerous! Don’t throw!
Yutaro’s child goes down the slide
Megan (to Yutaro and his child):
上手！- Jōzu! – Very good!