We called it safety city at my elementary school growing up. A grid of lines in the elementary school parking lot would undergo a metamorphosis at summer’s end. The police department would set up a fake town with tiny stop signs, buildings, and other miniaturized town stuff. On our bikes or big wheels, we’d inch along those painted lines now as glamorous and captivating as a 5th avenue or Broadway to our 4-year-old mind. Abiding by all traffic laws, of course.
It was a rite of passage in those early years. Many townsfolk will get a nostalgic look in their eye if you mention safety city to them to this day.
With great joy, I discovered that Japan too has this tradition to instill the rules of the road. Just like in the US, only better.
Scattered throughout Tokyo, you can find numerous kotsu-koen (交通公園) or traffic parks. The one near our home is adorned with working traffic lights you can almost bump your head on, peddle-powered gocarts, and a maze of streets for the children to navigate. Throw in a Tokyo-station-looking building, a railroad crossing (sans gate arm), and even a roundabout and the youngsters get an excellent crash course in navigating Japan’s asphalt jungle.
Through extensive research (speaking to one of the mom’s after daycare), I’ve discovered the one near our house has been around for at least 30 years. No, I didn’t ask her age. But today’s whippersnappers have it easy. Make a wrong turn or dip a toe into the crosswalk 30 years ago, and you got an earful from the staff monitoring the park. I thought it was strict when my second oldest started meandering into the roundabout and got a “dame, dame” from the Suginami-ku vest old guy. That pales in comparison, or so I’m told, to how it used to be.
The kids go there to learn how to navigate the roads, so I’m thankful for the parenting backup. Only so far a parent’s words will go compared to a complete stranger barking at you.
The strict rules don’t phase the kids. If the weather is good and we’ve got time, it’s often a top requested destination for an outing. The additional 30-year-old fixtures of the park also draw the kids back; a slide that looks like an ant lion built it, a jungle gym, and a D51 steam locomotive you can climb aboard.
For those interested in visiting a traffic park near them, check these traffic parks out around Tokyo. Remember to look both ways before you cross the street.