One simple strategy that I’ve faithfully pursued during the preschool years is “Bento Notes.” (In Japan, a “bento” is a boxed lunch.) Preschool here starts at 3 years of age and ends at 6—with no separate year for kindergarten—so that means three years of these little lunchtime notes for both Lulu and Roy.
Early on, I tried producing the notes one by one, each morning, but that quickly proved tiresome and the idea was nearly derailed. So I sat down and prepared a small stack of notes in one go, enough for a month or two of lunches, and that’s the way I’ve done it ever since. I then give the notes to Keiko and have her tape them, one each day, to the lunchbox lid.
From ABC to full sentences
Of course, at age 3, neither of my kids could really read yet, but I thought it best to adopt this practice right from the start so it would become a firm habit for both the children and for myself. Basically, the content of the notes has reinforced the sort of content we’ve been working on at home, and has matched their rising language level.
I began by simply writing one letter of the alphabet on a slip of paper, accompanied by my own quick drawing of an animal (or object) which starts with that letter—like the letter C with a picture of a cat. After going through the whole alphabet this way, I moved on to short words (with and without pictures), eventually combining such words into short sentences. Over time, the sentences then became longer until finally, by their third year in preschool, the notes have come to look like this:
Lulu, what are you eating for lunch today? Mommy made a good lunch for you! Love, Daddy
Lulu, I’m going to give you a big hug when I come home from work tonight! Love, Daddy
Lulu, you’re a fast runner! Maybe you can run faster than a cheetah! Love, Daddy
Roy, I like reading books to you and I like it when you read books to me! Love, Daddy
Roy, after you finish your lunch, why don’t you give your teacher a tickle? Love, Daddy
Roy, what did you do this morning? Did you fly to the moon in a rocket? Love, Daddy
The benefits of “Bento Notes”
As you can see, the notes are fairly short, and make up a mix of the serious and the silly. The preschool teachers have told me that the kids seem to look forward to their note from Daddy for that day, and have even shared it with others in the class, offering them a Japanese translation. In this way, the notes have served four aims: 1) they provide an additional opportunity to practice reading; 2) they encourage the kids to translate for authentic communication; 3) they offer some amusement (in silly mode) and thoughtful messages (in serious mode); and 4) they remind Lulu and Roy of my feelings for them, even while we’re apart.
To my mind, these benefits far outweigh the modest amount of time it takes me to prepare the notes. (And when I’m writing sentences, I can do it pretty quickly by using the computer, printing them out, and cutting them apart.)
Next year, though, both kids will be in elementary school, where the children eat a school lunch, not a lunch from home. I’m now wondering how I might adapt the idea of “Bento Notes” so I can continue providing them with personal messages on a regular basis—as well as all the benefits that go along with this practice.
See my follow-up to this post at How Messages in the Minority Language Can Boost Literacy (and Much More).