Thoughts on Kindergarten

The focus in our small town during this budget season is the possibility of moving from half-day kindergarten to full-day kindergarten. I personally went to half-day kindergarten in this town and loved it, loved my teacher, and thrived. However, I also had a mom who was able to stay home with me and there weren’t as many mandates for what we had to learn during that time. “Killing Kindergarten,” recently published in the Huffington Post, addressed some of the current problems:

All around this country, families are trying to figure out why their small children already dread going to a place that was supposed to serve as a gentle transition to formal learning. They are struggling with ambivalent allegiances, not wanting to be the over-protective parent who babies their child, but at the same time not being fully convinced that their child has a behavior problem just because they don’t enjoy sitting at a desk, independently going through worksheets for a solid hour.

With the adoption of the Common Core, the expectations have been raised for what kindergartners are expected to know and be able to do. The superintendent of schools in our hometown explains:

We’re ramping up now for the rigor of change that will affect us in two years and with the level of things they are expected to know, we won’t be able to do in a half-day setting.”

Our elementary school principal elaborates on what half-day kindergarten looks like now:

The social aspect, and some of the academic aspects, are being scrunched because of time constraints. . . We don’t even have the opportunity to read to the children every single day. It’s a race in kindergarten and how the teachers do what they do in 2 ½ hours, really two because they have a half-hour special every day, is amazing.”

I have also spoken to a few friends who have children in kindergarten in our town, and what I have heard is truly scary. There is no recess, toys were taken out of the room, often children do not have time to eat their snacks or they eat while they are working. The expectation is for children to work for the whole two hours they are in school. There is no science.

Let me put the disclaimer in that I am not trained in teaching kindergarten. My specialty is 6-12 science, and I have spent years studying how the adolescent and young adult brain learns science, and have been putting what I have learned into my classroom for the last nine years. I don’t have training in early literacy or numeracy, and I have never worked in a kindergarten classroom. However, I did recently attend a professional development workshop on the Common Core and we spent some time looking at kindergarten. As a parent and a professional educator, I have some thoughts to share.

Focus on the Common Core

I believe that the true work of children is PLAY. Children learn so much through their experiences, especially critical thinking and problem solving skills of both the educational and social variety. Using words like “rigor” in reference to kindergarten curriculum really irks me. The current focus on standards and high-stakes testing in education does not benefit children, in my opinion as a parent and educator.

I want my child to progress at his own pace, with intrinsic motivation to learn. When he first began to speak, the majority of his words were animal sounds. I didn’t drill those into his head during two-hour sessions where he sat still, he wanted to learn them. He likes animals and likes learning what they say. Now, my two-year old has many words and speaks in sentences, loves books, and likes to put pen or crayon to paper. I don’t force him to do any of this, he has picked it up in his own time. Just as I believe in allowing children to meet milestones like sleeping through the night and weaning in their own time, I believe that children should learn on their own developmental timeline. I didn’t need to refer to a list set forth by any organization to see what Joshua should learn, and I don’t need to test him to prove that he has learned.

Check out this list of what a four-year-old should know. Let’s get our priorities straight and make sure our children are learning what we really want them to know.

What Does Half-Day Kindergarten Look Like?

If I was to envision what the superintendent, principal, and parents describe, I see a boring classroom full of little worker bees. I see children sitting at desks, not talking, not interacting, not playing, but working. Pencil in hand. The old-school methods of “Chalk and Talk” and “Drill and Kill” come to mind. Energetic children don’t get to get up and hungry children don’t get to eat. I do not believe that this is an accurate representation of what our current kindergarten classrooms look like, but this is the sensational and exaggerated story that we are being told.

When we focus on what needs to be learned instead of the process of learning and the developmental readiness for learning, we are in dangerous territory. I would not expect my 18-year-old students to sit still and work for two hours straight. Many of them would be able to do this, but it would be boring for most and would be downright impossible for some. Instead, I try to vary my lessons to involve time to get out of our seats and do lab work, visit the greenhouse, go outside, come up to the board and share thoughts, have whole-class and group discussions, problem-solve, think critically, and work independently. Kindergartners are not all that different from high-schoolers in this sense. We know that not all children learn in the same manner, and instruction needs to be varied so that all children have the opportunity to succeed. I fear that forcing children to sit still and work for long periods of time will result in them hating school. If they start to hate school in kindergarten, how much will they hate it by the time they get to my classroom?

Sitting still and working diligently for two hours is not the natural state of a kindergartner, and kindergarten teachers know this just as well as I know this. I don’t believe that our highly qualified, creative, professional kindergarten teachers are running this kind of classroom. I believe that they are varying their instruction and keeping the classroom interactive, but of course I would have to visit a classroom on multiple occasions to prove it.

Would Full-Day Kindergarten Improve Learning?

I believe that full-day kindergarten would allow time for recess, social play, creativity, exploration and experiences that would ultimately benefit children.  I believe that these important activities would allow children to learn the Common Core standards more efficiently when it is time to sit down and work. I also believe that children would gain valuable social skills and critical thinking skills during their play time, plus they would have time to explore science, history, the arts, world languages, and other subjects that enrich a classroom and make for a well-rounded education.

Learning Doesn’t Only Happen Within a Set Time and Place

All learning does not have to take place within the classroom. In fact I believe that we are doing students an injustice if we don’t take them outside to explore, go on field trips, and continue their informal education in our own homes. One of the most important and powerful things a parent can do is read to his or her child, instill and model a love for reading from a young age and continue that throughout life. But it’s not all about books.

Exploring nature allows children to learn about their own ecosystem: plants and animals, the weather, the seasons, the sun, moon and stars. If children are unable to go outside and breathe fresh air while they are in school, then it is our responsibility as parents to make sure they get outside to play and learn. I feel fortunate that Joshua’s daycare spends as much time outside as possible, with morning and afternoon walks in addition to time on the playground. I know that he is outdoors as much as possible, and it is so good for him.

Where Will We Go From Here?

Since the budget in our town has been cut and it looks like full-day kindergarten is out, I’m going to explore our options for when Joshua starts school. He’s only two years old, so we have plenty of time to research and decide, and by the time he starts school it may well be in full-day kindergarten.

If, when the time comes, Joshua is in half-day public kindergarten, we would have to find a place for his care for the other half of the day. I love Joshua’s current daycare and would be happy to continue to send him there for the other half of the day because they share our values of getting time outdoors and building social relationships.

However, I am also going to be learning about and exploring our options for local private kindergartens, including Montessori and Waldorf schools. I don’t know all that much about them at this point, but there is time to learn. Cost will be a factor, but we pay plenty for daycare right now and I’m willing to work for whatever we decide is best for Joshua.

What’s your take on kindergarten? Where do your children thrive?

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19 Responses to Thoughts on Kindergarten

  1. About the time my oldest started school, our state instituted Universal Pre-k a sort of head start for all students. This was a 1/2 day program, really more like 2 1/2 hours. My daughter LOVED it. She was so ready for “School”. The focus was on teaching children the alphabet, colors and social skills. Sometime between child number 2 and 3 our district adopted full day kindergarten. The teachers were very happy because they were able to fit all the fun stuff back into school. Academics are taught primarily in the morning and the afternoon if used for PE, visits to the library, music lessons, time to play in centers and time for those students who need a little extra time to finish their work. The teachers are very happy with the longer day and most students adjust well because they do have that free time. The pace is much more leisurely for everyone.

  2. I am so happy with the way my town’s school department handles Pre-school and Kindergarten education that I find myself constantly talking about it. Parents here have the option to start their child’s public education at 3 years old. The public school has a 3 year old and a 4 year old Pre-school curriculum. The 3 year old program is totally grant funded and is part of the Elementary school. Children can start on their 3rd birthday, they go to school every day for 1/2 a day and they take the bus (there are 3 point car seats on the bus)- and it’s FREE! This is a play based learning curriculum. The 4 year old program is the same way. My daughter is in the 3 year old program now. Kindergarten is full day. My son is in Kindergarten now and is thriving (he was in the 3 year and 4 year old program). They play, learn, have computer, gym, music, library, and art classes. They get outside at least once a day- more when it’s warmer out. He was already reading before he started Kindergarten due to the earlier programs. In my opinion it is the earlier Pre-school programs that help the kids more then the Kindergarten programs. In Pre-school they are learning colors, shapes, letters, numbers- all through games, crafts, songs and playing. In Kindergarten they are still doing all of that, but have added math, science, reading and other skills to the mix. They can do this because they have the time, being full day, and because the kids have already learned a lot of the basic skills in the Pre-school programs. I also have to say, I always thought I would home school my kids so I am very picky about their education. I still am on the fence about homeschooling my son for first grade, but that is another story.

  3. Yesterday, we began the evaluation process for my son to get some additional help (he is really starting to display some sensory issues) and at our next meeting a member of the local school board will attend to see how he is doing and if we should have him sent to preschool in the Fall. I don’t want him going to preschool… he’ll only be just 3 and I, as his mother, do not think he’s ready for the social aspects and I informed them that we will be working through the 3 year skills at home. So far, I plan to do as much as I can at home and then reevaluate when he’s 4, 5, etc.

    That being said, I live in a failing school district and every school offers full-day kindergarten in our area except for one. It is rumored that this Fall, though, even that school will be full day. The reason for the full-day is that we are so behind in testing that they are hoping to preempt future classes from the same record. I worked briefly in supplementary education and during my time there I was in constant contact with the teachers in my district. It’s not that there’s no hope, it’s the the deficit is so poor right now that even a whole day of Kindergarten isn’t helping. And while the other commenters have spoken of how relaxed the classrooms can be in comparison with a half day classroom, we aren’t really seeing that here. The kids are so stressed because of the testing and the demands on them and the teachers are no longer getting to love what they do, but are held to merit based pay grades.

    In our case, the only positive option for us (pending my son’s needs) at this time will be to homeschool with the possible addition of a 2 day program at a Montessori school. I don’t like the idea of a full-day kindergarten because I feel like it’s such a long time to be away from home their first time out. I see how it would allow for so much more time to work with the kids and learn in a less pressured environment, but it still feels like such a long time to me. I went to half-day Kindergarten and even now at 30 years old, I have fantastic memories of it. Mrs. Robinson was an amazing teacher and I can remember feeling such awe while she read. But, I also remember being exhausted at the end of the day when my mom would come pick me up. If my son were a more social being, then perhaps full-day Kindergarten would work for us, but I don’t that being beneficial. My daughter on the other hand, is all social and all energy… she may need a different class structure. :)

    • Farmer's Daughter

      Thanks for sharing about your kindergarten teacher. Mine was Mrs. Carr and she was the best! We should do a carnival about teachers that have impacted our lives :)

  4. First of all, love that link to what a 4-year-old should know. Priceless.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this kindergarten thing, having a son who’s turning 5 in a couple months. When I was a kid, I went to half-day kindergarten, and I remember it as a mix of playing and learning and life skills (like tying shoes). When I found out that full-day K was the norm here (in Seattle), that they really press people to take advantage of the full-day program, even though it costs money (half-day is publicly funded), I was really surprised. A full day seems like a long time to expect every 5-year-old to spend away from their parents in a classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I know plenty of kids of working parents spend that much time away from a younger age and thrive; I just thought it was weird that it’s now become the expected norm and that the implication (from the schools’ literature I read) is if you don’t send your kid to full-day K, you’re stunting your child’s social development and academic success.

    Anyway, we would have used half-day kindergarten, but we’re homeschooling instead. That way, plenty of time to keep on playing!

    • Farmer's Daughter

      I can see how parents may feel their children aren’t ready, and if I wasn’t working outside the home that might be a consideration. But as it is now, Joshua is already away from home for full days 3 days a week. He’s actually at daycare longer than a full-day K schedule would be, and we’ll probably still need to get before-care for him when he goes to school.

  5. Liz Hoskins

    Another great informative entry Abbie. I have read what a 4 year old needs to know many times, and couldn’t agree more. I have obviously been thinking about the kindergarten program in our town a lot lately as well. Having taught kindergarten for several years, only in a school that offered full-day, the difference to me is astounding. When I taught, there was a nice mix of desk time, free time, small group time, recess, with plenty of time for socializing and working with peers. I unfortunately did not see that when my son was in kindergarten last year. I, too, am scared when I hear the word “rigor”, when referred to our youngest children in public schools, and it has been mentioned and written about a lot in the past few days.
    My daughter will be entering kindergarten next year, into the half day program. When i first heard that they were considering a full day program, i have to be honest, I was a little sad that I wouldn’t have another year of having her with me for half of a day, before she enters full day for the next 18 years. I felt that I hadn’t done everything, and there was a lot more I wanted to do with her. When full day was on the table, I realized that it would be incredibly beneficial for her and all of our students to get with the times and be able to experience kindergarten the way it should be. Now that full day kindergarten is definitely not going to happen…what will I do? Exactly what I did with my son…..we will plant gardens, go for walks, arrange playdates, take cooking classes at the rec center, take art classes at Guilford arts center, play at the park, visit museums, etc etc etc. I will supplement her 2 hour crammed morning with the free time she so desperately needs. I am still upset with the outcome of the budget meetings, but it won’t change how I parent my kids. I am just hoping that the opportunity for a full day program does come around again and it is approved in the near future. The expectations nationwide for our kindergartners is always increasing, and there is no way a half day program can facilitate that!

    • Farmer's Daughter

      Liz I want to come hang out with you guys for the half-day that your daughter isn’t in school! Sounds like a blast. She will learn so much from those experiences with you, learning definitely doesn’t take place just within the classroom!

  6. My son starts K this fall, and as someone who taught elementary school (grades 1 through 5) for seven years, I have many ambivalent feelings about it. I am glad that kinder is half-day here b/c I don’t think I could give him up for the full day. He has never attended a formal preschool (just a casual mom co-op preschool that we do in our own homes). Although I think my son will do OK in the school setting (he already reads), I just have really mixed feelings about school and how things are going in education these days. I guess in the end, I just want to make sure he has a good teacher, since that makes such a huge difference. I think the expectations for young children these days are a little wack-o. Kindergarten (and all the other grades, for that matter) should be fun at least some of the time. It was really disheartening to teach 3rd graders who had already lost their natural curiosity and hated school. I don’t think public schools are as bad as some of my home schooling friends think they are, but I think they could be a whole lot better.

  7. My son starts K this fall, and as someone who taught elementary school (grades 1 through 5) for seven years and studied education policy for two years, I have many ambivalent feelings about it. I am glad that kinder is half-day here b/c I don’t think I could give him up for the full day. He has never attended a formal preschool (just a casual mom co-op preschool that we do in our own homes). Although I think my son will do OK in the school setting (he already reads), I just have really mixed feelings about school and how things are going in education these days. For one thing, I wish there were more mixed-age classrooms and more differentiation instead of one-size-fits-all directed instruction. I guess in the end, I just want to make sure he has a good teacher, since that makes such a huge difference. I think the expectations for young children these days are a little wack-o. Kindergarten (and all the other grades, for that matter) should be fun at least some of the time. It was really disheartening to teach 3rd graders who had already lost their natural curiosity and hated school. I don’t think public schools are as bad as some of my home schooling friends think they are, but I think they could be a whole lot better.

  8. P.S. That Huff post article is truly depressing.

  9. What really gets me is the fact that everything you talk about – the importance of play-based learning, time outdoors, varying activities, presenting information in different ways, etc – is fully acknowledged and is taught to early childhood educators as vitally important. If you look at what the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) considers “Developmentally Appropriate Practice,” it’s all in there. But then teachers hit the reality of the classroom and in many cases are saddled with incredibly high expectations and very limited time with which to meet them.

    I was observing in a kindergarten classroom earlier this week and as the teacher was trying to move the children from a worksheet at their tables to their group calendar time, she literally told one who had finished the “work,” but was still coloring on the worksheet, “We don’t have time for creativity this morning.” Had she thought about what she was saying, I’d like to think she would have phrased it differently, or questioned the importance of moving the child on to the next activity, but I thought that was a pretty telling statement. The teachers really are not given time to honor each child’s process.

    It’s funny how quick pediatricians and child development experts are to recognize that each child develops on their own unique timeline in early childhood. Then suddenly they hit kindergarten, and there’s a list of things we expect virtually every child to know. It doesn’t make sense. As a preschool/kindergarten teacher in a Montessori setting, I can say that it was *easy* to meet the state standards for kindergarten while honoring each child and their own individual timeline, but we had support to do things differently, with each child’s needs in mind, and our setup allowed children to follow their own interests, spend time outdors, etc. There were few expectations other than that we would provide a well-organized, stimulating environment and respect each individual child. Of course there were outliers statistically speaking, and a few children needed more time while others learned far, far more than one would expect of a kindergartener, but the point is, doing things slowly and following the child WORKS.

  10. What a heavy topic. I found your perspective really interesting, especially since my first thought was 1/2 day = better. I do see what you’re saying though and can see some possible advantages. From just reading this, though, and hearing bits and pieces of what is happening in my area, I am angered that the bar is being raised so high. If it weren’t for all of these expectations than a half day would be sufficient for them to experience learning in the way you describe.

    Thanks for speaking up and bringing this to light. :)

  11. We’ve been through the Kindy years twice now. DS1 attended public school K. I was so happy when I learned that he’d be in “only” a half-day program. Still, what a challenge it was to wake the poor guy and have him fed and out the door in time for his bus each morning. We both still have memories of me pushing him gently (but swiftly!) up the hill so that he’d get to his stop on time. He was in the morning session. Oh, how wonderful it was to let him enjoy a nap in the afternoon – he still needed one, especially after a morning of concentrating on academic things.

    Thankfully, DS1 was in a position to tackle the work set before him in school. DS2, talented in his own ways, dances to a different drummer. There were no two ways about it: he really did need to focus on that so-important task of playing. He ran, he jumped, he climbed, he sang, he cooked, he drew, and so much more. He did not read, and he did not write, nor were his skills ready for that. Because we homeschool, we were able to allow him to unfold at his own pace. Using a Wald0rf-inspired approach met his developmental progress so beautifully. Forcing him to do formal work any sooner would surely have backfired.

  12. I went to half-day K back in the 70s (dinosaur alert!) and we were learning letters, numbers, and word sounds . . . really basic stuff. It was about 2.5 hours (I think) and we had a snack in there somewhere. I remember always wanting to be the “helper” for the day and pass out crayons and stuff.
    I chose not to send my daughter to K this year and homeschool instead. And by “homeschool” I mean, keep her home with me and her younger siblings and follow her interests for learning. She happens to be a “worksheet” kind of gal. She went to a wonderful, play-based, all-day preschool (M-F, 9-2:30) last year, and she would have probably LOVED all-day K (it’s M-F, 8-2:20 here). BUT, I couldn’t get past the lists of guidelines, curriculum, Important Stuff They Must Cover, the fact that they have HOMEWORK . . . ugh. The idea that K teachers are pressured to “teach” 4, 5, 6 year olds these “core standards” from a checklist so they don’t “get behind” is both scary and sad to me. The expectations here are just whack.

  13. Thanks for your thoughts! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately too because my son turns 5 about a week before the Kindergarten cut-off date in our town this year. I would probably send him if it was a half day Kindergarten, but am waiting to send him b/c it’s a full day. I would rather he face the grind of 5 full days with another year under his belt, especially given the maturity that is necessary to do all the sitting still that is required.

    I think that the transition from half day to full day kindergarten (and the academic focus you talked about) in our country is one reason why the kids entering kindergarten are older than a generation ago.

  14. It seems it would depend on the child if they are ready for all day kindergarten. Since I had a stay at home mom as a child, the half day worked well to transition me into the idea of school. Also, I now work as a secondary teacher, but have subbed in many elementary schools in an urban district. I was astounded by the amount of work some of the teachers have the little ones complete through out the day. A group of teachers and I went to a conference to learn that the achievement gap happens between the ages of 0-3, which may be why some schools are trying to cram information that is not learned at home. I agree that children need “play time” and outdoor time to do hands on activities. During my year of full time subbing, I was saddened to see many K-4 teachers very upset and stressed from trying to complete the “curriculum” while also trying to help the kids develop social and emotional skills. As a stimulus funded “super sub” it was my job to give elementary teachers extra help and almost all teachers I helped had me doing the various forms of testing that are required. I can’t imagine the stress of having to juggle the testing with everything else needed to be done in a full school day. Now our district is going to link students performance to teachers in an online database, which I would imagine is going to make teachers focus even more on producing better test scores.

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