"What the hell has happened to kindergarten?" a friend of mine asked in a frantic e-mail last year. She'd moved to the States after several years in London, and her son now struggled in his new academic setting. Her note continued: "Where are the sand tables? When do they get to play? When did recess become a bad thing? What is going on?" And it ended with a desperate question: Can I do anything about it?
She is not alone in her concern. Kindergarten has changed. One teacher friend told me recently that it's her life's mission to "save kindergarten." Another confided that she left the classroom because kindergarten was no longer a place of self-expression and play for children. Most public school kindergartens truly do not resemble those of a generation ago. This is due to trickling down effects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and parental fears about academic preparedness. Schools feel tremendous pressure to meet the end-of-first-grade benchmarks, so now kindergarten students must perform, not play.
Although play-centered kindergarten might feel like something created in 1960s San Francisco by teachers in Birkenstocks, it was first developed by German educator Freidrich Froebel over 180 years ago. Froebel recognized that he could best meet children's particular needs and capabilities through "free work" or play. Froebel's student Margarethe Schurz imported his methods, opening the first kindergarten in the United States in her Watertown,
Children are natural-born noise makers, but their exuberance is muted in today's kindergarten classrooms. Elizabeth Graue -- a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison highlights this shift. Graue asserts that even "free play" and "choice time" have drifted into the assessment zone. Teachers often now choose the "choice time" activities for students and use "free play" as time to complete formal assessments instead of observing and guiding student activities. Many full-day kindergarten students spend approximately 25 minutes on literacy and math content for every five minutes of play because schools now "back map" the curriculum from the first standardized tests.
Kindergarten -- once a foundation for learning -- is now just a prerequisite for the tests to come. This is a mistake. Innovative play inherently differentiates instruction and concurrently teaches multiple concepts. It also enables children to choose appropriate challenges for themselves while being stretched by other students in a low-stress setting.
We tend to think that because our children are more tech-savvy -- and seem more worldly -- than we were at that age, they are also ready for more challenging academic work. (I need only watch my young son's facility with our digital camera's delete button to get this sense.) But this notion is false. Award-winning education writer, Laura Pappano, highlights a study conducted by the distinguished Gesell Institute in her provocative article "Kids Haven't Changed; Kindergarten Has." The Institute, a non-profit dedicated to researching and understanding child development, recently completed a study comparing child development milestones documented in the early and mid-1900s to those in today's children. Ninety two examiners interviewed nearly 1,300 three-to-six year olds in 56 schools across 23 states. They discovered what many educators have suspected: children today generally reach cognitive milestones at the same ages as their 1920s counterparts. Marcy Guddemi, current executive director of the Gesell Institute reflects, "People think children are smarter and they are able to do things earlier than they used to be able to -- and they can't." She cites "conserving skills" as an example. Most children do not understand the difference between counting 20 pennies and "conserving" them -- knowing that they have 20 altogether -- until the age of 6. They can memorize simple equations at four or five, but they don't understand the real meaning. There is a real difference between performing and knowing.
Kindergarten has been reconfigured to meet requirements of NCLB, disregarding the needs of our young children. When we require them to do work that is inappropriate and incompatible with their natural abilities and dispositions, we send the message that end goals are more important than the journey itself. Instead, kindergarten curriculum should tap into the innate exuberance, enthusiasm, curiosity and wonder of 5- and 6-year-olds. Kids need to play -- not just for their enjoyment and to release oodles of pent up energy -- but because they learn about themselves. In the hands of a gifted teacher, play becomes a tool for honing social skills and emotional growth.
David Daniel, child psychology professor at James Madison University, stresses the importance of teaching age appropriate material. He says, "The 4-year-old has a 4-year-old brain and a 6-year-old, a 6-year-old brain." Certainly there are a few students who can dabble in more serious academics, but most students are not developmentally or emotionally ready to learn it. And all too often it is the boys and kids of color in the classroom who are tagged for kindergarten retention or referred for testing.
Of course, kindergarten today must be a balance of the old and new. We can't ignore the fact that schools have real pressure to meet federal mandates. Programs rich in vocabulary and math concepts are necessary and appropriate, but they certainly can exist alongside constructive play and exploration. My friend's son was constantly under pressure to improve academically; he hated school by the end of kindergarten. His educational life is too important to be sacrificed to first-grade benchmarks.