Kindergarten was once about play and experimentation. Why can’t it be that way again?
- Will my teacher be nice?
- Can I get cookies?
- Do they have a tiger robot in their toys?
Those are great, age-appropriate questions for a five-year-old to be asking, and I hope starting school brings him and his cohorts enough happy moments to fill those cute, overlarge backpacks they proudly carry around. But I’d be lying if I said I’m not a little worried for him, and for his peers—worried about our current educational climate and the demands it makes on these littlest learners.
Kindergarten has changed so much over the past decade; it is so much more work and so much less play. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have brought learning standards with higher (and not necessarily developmentally appropriate) expectations of these young children, and the partner of these standards, assessment, plays a huge role in today’s kindergarten classrooms. The validity of using this testing, often administered to five-year-olds before or at the very beginning of kindergarten, to track learning is questionable at best. Children this age aren’t necessarily “test-ready”: they may hesitate to answer a strange adult’s questions, or prefer to stare out the window, and many don’t understand that giving a complete answer actually matters. Sadly, it does.
In short, kindergarten has become the new first (or even second) grade, with kids anxiously filling in bubbles and receiving reading instruction when many can’t even decode words yet. A dozen years ago, the play kitchens and imaginative free play areas disappeared, followed by the loss of blocks and easel paints and most other toys. Time for socialization and play has vanished. We seem to have forgotten that how children learn at this age matters—facts drilled into their heads that have no connection to their life experience, or regard for their development, are both meaningless and quickly forgotten. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Once upon a time we had a different vision for what the kindergarten year should be: a time for play and experimentation and the sorting out of self that leads to further learning. How can we create those kinds of learning environments again? Here are 10 ways schools can stop failing our kids in their earliest years, and begin building passionate learners from the start.
1. Ensure time to learn through play and time to play for fun.
2. Grant permission to color outside of the lines.
3. Employ educators who have patience with developing skills.
4. Understand that not all kindergarteners are going to be developmentally ready to read, write or take tests.
5. Expect occasional squirrelly behavior.
6. Insist that teachers are trained in child development.
7. Realize that the hardest parts of kindergarten have little to do with academic learning (parents too!).
8. Develop a kindergarten curriculum that meets the developmental and social/emotional needs of 5-year-old learners.
9. Welcome parents as part of a team working in the best interests of the child.
10. Be sensitive to the child who is chronologically young or has special needs.
Getting back to my grandson’s three questions about kindergarten: with regret, I’ve informed him that cookies will not be served for snack (unhealthy), and there will not be tiger robots in the classroom (in fact, there probably won’t be any toys). But I hope I will eventually be able to respond with a resounding yes to his first question: Will the teacher be nice? In fact, I expect the teacher to honor my grandson’s energy, curiosity, zest for life, and unique interests. I’m not really worried about how much “stuff” he learns. I simply want him to learn to love learning, and be happy, as he begins his formal education. That’s what kindergarten should be all about.
Laurie Levy blogs regularly for ChicagoNow and her work has been published in Huffington Post and the Forward. She was the founder and executive director of