Is Kindergarten Really Kindergarten?

The Kindergarten Dilemma
by Judy Smizik

Article after article has been written regarding the conflict in kindergarten education. Is “too much, too soon” helpful? harmful? inappropriate? beneficial? or all of the above? These questions have been popping up in educational journals, research articles, opinion pieces, and parent magazines.

Why the controversy? Have you visited a kindergarten class recently?  Kindergarten education has changed so much over the past ten years, you would barely recognize a kindergarten classroom as being kindergarten.

I was a Kindergarten teacher for over thirty-five years. I chose to teach kindergarten because I felt that was the most important time in children’s lives. Back then, Kindergarten was the time to build a strong academic foundation, to introduce children to formal schooling and joyful learning. It was a time for children to foster positive relationships with their peers and school staff.

Kindergarten exposed children to the world around them through creative experiences that incorporated the arts, rich literature, and meaningful learning. It addressed the needs of the “whole” child.  Kindergarten programs were developed to allow for the differences that naturally occur in kindergarten-age children. The curriculum and program were flexible enough to accommodate the educational learning needs of all children.  Play was a vital component of all kindergarten classrooms.  Today many children are not allowed to play.  I have been in kindergarten classrooms where there were no toys or standard kindergarten equipments such as blocks, puzzles, and dramatic play areas.

Many of today’s kindergartens no longer reflect the basic mission Frederick Froebel set out to create for Kindergarten.  Today,  children are sitting for long periods of time, learning curricula that were once considered first grade skills. Instruction is focused on teaching kindergarten children to read, write, and perform mathematical skills involving adding, subtracting, and advanced problem solving.  While some children may be developmentally ready to read and perform advanced mathematical thinking skills,  many are not.

Last September, I visited a kindergarten classroom that was administering a district-mandated writing sample assessment. The directions to the teacher stated:

Distribute copies of the prompt, writing papers, and checklist. This assessment should be administered to the whole class. Today, you will draw and write about fun things you do with your family. Be sure to include at least one event. You will also describe your feelings and include an ending to your personal narrative. You will do this by yourself. You will draw your picture in the box and write about the event on the lines below.

The checklist that was given to each child was a list of criteria that included:

I included an ending for my personal narrative that told how I felt.
I used the words me, I, You, and Us.
I began each sentence with a capital letter and capitalized I.
I end each sentence with punctuation (.,?,!).
I spelled words I know correctly.

Do the developers of this checklist realize that most beginning kindergarten students can’t read, nor should they be able to read?  Even first graders would have difficulty reading this checklist.

The Task Planning Template came from applying ideas from McTigh & Wiggins’ Understanding by Design Professional Workbook (2004, JThompson Center for Assessment)

When sharing this writing activity with a few retired primary teachers and reading specialists, I asked, “What grade level do you feel this task was designed for?”

They all responded, “Second grade.”

Children entering kindergarten today are at the same developmental levels as they were a decade or two ago. Their academic and developmental needs have not changed. Children entering kindergarten come at all different readiness levels and therefore the curriculum needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the educational needs of all children.

Kindergarten should be just that: Kindergarten!  Frederick Froebel’s blooming garden of children needs to bloom again for the sake of our young vulnerable children who yearn to learn about the world around them.  A true kindergarten is a place where children develop friendships, where children are free to move about, explore, create, imagine, problem solve, and learn at their natural pace in a nurturing and enriching environment that accommodates their social, emotional, physical, and developmentally appropriate academic needs.

It is not beneficial, helpful, or appropriate to create a kindergarten program that does not meet the educational needs of our young children. We are doing more harm than good when we ask young children to perform tasks that are beyond their natural ability. I witnessed young five-year-olds putting their heads down and crying over performance tasks that were developmentally inappropriate.

Is this what we want for our children? Are we setting up kindergarten programs that promote stress and failure instead of true kindergarten programs that allow children to bloom and grow at their own developmental pace? Bring back the toys, paints, clay, building blocks, music, dramatic play areas, hands-on experiences that foster joyful learning! All of our children will benefit from an enriching, authentic, and developmentally appropriate kindergarten environment.

Judy_SmizikJudy Smizik is an educator with over 35 years of experience. She is a  former President of the Pittsburgh Association of Kindergarten Teacher and a member of Delta Kappa Gamma, an International Educational Society.  Presently, she mentors new teachers, provides professional development workshops, and has a private practice.

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