Thoughts on the High Expectations of Kindergarten
For the first few months of school, my son hated Kindergarten. The first few weeks were great because it was all so new and fun … but as soon as the “honeymoon” was over, it went downhill. He went from his preschool days of interactive, play-based education to a highly structured, instructional learning environment. This is the environment that almost all schools follow today. From PreK 4 to K, play was limited to a few short breaks, and his nap time was cut in half. He came home every day irritable, frustrated, and he could not control all of his strong emotions.
This highly surprised me, as I thought we were well prepared for him to start Kindergarten. He was so excited to start at a new school with new friends and with a new teacher. We had 3 years of preschool under his belt and lots of experience learning. I honestly had high hopes that my son would come home every day excited about school and about what he had learned and share it willingly with us.
Instead, we had a kid who came home and told us “I hate school.”
My heart sank. I felt helpless and had no idea what was making him feel this way. It wasn’t until we realized how much of a transition going from PreK 4 to Kindergarten was for him. Gone were the days of playing in centers with blocks and cars, story time and arts & crafts. Recess and nap time were cut short. Expectations were of course, to be respectful to those around you, to listen and follow directions, and to keep your hands to yourself, but also included sitting still, focusing on instruction, completing work quietly on your own, and completing daily homework. But this is the thing: five year old kids can’t sit still. They aren’t developmentally ready to; they need play for better brain development. They want to explore, learn from experience, see it for themselves. They want to be kids.
Kindergarten is vastly different than when I was a child.
I have fond memories of my kindergarten classroom, where we built towers with blocks, colored worksheets of the alphabet, and sat on the floor of our classroom to sing songs, count beans, and do arts and crafts. I can still remember making a pumpkin out of yarn and glue. I remember riding the see-saw and playing freeze tag during recess for what seemed like hours until the bell rang to go in for a nap.
The education I received was to play, to explore, to get to know our classmates and to experience life and use that experience to learn by doing. Now, our kids are going to school to learn through vigorous instruction, with little free time left for play.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that my son is now reading short books, completing addition and subtraction on his own, and improving his handwriting 100%. I think it is FANTASTIC! I love that he shows interest in chapter books and in drawing pictures and telling the stories that go with his art. But, I am sad he doesn’t get enough time for doing more interacting with his peers in a more play-based environment. I want him to have a childhood like I did!
Teachers are stuck in a hard place.
Their jobs are evaluated on the results of standardized tests and whether or not their students meet certain standards. They have to trade play based learning and free play for more desk and classroom instruction. I commend our teachers because they are doing an excellent job of trying to integrate more innovative and play-based instruction while trying to ensure that our kids are meeting the state and federal government standards for education, something the teachers can not control. The US education system could take some cues from Finland, where they reformed education to focus on play based learning, longer recess, shorter classroom instruction, and no standardized testing. The result? Finland is one of the highest performing countries in the Program for International Student Assessment, the program that evaluates how each country’s students rank against one another.
Children need time to be kids.
They need fresh air, scraped knees, the opportunity to fail and explore and really learn about the world around them. I see it every time my son goes to an after school activity. All of the kids are hyper, bouncing off the walls, and wanting to talk and interact with one another. It’s not because they want to be disruptive; it’s because they are sitting still all day long at school, and need to move more, expand their imaginations, and be children.
Fortunately, over time, my son has finally adapted to his new role in Kindergarten and we are incredibly proud of his progress. He now comes home excited to tell me about what he has learned and that he had a good day. Thanks to his amazing teacher, her assistant, and the administrators at his school, he is now meeting expectations of his kindergarten classroom and he is doing well. (knock on wood!) BUT, (and this is a big BUT) at what cost? I pray and hope that he continues to grow intellectually, but I want him to grow in character, empathy, and become a great person. All of these things aren’t learned in a classroom. They are learned through the experience of being a child … through play.
It’s up to us as parents to say ‘no’ to academic Kindergarten. Until we consistently and uniformly demand and choose play-based education (as in Waldorf School of New Orleans, for example), schools will continue undermining healthy and happy child development..