Ana Veciana-Suarez: Let’s not forget the play part of kindergarten

05/23/2014 12:00 AM

05/21/2014 2:28 PM

My eldest granddaughters, identical twins, are graduating from kindergarten in a few days. Just 6 years old, they already read chapter books, as do most of their classmates. I don’t think I accomplished that until second grade.

This is as much a boast — watch me puff up with pride here — as it is a way of recognizing that kindergarten sure has changed. Long gone are the days of finger-painting, of learning those incredibly difficult skills of sharing and sitting still. In the digital era, where the emphasis is on academics and technology, our 5-year-olds are expected to have all those social skills and study habits well before they start their first year of formal school.

Today’s version of kindergarten is where you prepare for life, for college, for your career. I’m not exaggerating. The twins had a career day this week. I suspect they want to be professional princesses, à la Disney.

Just a generation ago, the twins’ father was not assigned the kind of daily homework that is common now. When he was their age, he could not add or subtract, though I think he might have been able to sound out a few words. He had not a fraction of the science knowledge his daughters now possess, either.

The boy wasn’t a slacker. Nor was I an inattentive mother, though I must confess that the early child-rearing years are something of a blessed blur. But the expectations were different then. When he was 6, my son could tie his sneakers all by himself, a lost art in the age of Velcro, and he could tell time on an analog clock — skills that now seem quaint.

In my day, a time where families had only one phone and one TV (with rabbit ears and four stations max), kindergarten wasn’t even mandatory. Those who attended went for a half day. Many mothers didn’t work. And 5-year-olds did not know their way around an iPad better than their grandparents, because there weren’t any such devices.

This was the kind of kindergarten setting that inspired the 1986 international bestseller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, one of those books that joyfully captures the valuable lessons learned early in life: Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

If written today, Robert Fulghum’s book would no doubt be different. Not bad, mind you, just different, a reflection of a changed world where standardized testing rules, where there’s a lot more information to cram into a school year, and where play is a tightly choreographed indoor sport instead of a free-for-all in the backyard.

I’m a vehement proponent of discipline and academics, but I find myself wondering whether our good intentions haven’t gone awry. Last month, a school in Elwood, N.Y., axed its annual kindergarten play for fear that the tradition was taking time away from “preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills.” Does the decision sound as ridiculous to you as it does to me?

Another of my granddaughters will begin kindergarten this fall. Her mother, my daughter, works with her daily on word families and number recognition. The pressure is high and the stakes . . . well, the stakes seem to grow exponentially every year.

Still, I hope that along with math problems and sentence writing she’s given plenty of time to master the serious subjects of childhood. Skipping rope. Climbing trees. Playing tag. Goofing off. You know, the kind of activities that inspire dreams.

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