How much should a kindergartener know? And what price?
Many of us recall the stories of kindergarten — drawing and pasting our masterpieces, dancing the hokey pokey, playing Duck, Duck, Goose, making shapes in sandbox, singing, clapping and playing make believe were some of the headliners. Yet with our own kindergarten children, we don’t often see this.
Peggy Orenstein of the New York Times observes that instead of digging in sandboxes, today’s kindergartners prepare for a life of multiple-choice boxes by plowing through standardized tests, and various other early-literacy measures. And they get homework.
Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, released a report called “Crisis in the Kindergarten” that states that all the testing they are exposed to neither predicts nor improves their educational outcomes. More disturbing is that these and other academic demands (like assigning homework) is forcing out playtime, the one true thing vital to future success. Play — especially the let’s-pretend kind — is how kids develop higher-level thinking, fine-tune their language and social skills, and cultivate empathy. Orenstein shares that a survey on kindergartners found that they spent two to three hours a day being instructed and tested in reading and math. They spent less than 30 minutes playing.
Opponents of this “kindergarten cram,” say that accelerating the kindergarten classroom is unnecessary because most early advantage fades away by the fourth grade. Although it may make us happy when our child can read at 4, pushing at-risk kids too soon may backfire. Not all children are exposed to academic opportunities equally. Studies showed that later on, these children exposed to the drill and kill method were more likely to exhibit emotional problems and ended up spending more time in special education or remedial courses.
An additional dilemma is faced by parents who enroll their child in a private kindergarten that allows him or her to do more play-based learning. A few years later, when they find that they can’t afford a private elementary school, their child may be deemed “behind” once he or she enters the public school system.
Many think tank comments emphasize that the viability of our country rests on its ability to regain its ability to imagine — an “imagination economy” if you will. Innovation, discovery and problem solving. For this to happen, qualities like flexibility, creativity, vision — and playfulness — must be cultivated. Yet many parents are determined to search for the holy grail — akin to a Disney fast pass — that will enable their child to run faster, jump higher and process sooner.
Laura Roe Stevens in her piece “No Pain no gain: Are kindergartners pushed too hard?” interviews Rick Ackerly, a Harvard educated headmaster. He believes that with the new motto — how can we do it faster? — America is hurting its children by putting too much academic pressure on them in their early years. He shares that “when kids play, they are problem-solving all the time, and that play strengthens the ability to solve algebra problems later. It engages the whole organism.”
Ackerly and others believe that efforts to achieve high standardized-test scores cause educators to miss opportunities to engage a child’s curiosity. Not only are many kindergartners not allowed daily recess in the United States anymore, but they also are given so much homework that they rarely have time to play at home, either.
In contrast to these views, Lisa Guernsey, in her piece “Two Antidotes to Kindergarten Cram” says that research does in fact show the benefits of introducing academic concepts related to literacy, science and math skills in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms. Kindergartens that fail to support these developing skills can be just as harmful — particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who do not have access to a lot of books or curiosity-provoking conversation at home. Intentional, purposeful and thoughtful teaching — guiding and prompting questions — is critical.
Somewhere in between, there is good news. There is a growing movement that asks for both the preservation of playtime and child-centered exploration and recognizes the need for intentional teaching.
To do this, kindergarten teachers need to be given some flexibility in how and what they teach. Well-designed, developmentally appropriate curricula are associated with strong early childhood programs and can be an asset to teachers in providing a framework for how to approach their classrooms. Tools of the Mind (toolsofthemind.org), a research-based early childhood program that builds strong foundations for school success by promoting intentional and self-regulated learning in preschool/kindergarten, recommends that teachers encourage children to think and reflect by asking them questions like, “I wonder how many blocks it would take to cover this rug?” and giving them time to answer. It brings back the important point that play builds self-regulation skills and urges teachers to make sure that children have ample opportunity, materials and encouragement to engage in imaginative play.
Assessments are important — not standardized tests, but developmentally appropriate assessments based on yearlong observations of how children are learning and where they are having trouble. As far as homework, all children need to learn about their world. A homework assignment for a kindergartner should take about 10-15 minutes and should help reinforce that learning happens at home. It also helps establish routines and habits while the work is still considered fun. And above all, reading storybooks together every night while providing that rich emergent literacy needed for the next step, it also forges the parent- child bond as the struggle for academic excellence begins.
So the question remains how do we go about changing important ideas into policy? Persisting achievement gaps across America need to be closed in order for all of our children to succeed. All children need to arrive at school with some amount of literacy skills (exposure to books and stories, drawing and conversation). This preliminary requirement obviously puts the onus on the family. Once enrolled in school, children should be provided with language-rich, high-quality environments that encourage creativity and flexibility.
So while the debate about the kindergarten cram continues, parents who want to ensure that their kids have more imaginative play time need to make sure it is just that — free from script. Playtime should be unencumbered and opened ended. Whether it is kindergarten or middle school, kids don’t play the way they used to. Play has become very scripted — either by video games or television, or by the participation in programmed events, so much so that many children do not know what to do without some form of entertainment. The concept of letting kids “play outside” has been affected by changing neighborhoods, safety issues, parental work routines and personal values.
This change in routine heralded a medical report in 2010 that stated that for the first time in several decades, rickets — the condition that causes bone deformities and stunted growth caused by lack of vitamin D and the inability to absorb calcium — had made a comeback. Why? The report said in addition to changing diets lacking vitamin D, children were spending more time indoors on electronic devices rather than previous generations who spent time playing outside with their friends where you could get vitamin D from the sun.
My most favorite place to play, have my own kids play, and to see other kids play is the beach. It’s free, and it’s ours early in the morning or a few hours before sunset. With the sand, the waves and all the interesting things that make their way onto and over the beach, a child’s imagination can run wild.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.