It used to be so simple: five-year-olds went to kindergarten and six-year-olds went to first grade. But what was once a natural course of events has recently become a difficult decision for many parents. Why? Because kindergarten ain't what it used to be.
In the Beginning...
Kindergarten was originally conceived in the 1800s by German philosopher and school teacher Friedrich Froebel. He thought of it literally as a "child's garden" -- a place to fill with plants and flowers and nurture children's curiosity. It was not meant to be a functional classroom.
Vivian Paley, author and award-winning early childhood educator, believes that the goal of this first school year is to develop the social and imaginative strengths of children, and to build confidence. She has this message for kindergarten teachers, "Know your subject: Play."
Straying from its Roots
Froebel would be shocked by the latest trend in kindergarten education -- a trend that's turning kindergartens away from their roots and into "mini" or "trickle-down" first grades. In these classrooms, five-year-olds are writing sentences, identifying phonetic sounds, making books, and learning the state capitals.
David Ruenzel, the author of a Teacher Magazine article on the subject, suggests this reason for the trend: "Parents whose children have long been in day care and preschool often perceive a half-day centered around play as a step backward. They want beginning reading and writing -- not more play." Other experts think that schools are stressing academics in kindergarten in response to a public demand for higher standardized test scores.
Paley notes that with this push for early academics, we are beginning to hear about kindergartners who are "deficient" in various abilities or "slow learners," when, in fact, they may be well within their appropriate developmental stage.
Parents who do not want to see their children unfairly labeled may now be waiting until their kids are six to enroll them in kindergarten. Lorrie Shepard, Professor of Education at the University of Colorado, believes these parents are acting in the best interest of their children. But, she says, this practice is changing the balance in many kindergarten programs, and actually perpetuating the trend toward academics.
In regard to the "trickle-down first grade" trend, the National Association for the Education of Young Children holds this commonsense position: The pressure should not be on the child to meet a school's expectations. Kindergarten and first-grade programs should be ready to meet the developmentally diverse needs and abilities of all children. If this is not the case in your school, bring up the issue at the next local parents' group or PTA meeting.