I recently shared some of my research on how kindergarten has changed — namely, with more academics and less play. It generated a lot of interest, and most either thought my work was spot on or that I didn’t understand how important it is for children to learn academics early so they can succeed in and compete with the rest of the world.
While this debate about over play versus academics in kindergarten has been going on for decades, the drive towards more academics has not let up. Much of this is tied to the belief that academic performance should be the sole measure of school and teacher effectiveness. So for the past 35 years, policymakers have focused on improving children’s performance by demanding they be taught more academic content and take more tests to monitor their achievement.
While such reforms sound logical, my research around kindergarten is beginning to show that it not only misses the point in terms of what works but also fails to take into account what kindergarteners, parents, school personnel, policymakers, and researchers want.
Pressure on students and teachers alike
Of those whom I’ve talked to about kindergarten, which includes about 200 different stakeholders across the US, all, including the kindergarteners themselves, know children need to learn academics to do well in school and in life.
However, most feel there is too much academic pressure on children and teachers. As one parent of a kindergartener told me, “I’m worried that my son is going to hit a point where he doesn’t like learning in school because he thinks learning is humiliation and frustration, and discouragement and anger rather than curiosity and encouragement, and fun and discovery. I think that a lot of the policymakers don’t care. They think there are kids that are disposable.”
While the policymakers I’ve talked to seem to care about children, they often don’t know what’s going on in kindergartens or are not focused on them as part of efforts to fix public schools.
For example, a legislator in Texas told me, “There are all these groups that exist for school choice, school finance, or teacher protections, but where is the group that is literally just working on changing what’s taking place in the classroom on a daily basis? Where’s a group that’s advocating for change in the classroom? And without that, without a strategy, nothing is going to happen.”
So how can we make kindergarten great again?
First, I think it is important to note that research has consistently shown that what happens in kindergarten matters. Children who leave kindergarten lagging their peers academically and socially have a difficult time catching up, so creating kindergarten classrooms that support the learning and development of all children is essential.
Second, there’s no silver bullet or single best strategy for teaching young children. Through other research I’ve conducted, I’ve found that the “right” instructional strategy is dependent upon the cultural, developmental, and linguistic talents of the children in the classroom, the content the teacher needs to cover, and the context of the classroom at that time. This means we need to have a flexible mindset when it comes to thinking about how to make kindergarten great.
Third, my research shows that effective teachers offer a range of learning experiences to children — both academic and play-based — that address all of their developmental domains (cognitive, physical, social/emotional) as well as issues that are central to their lives. Learning is a whole-body experience for children, and when teachers address the “whole child” in their teaching of academic content, children learn more.
Such teachers also continuously push children forward in their learning, meaning they don’t expect mastery before moving on to the next topic or skill, and they consistently monitor the growth and development of the children in their classrooms.
Fourth, I think no kindergartener or their family should ever feel disposable. One way to prevent that from happening is through promoting an education system that stops assuming something is missing in children, and instead, builds on what children bring to the classroom as well as their innate desire to learn.
As another parent told me, “The one thing I want my children to learn in kindergarten, more than anything else is to love school. To know school’s fun, school’s safe, school makes you feel good.” While there is no standardised test for having fun or learning to love school, if you talk to kindergarteners, they will tell whether or not their school is working. For example, several of the kindergarteners I talked with told me they liked their kindergarten teacher “because she teaches us. She helps us learn.”
A sign of bad things to come
Finally, I think we need to recognise that what’s happening in kindergarten is a canary in the coal mine for the entire education system. Several of the kindergarten teachers I talked with across the US told they feel they have no choice but to push academics because if they don’t the children will fall further behind.
As one teacher in West Virginia told me, “Yes, kindergarteners are expected to do a lot, but what they’re expected to do when they get to first grade is unreal.”
If we want schools to engage in a more balanced approach to teaching that ensures all children thrive, we also need to consider what we are doing to let those who have power over public schools know we care about what is happening in kindergarten.
We also need to look beyond this issue of academics versus play and not only think about children’s social, emotional, and physical growth but also whether classroom teachers and school administrators understand the significance of the early years and the impact of their beliefs on children’s performance in school. Finally, we need to ask whether we are supporting them so that they have the tools, training, and resources needed to make kindergarten even better.