I’ve been thinking about what might be considered the ‘new’ American kindergarten experience after watching the videos in class on Tuesday depicting two very different classrooms. With an emphasis on standards, kindergarten resembles what first grade did years ago. Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? published in the Journal AERA Open states that kindergarten classrooms have become increasingly like first grade classrooms. Where five and six year olds once spent their time being active, learning through play, and practicing basic skills like letter recognition, they are now required to sit and do more rigorous academic work. Gone are extended periods of outdoor recess and play; even the arts, music, and science have taken a hit. Teachers are spending less time with science topics like dinosaurs and outer space, which kids tend to love. There are also increased expectations of children entering kindergarten. Many children enter kindergarten able to read and recognize letters. Centers, free play, and imaginative play have been greatly reduced. One teacher remarked in Why Kindergarten is the New First Grade that “kindergarteners don’t do dramatic play anymore.” Am I the only person who remembers the joy of the sand table or the fun had in the home living center?
Children need a kindergarten experience that supports the way that they learn best-through play. Early childhood education can be academic, but it needs to support where children are developmentally. Sonja Santelises from the Education Trust says, “there are classrooms that are very hands-on and allow kids to explore and also have terrific focus on math and are language-rich. Those things don’t need to be at odds at all.”
Here are three interesting tidbits directly from the study at the University of Virginia that I think highlight some of the key changes in early childhood education:
- Teachers in 2010 were also significantly more likely to think students should leave kindergarten knowing how to read. In 1998, 31 percent of teachers believed their students should learn to read in kindergarten while in 2010, that figure jumped to 80 percent.
- Researchers found that while academic instruction increased, time spent teaching arts substantially decreased. Between 1998 and 2010, the number of teachers reporting daily music instruction decreased by 18 percentage points and daily art instruction decreased by 16 percentage points. In a similar vein, the number of teachers who spent at least one hour per day on child-selected activities and the likelihood that classrooms have discovery or play areas, such as a sand table, science area, or art area, fell by 14 percentage points and over 20 percentage points, respectively.
- Teachers were 22 percentage points more likely to indicate that evaluating students in relation to local and state standards was very important or essential. Notably, in 1998, teachers were not asked how frequently they used standardized tests to assess student progress while teachers in 2010 were.
Since it’s almost the end of the school year, parent/teacher conferences are in full swing. I’ll admit that I think my son’s kindergarten teacher is wonderful and she has been teaching for long enough to see the kindergarten pendulum swing. We discussed my son’s progress and eventually meandered onto the subject of curriculum and how it has changed over the years. The elementary school that my boys attend recently got a new principal. She came from another school in North Carolina and when she came to my son’s classroom, was surprised that it has a home living center. She said that the school she had come from didn’t have any dramatic play or centers in the kindergarten. My son’s teacher described a large truck coming and collecting all of the “play things” from the various classrooms. My poor heart! My child’s teacher kindly said that she would be keeping her home living center-thank you very much.
Knowing that kindergarten has dramatically shifted towards more rigor in the last ten years makes me worry about what impact it will have on a future of young learners. Kindergarten feels like a time to enjoy school-to play and grow. Young children can and should be learning, but we need to be mindful of the way that they are learning. Who knows where kindergarten will end up in the next ten years, but let’s hope that it involves lots of time with hands on learning and play.