In some schools these days, kindergarten ends with a graduation complete with mortar boards and tassels balanced on small heads. As one who attended this tiny-tot ceremony some years ago in Chesterbrook, PA, my bemused skepticism was rapidly transformed into awe. During the program, each of the children stood up, came front and center and read a story he or she had written. Did you get that? Read! Written! (Well — OK — printed.) Every one of them only five years old. I was floored.
When I went to school in the old days, kindergarten was the first time away from our mothers for most of us. Today, the majority of kindergartners have already experienced one or more years of preschool. They have moved beyond the first steps of learning in a social setting. Sharing their toys, lining up for activities, taking turns, paying attention to the teacher are old hat for these kids.. So, what’s left for them to do in kindergarten? Plenty, I found out. What used to be standard first grade fare has been pushed back to the starting line. The children’s stories at the graduation ranged from “My trip to the Phillies game” to “Why I like pizza” to “My grandma.” Now that’s a child after my own heart. Contrary to common lore that television had robbed us of our time and desire to read, these children were already launched on a lifetime romance with the written word.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This provocative statement can have many interpretations, but for our kindergartners the best meaning is the most direct. The sooner they learn to read and write, the sooner they start their love affair with language and books. And their world will have no limits.
Oh, before we left the graduation, each child also received a certificate for the number of library books read that year. The awards were given out in ascending order, and as the suspense mounted, the numbers rose from single digits to the grand prize winner. The tiniest girl in the class had read 34 books. Was this class and this teacher an exception? Perhaps. But, further digging revealed that the curriculum for public schools today may indeed start some degree of reading, printing and math before first grade. The Atlantic City schools and several surrounding suburban communities teach the basic three Rs in kindergarten. This is not necessarily true throughout the country where individual school districts determine curriculum.
There are nay-sayers who believe that an important stage of childhood is being lost in this rush to formal learning. They argue that socialization skills may be more important to the 5 year old than formal cognitive skills. They stress the value of reading readiness before actually tackling the books. However, in this era of the two-paycheck family and the single parent family, the years of preschool have become the prime setting for learning to live with other children. To respect their needs and rights of others as well as one’s own. And to interact positively while working on joint projects. Play is serious business in preschool as in adult life later on. Three and four year olds learn the rules and how to cope with success and failure. Some, of course, learn these valuable lessons better than others.
Kindergarten today builds on the preschool foundation. Socialization skills continue to be developed throughout all the elementary grades. But the emphasis has moved to introducing formal learning one year earlier. Five-year-olds, who have been watching television since infancy and using computers before they are two years old, appear to be ready to join the educational big leagues earlier than their parents and grandparents. Many two and three year olds learn the alphabet from their hand-held iPads. Have you noticed in restaurants that they sit quietly at family dinners engrossed in games until the food arrives? They may not be part of conversation with the adults, but everyone appears to be enjoying their night out. Let’s hope the kids spend time sharing with their parents and relatives in other settings.
It is important to realize that every American child does not go to preschool. There are millions of 3 and 4 year olds at home with their mothers. “Let the Kids Learn Through Play” ran in the New York Times Review on May l7, 2015. Letters in response included one from Vivian Gussin Paley who was a kindergarten teacher and preschool teacher for forty years. She wrote, “More than 60 years have passed since my generation of teachers was introduced to the idea that play is the work of children. During my 40 years as a teacher, the legitimacy of make-believe as a learning tool held fast. It is the way children learn best, inventing their characters and plots, discovering ever more mature language, logic and social awareness.” She continued, “Suddenly, the curriculum imposed upon our children has changed; classroom areas with dolls and blocks are being closed down in favor of more workbooks and tables. Four and five year olds are being asked to act like first and second graders.” In conclusion, she writes, “The genius of play, at its most innovative and dramatic stage, is being skipped over in favor of programmed lessons meant for older students. How sad for our children.”
Will we eventually see a rise in learning levels and test scores in later grades? Will there be a positive lasting effect into high school and will it help cut the dropout rate? Objective measures and statistical analyses can certainly be used to answer those important questions. There have been conflicting conclusions about the lasting results of Head Start over the years. However, there is complete agreement that the earlier children are exposed to books in their home, the better to develop their skills. Kindergarten teachers in many schools now have assumed the role of bedtime reading by parents from favorite books And this interested observer can report that one class of five-year-old kindergarten graduates were ready and rarin’ to go into the world of words and books. Could there be a better destination?