In a kindergarten classroom in Texas, 22 children spend their day participating in more than 10 different teacher-led activities in seven hours. They write in journals, do math, practice spelling and phonics, learn to read, and more. They are just 5 years old.
Across the country, kindergartners are being told what to do and how to do it, every single step along the way, all day long. They play less and study more than they did 20 years ago. This is what kindergarten has become, and it’s not a good thing.
Besides diminishing children’s sense of wonder and their ability to see themselves as learners, this constant push for children to learn academics through routinized activities can negatively impact their learning in elementary school and even through high school.
So why is this happening, and what can we do to make kindergarten an engaging place for learning again?
During the past few years, I and members of my research team have been interviewing education stakeholders: kindergarteners, their families, teachers, school administrators, university educators and researchers, policy analysts, policymakers and lobbyists. We’ve done our research in Texas, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., and our goal is to make sense of these changes and how they might alter kindergarten so that it reflects their understanding what really should happen in kindergarten classrooms.
We found that almost everyone we talked to is worried about what kindergarten has become. A principal in Texas told us: “We’re killing their joy for school in kindergarten. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What are we setting children up for later?’ ”
To make kindergarten more engaging for children, these stakeholders offered a range of suggestions including “more recess,” “more play, more conversation with and among the kids so that teachers build children’s creativity, sense of wonder, their inquiry and interest, and their engagement in learning for themselves,” “less testing,” and ensuring that “kindergarten should never be like first grade. That doesn’t make any sense.”
While these stakeholders want change, they also know how important having a good year in kindergarten is for children’s success in school.
How can we help kindergarteners be little and successful?
To make kindergarten engaging again requires reform of not only the kindergarten classroom but also of how we think about kindergarten itself.
The stakeholders in our study want policymakers and school administrators to put in place reforms that provide more time across the day for social and emotional learning and for the children to have more opportunities to play and interact with one another.
They also want to improve teacher training so that teachers have the professional knowledge to provide all kindergarteners with learning experiences that support their cognitive, emotional, physical and social learning while increasing their academic achievement.
In terms of state and national policy change, they want new content and program standards to be developed and implemented across the entire K-12 education system. The standards should emphasize developing the whole child while limiting the impact of standardized testing on children, teachers and their schools.
Based on our conversations, it would benefit everyone if we all stop thinking that being ready for kindergarten and school success means children must acquire specific academic skills and knowledge.
Instead, we should think about how families, teachers and schools can work together with students to create an engaging learning environment that helps all children become — and see themselves as — competent, life-long learners.
Christopher Brown is a professor of early childhood education in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. He is a faculty fellow with the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis and a faculty fellow of the Center for Health and Social Policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
A version of this op-ed appeared in Psychology Today, Austin American Statesman, San Antonio Express News and the Houston Chronicle.