By Lynne Dorfman
Are the differences between kindergarten and first grade becoming barely noticeable? What is the point of the standardized tests in literacy and math for these five-year olds? When we walk into kindergarten classes today, we notice they have become very academic in focus – periods for reading instruction (sometimes including a phonics program like Fundations and guided reading), a math program (part of a scripted program purchased to spiral K-5), science, and social studies – often, at the expense of time for play.
Here is a snapshot from the late 1950s:
Miss Clark gathers the students on the rug for storytime. She has read The Little House and A Fly Went By. A chorus of hands wave in the air to request yet another favorite, The Cat in the Hat. Miss Clark laughs. “We’ll save that for the end of the morning.” Then students get to choose. There’s a kitchen for pretend cooking with a table for pretend eating that includes a tea set. So many kids scramble for the blocks. They are the builders and designers, often working together to create tall towers. Some kids “pretend” read to each other in the book corner. I have memorized many of the stories because my mom and I read together every night, so I pass the book corner and move to the far left corner of the room. There is a table with play dough and another table with puppets and stuffed animals. Oh, there are plenty of dolls, too (not my favorite unless she’s a Raggedy Ann). My friends like to put on a show. Now I am in my element. I am an artist, so my favorite area (they were not called “stations” in those days) is to grab a spot by one of the eight easels and paint a beautiful picture. I can’t always get to one in time, so I sometimes have to choose something else. Miss Clark says we have to take turns. When I play with the kids who are building blocks, they let me place some blocks on their skyscraper. Of course, we have a short nap time after milk and cookies. Miss Clark tells us a wonderful story as we lie, quiet and still, on our roll-out mats. We giggle when she changes her voice to sound like the big, bad wolf or one of the three little pigs. The time goes quickly each morning. Then we have time to recite nursery rhymes and delight in their rhymes. We sing songs or have “Show and Tell.” Sometimes, we have time for one more read aloud. We only have half-day kindergarten, so Mom is there at noon to pick me up. Every day is a good day.
Teacher-driven instruction in kindergarten is on the rise with a substantial increase in the time spent on assessment. The time for artwork, music, dance, and child-centered activities (stations) has declined sharply – and with it, the time for creative play. How important is play? Is there any research that shows a significant difference between those students who are taught to read in kindergarten and those students who learn to read in first grade? What are the long-term effects? Do any exist?
Perhaps, we should ask a different question. What are our kindergarten students missing that they may not receive in later grades? With our heightened focus on literacy, it is important to make sure there is still time for play. With play, our students develop their social skills, their language skills, and their emotional stability. Child-directed play gives students opportunities to problem solve and learn new things from their peers.
So, perhaps we should look to our Finnish friends who let their students focus on play in nursery school and kindergarten and yet go on to excel in reading anyway. Perhaps American schools can provide the just-right balance so that our students can still learn with joy. Many of our students are ready to read and write stories during their kindergarten year. Do we have to have a publishers’ program and script to accomplish this end, or can we allow all the rich learning experiences kindergarten teachers provide for their students to get the job done effectively and joyfully? If we want this balance of play and literacy learning, we could make sure we place opportunities to socialize and play within every hour in our full-day kindergarten programs.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do believe there is magic in the kindergarten year. Kindergarten does not have to look like first grade. It has to look like kindergarten!