Kindergarten: It DOES have a purpose

This semester, I’ve been teaching a university level class in human growth and development to a bright bunch of high school students. One class requirement was to observe a child between the ages of 1 and 6 and report how that child’s behavior was reflected in the theories we were studying in class. First, my students were fascinated that they did see behaviors in their subjects that could be described and explained by theory. As one student said, “I never realized that what we learned in class had any application to the real world.” Second, all the students were astounded by how much the little children interacted with the world around them and how much the children were learning from that interaction. This observation sparked a long discussion among the students about what they remembered from their first years in school. None of my students remembered any formal instruction, but all remembered a great deal about their interaction with other students in play.

kindergarten graphic

Maria Montessori has been quoted as saying, “Play is children’s work” and certainly the schools that are based on her work believe that to be so. The idea is that if children engage with their world, they will learn a great deal about how the world works. Additionally, they will develop interests in areas that they might not have otherwise known about. This is not an endorsement for these schools, but simply pointing out that some experts do believe in play as a part of early education.

A recent article by Christopher Brown, who describes himself as a former kindergarten teacher and present educational researcher, considers the notion of what place kindergarten should have in children’s lives.   To begin with, you should be astounded that he was a kindergarten teacher, as the number of men teaching at that academic level is extremely small. I am also astounded that he is an educational researcher who actually taught – most university professors of education have almost no actual classroom experience at the primary or secondary level (but that is another matter altogether).

Dr. Brown’s concern is that today’s kindergarten looks much more like first or even second grade and less like a the playspace that he believes that it should be. Little children need time to assimilate what they are learning and to have the opportunity to take academic risks which will enable them to learn to love learning. What Brown sees are programs which are teacher-led and highly structured in an attempt to begin the learning process as early as possible. Recess is an afterthought as it is considered a waste of instructional time.

This structured approach to kindergarten is based on a belief that learning begins with the teacher and that the best way learning takes place is by direct instruction. No question that this method can work well with adults and, to some extent, with older children. But kindergarteners learn best by exploring their world and by figuring out how each new experience fits into what they already know. This is the process of assimilation and accommodation that was described by Piaget years ago.

This structured approach sets many children up for failure right at the beginning of school and makes school an adversarial situation. This can lead to academic stress which in all of its forms, is a major issue in middle and high school. Many of the schools I work with are interested in developing ways to help their students learn to manage their stress. The highly structured and teacher-led kindergarten are starting a pattern of stress that is only going to create more problems for students as they go through school.

Add to that a consideration of how boys react to this, because, as we know, our sons are the ones who are slower to develop verbal skills as well as being less likely to be able to control their behavior. A highly structured classroom is not a place where a young boy is going to be able to learn. Boys are inquisitive and want to put their hands on things. They learn best by engaging with the lesson and figuring out how everything works. A lesson which requires all students to do the same thing is only going to frustrate a young boy. When that happens, you and I know the next step, the boy is going to be identified as a problem and labeled as having learning issues.

I was at a boys’ school some years ago watching the 2nd grade write essays about the monsters they had been learning how to draw on their tablets. It was astounding to see these boys write several paragraphs about their monster’s life, which was remarkably like their own. In the kindergarten class in this school, the computer was a place where the boys could play educational games involving shooting down objects that began with a particular letter accompanied by hoots of laughter the faster they got at the skill. The kindergarten class did spend a little time working at their desks, but not for long and not everyone doing the same task. After a child had worked on a task for ten or fifteen minutes, he could go over to the play area and engage with toys or do dramatic play. Remember, by the time these boys get to 2nd grade, they are writing. The stories they were writing were not complicated, but each child was eager to write his story because he saw school as an exciting place where his interests were part of the learning process.

We need to let all children play in school, and at every level. My high school students were required to watch the movie Monsters, Inc. and apply the developmental theories for children ages one to six that we learned in class to the child in the movie. The students were fascinated by this open-ended assignment as it allowed them to use their knowledge in a more practical and inventive way. Does your child’s school have such an approach to learning?

My students will tell you that my classes are interesting and demanding. It is that balance that makes for good learning. Focusing in kindergarten on demanding only is going to convince a lot of children that school is not for them. At the very least, help your son at home by encouraging him to engage in his world through active play.