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Kindergarten is the New First Grade

Kindergarten is the New First Grade

My strongest memory of Kindergarten is of standing in front of an easel, a smock over my torso, holding a palette of paint. I don’t remember what I was painting, but I remember concentrating hard on whatever it was.

I have an easel in my classroom, but I use it to display work my Kindergarten students have completed, not for any actual painting. My students are too busy working in literacy centers and learning to write sentences to paint.

The pressure is on. I am expected to have my Kindergarteners reading at a Level 6 text (previously a level reserved for the middle of first grade) by June, preferably higher, if I can manage it–to compensate for next year’s summer slide.

For some of my students, this is not a real challenge. They came to Kindergarten from preschools which are the new Kindergarten. They learned to read, count, and write, and they’re raring to go. For some of my students, however, this is a huge challenge. They either didn’t attend preschool or they went to a preschool which encouraged play and exploration, not letters, sight words, and numbers. They are starting from scratch, and while that may have been what was naturally expected a few decades ago, it isn’t anymore.

Since they are so busy learning all these skills they need to be “College and Career Ready,” not only do they not have time to paint, they don’t have time to play.

There’s no time to play in housekeeping, do fun art projects, or use a puppet theatre to make up stories. There’s no time to learn how to play together, to share, to create together. Social skills practice just needs to be built into their literacy and math centers and honed during a brief 35-minute recess.

Creative play can provide children with a chance to practice leadership skills, learn how to compromise, develop leadership skills, and build problem solving skills. Working at a literacy center just doesn’t provide these same opportunities, and those opportunities are incredibly important.

I understand the pressure put on school systems around the country to increase student scores in reading and math. We are behind most First World countries in these areas. That pressure trickles from boards to administrators and down to staff before landing on students.

The problem is, my students are five and six years old. I have students who turned five the week before they began Kindergarten. Developmentally, these students are simply not ready to take on the skills being asked of them. Yet, every day, I have to push them, drill them with letters and sight words and ask them to count groups of objects displayed in a variety of ways. What they really want to do is play.

They are drawn to the housekeeping corner I rarely have them use and the easel which they know is a tool for painting. They want to run around the room and figure out the best way to make friends with their classmates. They want to socialize, to draw pictures, and to dance and sing. And there is a little time for that. But it is a little time.

There’s also the matter of retention. In the county in which I work, it is almost unheard of for a child to be retained in any grade of elementary school, even if, academically, they are more than a year behind. They are sent on to the next grade, regardless, and it is the next teacher’s job to try to catch them up.

This is not a service to children. Many of them have begun school at age five when they should have started at age six. If the requirements of Kindergarten are going to more closely resemble the development of an older child, perhaps we as a nation need to rethink the age at which kids begin school.

Boards and administrators need to take a good look at our littlest learners and recognize that Kindergarten needs to be about learning to be at school, learning to get along with others, and learning about the world around them. Kindergarten needs to be about playing, with less of a focus on meeting benchmarks. Set those for later, more appropriate times.

The reading and counting will come later. When they are ready for it. And it shouldn’t be a moment before.

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