Paradise Lost

By David Ruenzel — May 01, 1996 29 min read
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For most adults, their kindergarten experience is a vague dream from which emerge singular details of great clarity. People will tell you they can’t remember anything, and the next moment they’re inspired poets, telling you of glass milk bottles jingling notes in the milkman’s crate, or of the cool thinness of the vinyl mats they floated on during nap time, or of the huge afternoon sun carving out pockets of the room.

But my own remembrances of kindergarten are far less lyrical, for I was the single member of the kindergarten class of 1960 determined unfit for the rigors of 1st grade. I was what they call “retained,” forced to do another year of kindergarten. This was a terrible blow to my parents, and therefore a terrible blow to me, and even now, so many years later, I am still indignant at having been assessed such an early failure. How, after all, could one fail kindergarten? How could adults have the arrogance to so judge a mere child? How could the “children’s garden"--where a century ago children were still analogized as “seeds” and the teachers as the “guardians of God’s gift"--be such fallow ground?

Of course, school officials didn’t use the word “failure” when discussing my case. They used the word “immature"--I remember my parents whispering this word back and forth over the dinner table--as if I only needed some more ripening in the kindergarten’s greenhouse climate. But as a 5-year-old, I felt, on some ghastly intuitive level, that “immaturity” was a euphemism for failure, for some kind of gross inadequacy that would follow me through the years.

Just what my inadequacy was I did not know; I was, of course, lacking in that kind of self-awareness. But I think the news of my retention surprised me as much as it hurt because I was unaware of having a particularly difficult year or of causing difficulty. I thought of myself as one of the children--no more and no less. Like them, I built castles with the large wooden blocks, helped dispense snacks, and happily gathered on the floor around our gray-haired teacher, who sang to us while she played the piano. Only once do I remember trouble. I somehow disappeared into a grove of trees during recess and was later discovered missing from class. A search was mounted, and I was eventually found bouncing on a low branch and escorted from the woods by scolding adults. It was a bit like being hauled away from the scene of a crime.

In later years, I learned from my parents that my presumed inadequacy was social in nature; school officials had, in fact, deemed me “socially immature.” It wasn’t that I was a troublemaker but the very opposite: I was too quiet, too pliable, too solitary. In short, I was considered an introvert, a bit of a loner, and it seemed as if I might never be interested in “winning over friends and influencing people.” In America, gregariousness is considered a kind of gift to be honed in any number of school clubs and associations, and in the land of the ambitious extrovert, I would always be somewhat suspect.

After my first year of kindergarten, school was never again a magical or even pleasurable place for me, and at least some of my dissatisfaction I attribute to that early false start. Being held back imparted to me not just a sense of shame; it also taught me that schooling, even at its earliest stages, is about conformity as much as learning and that if I wanted to get along with my teachers and progress through the system I would have to sacrifice a good chunk of my individuality. To this very day, I carry a deep-seated bias against schools that measure children against narrow definitions of social and academic success.

Still, I rarely thought about the nature of kindergarten--what it was, what it is now, and what it could be--beyond my personal experience until my daughter came home from kindergarten early in the school year with a list of letters she was expected to learn to sound out. My daughter, one of the youngest in the class, found a few of the letters difficult. She became anxious about what she felt was her ineptitude. And when the teacher told my wife and me that this was important preparation for 1st grade, that we should work with her while we were, say, doing the dishes, I felt rising up in me my old sense of indignation. What could it matter if my daughter knew the sounds for “g” or “c” when she would certainly learn these things soon enough? (Actually, she mastered the letters within a month without any special assistance from us.) Why this imposition of basic skills upon a child so smitten with playing witch?

My daughter’s case, I was soon to find out, was far from unique. As I began to ask other parents around the country about their children’s kindergarten experiences, they told me that their 5-year-olds were already reading and writing, or at least being pushed to read and write. Sometimes, this meant work sheets and drills--the things we associate with the basics. Other times, it entailed things like invented spelling, which at one time meant the children were free to play with letters and words. Now, though, teachers talk about invented spelling as a skill, or as a task by which children acquire a skill. It is part of pre-writing, which, like pre-reading, is something done in what schools like to call “literary-rich environments.” But the very use of the prefix suggests that play is almost besides the point. “Pre-" places the emphasis on getting up to speed, on readiness for “real” writing and reading, much as “pre-algebra” suggests but a path to the “real” work of algebra.

A few parents I talked with suspected that an academic focus in kindergarten was unnecessary if not inappropriate, but they went along with what appeared to be an inexorable trend. After all, no one else seemed to be complaining. Still, acquiescing to the trend could have unhappy consequences. Not all children can sit still and remain quiet for long periods of time, something a formalized curriculum requires them to do. Inevitably, some of the parents I talked with had begun to worry about their perfectly healthy and robust youngsters. Normal immature behaviors of small, restless children--occasional temper tantrums, sulks, excitability--were seen as signs of anxiety, hyperactivity, even depression. And the children who lagged behind in reading were sometimes stigmatized as “slow learners,” making them a target for early remediation.

Talking to anxious parents of small children, you sometimes get the sense that “Head Start” is not just the name of the favored government early education program but a sort of national advertising slogan. You can get your child a head start not only in reading and writing but also in French, soccer, and computers. It is never too early for anything. You can push your children into the real world, even if they sometimes go kicking and screaming.

The more I heard, the more I became convinced that kindergarten is in real danger of becoming a miniature 1st grade, that it is losing whatever innocence it may have had. And there is no doubt that kindergarten was intended to be innocent--using that word in its broadest sense. The idea was to provide children with rich experiences while sheltering them during their most vulnerable years from the harsh realities of the adult world.

Friedrich Froebel, the German schoolteacher and philosopher who practically invented kindergarten in 1837, was a romantic and mystic who believed that “the schoolmaster’s function is to point out and make intelligible the inner spiritual nature of things.” For Froebel, the “spiritual nature of things” was bound up with nature, to which the child was instinctively drawn. This is why Froebel called it “kindergarten": He wanted it to be full of the plants and flowers in which he was convinced children took great delight.

For Froebel and the early kindergarten teachers in Europe and America, almost anything was possible if children were nurtured in nature and presented with lofty ideals. “I see mankind about to start on a new course and enter another age,” Froebel proclaimed ecstatically in 1828. Ten years later, writing about the objects he had devised for children’s play (he termed them “gifts”) in his new kindergarten, he wrote, “Each object is an America, a new world to explore.”

I may have been convinced that kindergarten had plunged from its early ideals, that it had become a much more functional place, but I could not find any “hard” studies on the issue. My evidence was only anecdotal. So I decided to ask Vivian Gussin Paley, perhaps the nation’s most famous kindergarten teacher, if my impressions were hopelessly subjective.

“Your suspicions are correct,” said the 67-year-old Paley, who this year retired after an illustrious career at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School during which she produced a number of notable books on teaching young children. “Look at the walls of almost any kindergarten in the country, and you’ll find clues as to how 1st grade material has been brought down into the kindergarten. Word families on the board, for instance--can, man, ran. What is this if not the formal teaching of reading and writing? Wherever I go, and with little self-consciousness and absolutely no sense of guilt, teachers are doing this kind of thing. It’s hardly even a subject for discussion.”

Paley told me that when she first began teaching kindergarten at a public school four decades ago, children were expected to print their first names and learn “little A, big A” during the first week of 1st grade. In fact, 1st grade teachers were annoyed if their charges arrived already knowing these things: They were too young, the 1st grade teachers said. They would hold their pencils incorrectly; they would bring with them bad habits.

The kindergarten teachers were only too happy to leave well enough alone. Paley described them as “tigers defending the territory” against any perceived intrusion of elementary school ways. They were throwbacks to the early practitioners of the kindergarten movement who, according to Nina Vandewalker, a prominent educator writing in 1907, were “exponents of a new gospel.” These idealists, Vandewalker wrote in The Kindergarten in American Education, saw “man as a creative being, and education as a process of self-explanation. They substituted activity for repression, and insisted upon the child’s right to himself and to happiness during the educational process.”

Paley, whose own writings about kindergarten above all celebrate storytelling and fantasy play, said that until the last few years the word “deficit” was never used in conjunction with kindergarten children. “The whole point of this first school year,” Paley noted, “was to build on children’s social and imaginative strengths, to give them a sense of confidence about what they could accomplish.”

I told Paley about a conversation I’d had with a kindergarten teacher who’d asked: If the children are ready for the basic skills of reading, writing, and math, why not give it to them? “First of all,” Paley responded, “many of the children are not ready. Most of this stuff plays to the top third in terms of their development of skills. There is also, particularly in boys, the unnecessary development of anxiety, a sense of not being able to handle school work. And we all know that if you start out uptight, it will be hard over the long haul to get on track.”

Paley said basic skills in kindergarten often meant that teachers were trying to get children to spell “dog” by stuttering “d-d-d-d . . . .” “Think of what we could be discussing with children instead of this grunting,” she said. “I wonder if these children think their teachers can’t spell.”

As discouraging as all of this sounded, Paley did offer an optimistic note: The subject she is most frequently asked to speak on is storytelling and play. The problem is that kindergarten teachers somehow think they can’t focus on these things. “I tell them, ‘Of course you can,’ ” Paley said, her exasperation coming across loud and clear over the phone. “No one is telling anyone that play can’t be at the center of the curriculum. And you can’t blame the parents. I have rarely met parents from any strata of society who do not want to be educated. They need to be told, ‘First things first.’ My feeling is that we in the educational establishment cannot explain properly what play is all about, what emerges out of dialogue and discourse. If we could explain ourselves properly, parents would say, ‘Well, is it really true that the Bronte sisters did nothing but play, tell each other stories, and roam the moors, and yet became great English novelists?’ ”

At the beginning of each school year in the Hazelwood School District in suburban St. Louis, parents of kindergartners receive a seven-page booklet of minimum basic skills their children are expected to learn. They include 100 items, such as “identify eight basic colors,” “use proper posture and paper position” when writing, “read and write numerals one to 10,” and “state two public buildings within their community.”

I paged through the booklet during an afternoon visit to the two kindergarten classes at the district’s Barrington Elementary School, located in a vast subdivision of recently constructed houses. “We’re the foundation to make sure the children know their basics,” said Cheryl Meyer, the teacher in one of the classes and the district’s 1993-94 Teacher of the Year. “We’re mindful that the children are going to be going to 1st grade and that we need to do things that will mesh so that it will be a smooth transition.”

I asked Meyer if students ever had to repeat kindergarten on account of their inability to master these basics. Only rarely, she said, thanks, in part, to careful screening and diagnostic testing. “We have a list of all the children which we go over: above average, average, need enrichment, remediation. If necessary, we’ll refer them to the counselor.”

As we talked, I was still looking through the lists of basic skills. I must have looked insufficiently impressed--actually I was incredulous--because Meyer noted, “We go well above and beyond that. You saw what we were doing today with sentences and punctuation.”

Indeed, I had seen it, not only in Meyer’s classroom but also when I was in school--in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades, and maybe even in high school. It seemed, in fact, as if I had been seeing such exercises forever.

The children were sitting at tables copying down a sentence that Meyer had written on the blackboard: “You can go down the street.” As the kindergartners transcribed the sentence, the teacher fired off a series of questions: When we make our letters, do we start at the top or bottom? Left or right? What case do you need when you start a sentence?

At one juncture, when Meyer sensed flagging enthusiasm, she told the class she wanted to see more hands, and, sure enough, there were suddenly twice as many hands in the air. “Oh, I see lots of hands up, very good,” she commented. Now the question-answer session became snappy, crisp.

“What kind of sentence is this?” she asked.


“What do you need between words?”

“A space.”

“What would you need if this sentence had been asking a question?”

“A question mark.”

Watching classes like these always reminds me of a remark by the late author and school critic John Holt: “A teacher in class is like a man in the woods at night with a powerful flashlight in his hand.” Holt’s point was that teachers, and classroom visitors, typically make the mistake of focusing only on those students called on to answer the questions. The problem with this is that you can only tell how a class is truly functioning by studying those lurking in the shadows--all of those students not under obvious scrutiny.

In this kindergarten class, those not volunteering responses--those out of the spotlight--were what most adults would call “well-behaved.” Like little adults, they appeared remarkably serious, though their seriousness seemed somewhat tinged by apprehension. They stared straight ahead or downward, clasping pencils, hoping, it seemed to me, for continued invisibility.

It must be said that most of the students’ copied sentences were perfect or close to it: The tidy words were parked right between the lines. And when the teacher had the students convert the “telling” sentence into an “asking” sentence (Can you go down the street?), and then into an exclamatory sentence (You can go down the street!), they responded as if they had been working such exercises all their young lives.

There were a few exceptions, though. For instance, the girl sitting next to me kept writing her quivering letters backward, and they kept skewing above or below the lines. When Meyer stopped by to check her work, she offered a gentle suggestion or two, which didn’t help much: Once Meyer left, the girl continued to write her letters backward. In an apparent attempt to reward the girl’s effort, the teacher, when she returned again, drew a smiling face on the paper. But the girl did not return the smile, and, when she was alone once again, she resumed work on an elaborate, looping doodle centered like a coat of arms at the top of her paper. For the teacher, the doodle would most likely be superfluous, a distraction from the task at hand. But for the child, the so-called “telling” and “asking” sentences were apparently superfluous and the doodle an endeavor worth pursuing.

Meyer told me that the class had produced books during the course of the term, and she then turned to the children and asked, “What kind of books did we make?”

“My Missouri book,” the children answered in unison.

“What is the name of our city?”

“St. Louis.”

“What is the state tree?”

“The dogwood tree.”

“What are the colors of the dogwood tree?”

“Pink and white.”

It went on like this for a while. Then it was time for learning centers, during which children could play at an activity of their choice--Legos, trucks, housekeeping, etc. Even at their play, the children demonstrated remarkable self-control--it was extremely quiet for a kindergarten classroom--and I asked Meyer how she had established such a pronounced sense of order. “Well, it’s not easy,” she said. “You should have seen them at the beginning of the year. It takes a lot of time and an insistence that they obey classroom rules.” She pointed to the three rules posted above the door: “1) Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself. 2) No talking when anyone else is talking. 3) Follow my directions.”

I also visited the kindergarten class next door, where Kyra Beckman, a young teacher who told me that she hoped eventually to become a principal, was reviewing with the students words she had printed on index cards: “five,” “can,” “six,” “green,” “she,” “in,” etc. Beckman was not particularly pleased with the children’s performance and told them so. “You did better that time, but you still need to do better,” she said. “However, a couple of you did well, and I have special stickers for you.”

Later, a discussion ensued about what to do during a tornado, and the children practiced covering their heads with their hands. (It reminded me of the duck-and-cover drills of a different generation.) “Do you have any questions about tornadoes?” Beckman asked.

“I have a question, but not about tornadoes,” a boy said.

“Then wait,” the teacher said.

A few minutes later, the same boy began to launch into an anecdote about someone he knew who had seen a tornado, but the teacher cut him off. “That’s a story, not a question,” she said, “so you’ll have to wait.”

It seemed to me that this kindergarten class, like the previous one, was largely about waiting. Indeed, it was almost as if the critical yet unspecified lesson concerned the need to wait, to postpone pleasure. While the class was learning about tornadoes, they were waiting to play word bingo, and while they were playing word bingo--the words they covered were all from an assigned reading chart--they were waiting to go to the learning centers. And when this time finally came, it was dampened by an opening announcement: “I’m sorry to say that the kitchen will have to be closed today; there was too much fooling around there yesterday.”

At the day’s end, I asked Beckman how much of an authority figure a kindergarten teacher should be. “You’ve got to be on them at all times, or you lose control,” she said. “Yet you’ve got to be there for them at all times, too. You’re almost a motherly figure for them, and you have to listen to them tell stories about their lives. All day long, they want to tell you stories. But you have to draw a line. You have to say, this is the time we do our work, and this is the time we do our stories.”

I told Beckman that there seemed to be an awful lot of material to cover in the Barrington kindergarten classes. “There is,” she said. “It gets to the point where you’re counting minutes--trying to fit in three more minutes of this or that.”

There is no doubt that Meyer and Beckman are perfectly dutiful and professional teachers. In conducting classes that are models of efficiency, they are doing an excellent job of meeting the standards of their school and community. Barrington Elementary parents expect an intensive focus on the basics in an orderly environment, even at the earliest levels, and that is what these two teachers are providing. But community standards are not beyond reproach, and following them to the letter can extract a toll.

In an informal poll, I asked two dozen adults if they had liked kindergarten. All but a couple who claimed they could not remember it said yes--even those who described the rest of their schooling as a rather drab, dismal affair. Most talked about kindergarten as they might talk about a relaxing vacation in a sun-filled spot. Kindergarten was a “pleasant experience,” “a happy time,” “a place free of bells, announcements, and slamming lockers.”

A 70-year-old man from Minnesota told me, “It was a transition year, getting used to school without having any of the pressure you usually have in school. I remember playing with my little friends and a lot of singing. I’d call kindergarten a very gentle introduction to school.”

Adults as much as 35 years younger had much the same experience: Kindergarten was indeed school, yet it was very different from the rest of school. They remembered music and new friendships playing a central role. What they did not remember was academic learning; few remembered even being taken through the paces of the alphabet.

But this absence of formal academics does not mean that these kindergartens were places of unrestricted free play. To the contrary, the adults stated that there was in their kindergartens a time for everything: a time for rest, a time for song, a time to clean up. Their teachers believed in the breeding of good habits and consequently did their best to ensure that order prevailed over chaos, civility over indecorum.

Yet for all of their structure, these kindergartens were free of the tyranny of usefulness--the insistence, often unconscious, that even small children should be approached in terms of their future productivity, their ability to get a job done. Indeed, when people talk about what they liked best about kindergarten, they mention feeling at ease.

Why is it, then, that so many kindergartens have come to resemble 1st grade?

Some observers suggest that there is a tendency in what has always been a hierarchical system for the lower grades to imitate, over time, the practices of the higher. For instance, when the middle school movement began in earnest a couple of decades ago, the idea was to develop programs that were specifically tailored to the social, emotional, and academic needs of 12- and 13-year-olds. Eventually, though, the new middle schools, designed to be close-knit communities, came to resemble high schools in which students moved from class to class, having little contact with their teachers.

Likewise, kindergarten teachers adapt the approaches of primary school teachers. This occurs, at least in part, because of “self-esteem issues in early education,” St. Louis kindergarten teacher Steve Zvolack told me. As Zvolack sees it, “A lot of teachers are worried about not being professional enough, and being professional, as a lot of people see it, means doing the kind of ‘real’ academic work elementary school teachers are doing.”

But of all the factors that have worked toward changing the nature of kindergarten, perhaps nothing has had more of an impact than the inexorable movement to full-day classes. Twenty years ago, full-day kindergartens were scattered exceptions; now, full-day kindergarten is commonplace, with approximately 15 states providing funding (and many more planning to do so). Ten years from now, almost everyone agrees, virtually all kindergartens will be full day.

The trend is driven, to some degree, by the requirements of parents with full-time jobs; if their children cannot spend the entire day in kindergarten, parents must find an alternate source of child care. Furthermore, parents whose children have long been in day care and preschool often perceive a half day centered around play as a step backward. They want beginning reading and writing--not more play.

Suzie Nall, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Southern Illinois at Edwardsville and co-director of the national All-Day Kindergarten Network, told me that teachers moving into full day reported liking much about it: They know the families and children much better, and they no longer feel so rushed. But Nall also sounded a note of caution. “My concern is that we don’t want full-day kindergarten becoming 1st grade,” she said. “Teachers have a tendency to say, ‘Well, I have a six-hour day now, and so I can fit in more.’ We want to enhance the kindergarten program in a horizontal way, not in a vertical way.”

By “horizontal,” Nall means an expansion of an experientially based program, not the importation of an academic curriculum. Yet while she believes increasing numbers of parents understand the inappropriateness of pushing their 5-year-olds onto an academic track, she said the temptation to do so is strong nevertheless. “Some parents will go to the kindergarten teacher and say, ‘I’ve been paying tuition for five years at the day-care center, at Montessori, and now it’s your job to teach them to read. And the papers--why aren’t the papers coming home?’ But if teachers have an active hands-on philosophy, then there are not a lot of papers going home.”

At Mason Ridge Elementary School, in the affluent Parkway District of suburban St. Louis, I met, in a classroom replete with a fireplace, the school’s two kindergarten teachers, Karen Gentry and Susan Wietzel, both 18-year veterans who had only recently begun to teach full day. Like Nall, they expressed concern about how teachers might be tempted to turn full-day kindergarten into a junior 1st grade. But they had another concern as well, namely that some of the children in full day--particularly those with professional parents who saw them only on evenings and weekends--were suffering from what sounded like battle fatigue.

“A lot of these children come to us having already had a lot of formal teaching in preschool, and so they’re very bright,” Gentry said. “But they have lots of behavioral problems. It’s almost as if they’ve been in day care for so long that school has already gotten old for them, and they don’t feel that it counts. The children who attend the latch-key program, for instance, you can almost point them out. They’ve learned not to listen, not to follow directions.”

Wietzel, who taught full-day kindergarten for the first time in 1994 but is back to two half-day classes this year, added, “It’s like they’ve had an adult in their faces for so long saying, ‘Do this, do that.’ ”

“You tell them,” Gentry interjected, “ ‘We’re going to paint now,’ and they’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t want to paint!’ ”

Wietzel said, “I have children who are home with their mothers for half a day, and, for them, their attitude about kindergarten is, ‘This is so wonderful, so exciting!’ vs. ‘Here’s this teacher going on and on.’ ”

These teachers were describing children who were already jaded; at 5 years old, these children were in the sort of rut associated with adults trapped in dead-end jobs. A deep cynicism about school was the likely result. I asked the teachers if their observations ever led them to think that kindergarten should be a place of its own, completely free from the stresses associated with traditional schooling.

“Kindergarten needs to be a special entity of its own, and yet it needs to count toward the future, too,” Wietzel said. “So we do have a curriculum that prepares the children for 1st grade. Yet kindergarten is special, too, and needs leeway. If children don’t like kindergarten, they’ll have a long road ahead of them. So kindergarten is about stretching children’s minds, but not about pushing them into the fast lane.”

Both teachers said they emphasized effort, not results, and that they quickly backed off if they sensed frustration. “One of my students asked me, ‘Is it OK to just try in high school like you do in kindergarten?’ ” Wietzel said. “Well, at some point, maybe not. But the nice thing about kindergarten is that just trying hard really is OK.”

In passing, Wietzel had mentioned that raising children of her own had altered her kindergarten teaching, making her more flexible and open to improvisation. She had discovered that the relationship between parenting and teaching was far from casual. To do both well was less a matter of juggling roles than of being fully human. While this may seem like an obvious insight, it is frequently neglected. Author John Holt, reflecting on his own years of teaching, noted that many adults “hide themselves from children, pretending to be some idealized notion of ‘Teacher.’ ” Realizing that this promoted aloofness if not downright phoniness, Holt asked teachers not to be afraid of revealing their real selves, as capricious as those selves may be. After all, Holt concluded, “Children looking into our eyes want to know if we’re really there.”

For the pioneers of the early kindergarten movement, being “there” meant that there had to be a radical redefinition of the stiflingly artificial relationship between teacher and student. It had to become more open, more natural. In the late 19th century, this meant that kindergarten teachers--all of whom were women--were to be more like “good” mothers than taskmasters. And as “good” mothers, they would bring the domestic sphere into the schoolhouse. Plants and pictures would enliven barren classrooms. Domestic pursuits--cooking, paper cutting, gardening--would take center stage. This, in effect, did happen. By the early 20th century, kindergarten was even influencing the activities of the primary grades, as elementary school teachers began to incorporate more of the manual, performing, and fine arts. By 1919, in Philadelphia alone, there were at least 20 kindergartens with outdoor gardens.

Nothing, though, was more important than for the teacher to get off her pedestal, so to speak, and take her place among the children. Shortly after the turn of the century, Nina Vandewalker wrote, “One must become a child with other children to succeed with them.” Friedrich Froebel was even more straightforward. In an essay addressed to parents and teachers alike, he wrote, “Come let us live with our children.”

The College School in St. Louis was the one place where I had a sense of Froebel’s injunction as something fully lived. Here the two kindergarten teachers, Carol Filiatrault and Kathy Seibel, really did “live” with their children. In two adjoining rooms that felt more like working art studios than classrooms--a stained glass “window” made of a painted shower curtain was one of dozens of projects--the teachers worked alongside the students.

At the Barrington Elementary School, there were distinct times for work, play, and storytelling. At the College School, the elements blended together, the rhythms of one jostling the rhythms of the other. Children talked of vacations and family members while building their “dinosaur lands"; they fought dino-saur wars, which they interrupted for a snack; they roamed about collecting autographs, having just learned that signatures have value. At one point, the children asked to hear a song, and Filiatrault placed a record on a turntable. The children danced, moving in a circle as they held hands.

Later, one of the teachers described the children’s activities as “social-dramatic play,” a phrase with all the charm of a textbook heading. Yes, their play was socio-dramatic; it enhanced motor development, imagination, and a hundred other things. But play, which connects the child to the wider world, needs no adjective to justify it.

But I’m nit-picking about terms. Paley’s behest to kindergarten teachers is simply, “Know your subject, play,” and these two teachers at the College School obviously knew it. Their very relationships with the children were like the best kind of play: free, generous, and unrehearsed. They were unafraid to embrace a needy child or to call a child “sweetheart.” They did not hesitate to share in the children’s laughter. When these children looked at their teachers, they knew they were “really there.”

Filiatrault told me that she had come to the College School from another private school where she had been teaching, as she put it, “1st grade in kindergarten.” “Here,” she said, “we don’t concern ourselves with academic mastery. A lot of the things we do with the children are aesthetic because that’s how children relate to the world.”

The aesthetic emphasis was apparent in the displays of student work, which were, at all grade levels (including preschool), unlike anything I had seen at any other school. Everywhere--on table tops, walls, shelves--were sculptures, paintings, costumes, all created with extraordinary detail.

The detail of the displays, I learned, was due, in part, to the influence of an early childhood program run by the town of Reggio Emilia in Italy. The program was developed there in the early 1960s by an association of educators, parents, and community leaders. The title of a recent book about the Reggio Emilia approach, The 100 Languages of Children, is highly suggestive, the idea being that wire, paint, chalk, and so on are all “languages” in which children communicate.

Four years ago, Jan Phillips, director of the College School, visited a Reggio Emilia school in Italy and was stunned by the display of student work. “There were these breathtaking illustrations,” Phillips said. “In fact, you couldn’t help wondering if children really did this--it was too good. Yet there was a video demonstrating that children had, in fact, created it.”

Phillips said she learned from her visit that children can do work of remarkable detail once they learn techniques for what she termed “coming back to the work.” “My visit to Italy reaffirmed my belief that in teaching, the reflection upon an experience is as important as the experience itself,” Phillips explained. “We constantly have the children think about what they’d like to add to their work or what they’d like to change about it.”

Along a wall of the College School kindergarten is a mirror. Every month, the children study themselves in the mirror and then create a self-portrait. In a sense, every new self-portrait is a reflection on all the past portraits they have created. The first portrait is usually a stick figure with a circle for a head and arms emerging from, say, the cheeks. But over time, the portraits gather deepening form and structure, and the portraits become those of real children. It’s a matter, the kindergarten teachers say, of letting children look in the mirror so they can see themselves through their own eyes.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1996 edition of Teacher Magazine as Paradise Lost


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