Playtime Is Over

May 01, 2004 5 min read
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Schools’ littlest students are being assigned bigger homework loads, but some parents wonder whether less is more.

Every Monday, Micaela Avila receives a packet of worksheets that she’s expected to complete at home and turn back in on Friday. The assignments are meant to help her meet class requirements for the year, including writing a story that follows a logical theme and recognizing and spelling words correctly. Sounds like the same old homework that students have been dragging home since time immemorial. Except that Micaela is in kindergarten.

“I remember kindergarten being games, snacks, and recess,” says Audrey F. Avila, the mother of 5-year-old Micaela, who attends Shelyn Elementary School near Los Angeles. “What a shock it was when I went to orientation.”

With academic expectations for young pupils rising across the country, homework is becoming a routine part of the kindergarten experience, though teachers often try to balance policies requiring take-home assignments at all grade levels with creative approaches for their youngest students. According to a study released last fall by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, the amount of time spent on homework has jumped significantly for 6- to 8-year-olds, many of whom are kindergartners. The researchers attributed the jump—from about 52 minutes a week in 1981 to more than two hours a week in 1997—to a strengthened emphasis, in the early grades, on learning to read.

Avila says that her daughter, who is still learning to count and associate sounds with letters along with the rest of her class, has adapted well to the idea of homework. Other parents have been less fortunate. “The enthusiasm has waned. It’s a chore,” says Andi Jordan, whose son Matt is a kindergartner at the 315-pupil Bryant Elementary School in Lake Oswego, Oregon. “Kindergarten certainly doesn’t seem to be as magical as it was for my oldest. Pretend play? What’s that?”

Some parents say nightly assignments are too much of a strain on children who, not long ago, were still taking afternoon naps to make it through dinner hour. Shari Sturmer, whose son Benjamin is now in 2nd grade, says he wasn’t ready for the homework load when he was in kindergarten. “You could not expect academic performance from a kid who was already exhausted,” says Sturmer. “It set up a horrible conflict between me and my kid.” In kindergarten and 1st grade, Benjamin attended the public Will Rogers Elementary School in Santa Monica, California. But this school year, his parents enrolled him in a private school. While their decision wasn’t solely based on the homework issue, Sturmer says it certainly was one of the reasons Benjamin wasn’t doing well at Will Rogers.

Parents also say that homework—especially if it’s not done until after dinner—eats into the already scarce time available to spend with their children. “My family is like many others. Both parents work and commute at least one hour each way to work,” Avila says. “This makes time in the evenings a precious commodity.”

But even parents who believe the strain of homework is too much for their kindergartners acknowledge the benefits to 5- and 6-year-olds taking their work home with them. Sturmer says she appreciated knowing what her son was expected to learn in school by seeing the worksheets that were sent home. And kindergarten teachers in Los Angeles and elsewhere say homework can help their students forge a stronger connection between home and school.

The parents of 5-year-old Micaela Avila say she has readily accepted the idea of homework. But other kindergartners have not adapted as easily.
—Photograph by Davis Barber

“It’s a way to involve the parents in what’s going on in the classroom,” says Wendy Kennar, a teacher at Rosewood Elementary School in the 740,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. Kennar, who has taught kindergarten for three years, argues that aside from academic skills, homework teaches children the responsibility of taking something out of their folders when they get home and making sure the work gets back to school on time. Another kindergarten teacher at Rosewood, Schyler Anaya, points out that the assigned worksheets are simply meant to reinforce lessons that were taught in class, such as practicing writing a certain letter or drawing straight lines. And, she says, the work is never expected to take more than 15 or 20 minutes to complete.

Many experts in early childhood education say that homework in kindergarten is not a yes-or-no issue. After all, reading to a child each night could be considered homework and has been shown to contribute to reading success later on, says Marilou Hyson, the associate executive director for professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. What’s important, Hyson says, is that the tasks are relevant to what’s happening in class and that children still have time to interact with their families after school.

Kim Hughes, who teaches kindergarten in Wake County, North Carolina, says homework doesn’t have to be paper-and-pencil-based to be meaningful. Sometimes, she says, she just asks students to help their parents make scrambled eggs, deciding how many eggs would be needed for how many family members.

Like Los Angeles and many other districts, the 438,500-student Chicago school system has a policy requiring homework in every grade. But some kindergarten teachers there try to be creative when implementing the rule. Lenora Akhibi, who recently retired after teaching for 34 years, says she used to send her pupils home with “mystery night” assignments. The children would pretend to be detectives, looking for clues around their houses in order to solve whatever problem Akhibi had devised.

With expectations rising for students at all grade levels, Hyson of the NAEYC says she understands the pressure teachers are under to help children meet state and district standards. But in kindergarten, she adds, it’s important that children move forward in school with enthusiasm and that they are “engaged and curious.” “The way to get ready to do hours of homework in 9th grade,” Hyson says, “is not to do hours of homework in kindergarten.”

—Linda Jacobson

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