Special Report
Early Childhood

Pressures Rise as Pace of Kindergarten Increases

By Christina A. Samuels — January 03, 2015 8 min read
Teacher Lori Gates talks to Bella Mohan, who plays at a station with a dollhouse at Jefferson Elementary School in Rockland, Mass. The Rockland district is among the many seeking to balance the varied demands being placed on kindergarten curricula.
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At first glance, the nine kindergarten classrooms at Jefferson Elementary School here look like kindergarten classrooms anywhere. The walls and bulletin boards are word-rich, visually stimulating, and liberally decorated with artwork and crafts.

However, a closer look shows how Jefferson Elementary, part of the 2,500-student Rockland district in a blue-collar suburb of Boston, is navigating some of the competing pressures shaping modern-day kindergarten.

For example, there are multiple places for children to play, from the sand-and-water table to the child-sized wooden kitchen, and a puppet theater scaled to fit budding 5-year-old actors and actresses. The day is structured so that for the first semester, the pupils have two recess breaks to burn off some youthful energy.

The children do use worksheets in the classroom, along with hands-on material such as modeling clay and manipulatives. But there is no work to be done at home, other than parents and children reading together. To keep parents updated on the day’s activities, the school’s kindergarten teachers send newsletters, email, and even tweet.

Jefferson Elementary, which houses all the district’s 197 kindergartners, is an example of how administrators and teachers are trying to balance the increasing academic demands of the early grades against the role that kindergarten has traditionally played for children: a place for socialization and acclimation to school routines. In many places around the country, kindergarten classrooms are phasing out the elements that look most like play—for example, puppet theaters and water tables—in favor of a focus on whole-group work and literacy.

In fact, prescribed curricula and worksheets were once common in Jefferson’s kindergarten classrooms until Principal Christine Pruitt, who has training in early-childhood education, ushered in changes with the enthusiastic support of the school’s teachers when she joined the district five years ago.

“We have to have active learning going on,” said Ms. Pruitt, who used school funds to bring in items such as manipulatives and play kitchens and tossed out the more-prescriptive curriculum teachers had been using when the program was only a half day.

But the classroom is far from a free-for-all. For example, during one school day, children were playing with modeling clay, while also using cutters shaped like letters to spell out their names.

“They’re learning through what they’re doing,” Ms. Pruitt said. “How much more meaningful is that, rather than copying the word ‘cat’ on a piece of paper because they see a picture of a cat?”

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia, and the author of several books extolling the virtues of play in early childhood, suggests that fear of falling behind may be fueling the rush to pack as much academic learning as possible into the early grades. Educators should not assume that children are empty vessels into which they can “dump, dump, dump” more vocabulary and math, Ms. Hirsh-Pasek said at an October panel discussion on early learning, held in Washington and sponsored by the First Five Years Fund, an advocacy group.

Rising Demands

Evidence—not just anecdotes—points to dramatic changes in the nature of what is being demanded of the country’s kindergartners, who numbered 3.7 million in fall 2014.

Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, is one of the researchers who has been tracking the focus on academic skill-building in kindergarten. In January 2014, a paper she co-wrote, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” made a splash among early educators who discovered in her findings empirical evidence for what had been discussed informally for years: Teachers are expecting more literacy and math skills from their pupils and are spending less time on free-choice play, art, music, or even other academic subjects such as science and social studies.

Based on teacher interviews in 1998 and 2010, Ms. Bassok found:

• In 1998, 30 percent of teachers indicated that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that figure was 80 percent.

• In 1998, 29 percent of teachers thought that parents should make sure their children know the alphabet before kindergarten. In 2010, that number rose to 62 percent.

• Fifteen percent of kindergarten teachers said they spent three or more hours per day on teacher-directed whole-class activities in 1998. In 2010, that figure had more than doubled to 32 percent.

• Fifty-four percent of teachers said that children spent more than one hour per day on “child-selected activities,” in 1998, falling to 40 percent in 2010.

• In 1998, 54 percent of teachers said their class had music three or more times a week, and 51 percent said they had art three or more times per week. Those figures fell to 26 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in 2010.

Mitchell De Araujo Silva looks through a cardboard tube in a building-block area with Lucia Nassif at Jefferson Elementary School, during a time set aside for play of their choice.

Also, Ms. Bassok said, teachers were asked whether they had certain activity areas in their classroom. The likelihood of having a water- or sand-table area fell from 49 percent to 25 percent. The presence of “dramatic play” areas fell from 87 percent to 57 percent. The likelihood of having a science or nature area fell from 64 percent to 42 percent. And the likelihood of having an art area dropped from 92 percent to 70 percent.

Ms. Bassok said she received “heartfelt” letters from teachers about their experiences that also expressed their appreciation that the change was being documented.

But she believes an increased focus on academic skills is not inherently problematic. “People assume my narrative is that it’s a really sad story,” she said. “Having kids be moving, engaging, touching things, exploring—that doesn’t seem at odds with learning literacy concepts and math concepts.”

The trends suggest, however, that instead of taking a more-nuanced approach, schools are increasing textbook and worksheet use, as well as their administration of standardized tests.

“For many kindergartners, it could be too much,” she said. The academic work “just needs to be engaging for kids.”

Owen O'Brien, center, and Ava Ford, right, play a number-matching game during choice time at Jefferson Elementary School. Children get some time to choose their play activities.

Different education organizations are trying to tackle the issue by working with principals, who create the learning environments within their schools.

The CAYL (Community Advocates for Young Learners) Institute, in Jamaica Plain, Mass., focuses on early learning and has set up a yearlong fellowship program that brings together elementary school principals to learn about the unique qualities of early-childhood education. Ms. Pruitt, the principal at Jefferson, was a fellow in the program.

Many elementary principals may not have any specialized training in early learning but are being asked to bring preschool programs into their schools and seamlessly connect those classrooms with kindergarten, 1st grade, and beyond, said Valora Washington, the president of the CAYL Institute.

“We start with the understanding that school readiness is really a broad concept,” Ms. Washington said. “There are subject-matter skills, but it also has to include an understanding of how to work with the families, how to understand the physical needs of young children, and the social and emotional needs of young children.”

Pressure on Educators

But teachers and principals alike feel the pressure of preparing children for more rigorous academic work. The CAYL Institute helps school leaders focus on what appropriate early-learning classrooms look like, so that they can more easily make the connection to academic skills. For example, a child moving purposefully between play centers in a classroom requires a high level of “executive functioning,” Ms. Washington said. Those are mental processes such as decisionmaking and planning that help children toward achieving goals. Advanced executive-functioning skills have been connected to higher academic achievement research has shown.

The National Association for Elementary School Principals, in Alexandria, Va., recently weighed in on the topic, releasing a guide called Leading PreK-3 Learning Communities: Competencies for Effective Principal Practice. The list of competencies acknowledges that principals often have to bridge gaps between the birth-to-5 age range and the K-12 education system. Each age group has traditionally had its own history, infrastructure, and preparation systems, the NAESP said in a release announcing the guide.

Kimbrelle Lewis, the principal of Cordova Elementary School in Memphis, Tenn., was on the committee that helped draft the guide. One change she has implemented in her school is ensuring that preschool teachers are included in training with kindergarten teachers so that the curriculum between the two classrooms is aligned.

“We still want kindergarten to be fun, but it’s a fun place of learning,” Ms. Lewis said. “There is play involved in their learning, but it’s productive play.”

Chart: Preschool Enrollment in Public and Private Education

At Jefferson Elementary in the Rockland, Mass., district, teachers try to keep the productive-play elements going. Over the past five years, the district has gone from a half-day program, to a full-day program where parents had to pay $3,000 for the school year, to a free, full-day program for the first time this school year.

During one day, pupils used small rubber animals in a counting game. Others drew with crayons to trace colorful lines around printed capital letters. One teacher had added small logs to her classroom to create an imaginary campfire. In one whole-group activity, the children learned location words and phrases such as “under,” “on top of,” and “behind,” by searching for objects around the classroom.

Allowing children the opportunity to visit various learning “centers” and play areas requires a lot of organization behind the scenes, the teachers say. Some of the children have attended preschool, but for others, kindergarten is their first experience with the structure of a school day. Much of the first half of the year is spent establishing routines, relationships, and expectations.

In the end, children love making their own choices, even as their play is blended with academic skill-building, said teacher Kristina Josselyn. “That controls the chaos a little bit.”


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