HomeJean Marzollo, author of I SPY

The New Kindergarten

Chapter One

The Purpose of Kindergarten Today


    Kindergarten girl


The purpose of the new kindergarten is to teach children a rich, meaningful, and balanced curriculum of skills and information through age-appropriate activities that encourage the children to want to learn more. Several points can be made about this goal:

1. "A rich, meaningful, and balanced curriculum of skills and information" encompasses intellectual, social, creative, and physical learning. "Rich" means that the curriculum is full of worthy content, "meaningful" means that the content has meaning for children, and "balanced" means that the curriculum covers language arts (oral language, listening, writing, and reading), social studies, science, math, art, music, and physical education.

2. "Age-appropriate activities" means that activities in the new kindergarten suit four-, five-, and six-year-olds, who learn best through concrete activities that they can direct. What guides a good kindergarten teacher's selection of activities for her children is the question: Is the activity too old for the children, too young for them, or just right for their developmental needs? ("Developmental needs" means the needs of a child at a given stage of development.) If the children would like to do the activity again, chances are the activity is age-appropriate.

3. Though it should apply to other grades as well, the phrase "in such a way that they want to learn more" is especially crucial for kindergarten and prekindergarten children. Young children are naturally curious. If their curiosity is turned off in the early years by inappropriate instruction, they may establish negative attitudes about themselves as learners. Good kindergarten teachers do not stifle their children's natural curiosity; they build upon it so that their children continue as enthusiastic learners.

Full-day kindergarten programs that fail, do so for various reasons; it is not always the teacher's fault. In some cases, teachers who are used to the routine of teaching two half-day kindergarten classes a day suddenly find themselves told to teach one class for a full day. The longer day reveals an enormous lack of substance in the basic kindergarten curriculum. It had been one thing to have a state guide that mandated science topics, such as weather, rocks, dinosaurs, and the five senses, but with sufficient time now to teach the topics, experienced teachers discover that they don't know how to do it. Many teachers trained in early childhood education are able to figure out answers on their own, but others, especially upper-grade teachers suddenly transferred to kindergarten, are understandably confused.

"Where are the textbooks?" they ask, finding it hard to believe that on the kindergarten level there are few - for good reason. Kindergartners, in general, don't read, and they can't write answers to questions at the end of chapters. Kindergarten teachers have to teach through activities, not textbooks. "But what activities?" asks a transferred sixth-grade teacher.
Kindergarten children
In schools where the elementary school principal understands kindergarten, the principal can supply some answers, but principals who lack early childhood training are unsure. Before full-day kindergarten, they didn't need to know that much about kindergarten; now they do.

In some states, legislators, inspired by the educational excellence movement, have passed laws mandating goals for the kindergarten curriculum. The mandates are a mixed blessing. In some cases, they lend structure and credence to the kindergarten program. Yet, unfortunately, because many of the legislators themselves don't know that much about kindergarten, many of the mandates passed are falsely academic and not readily teachable in a child-centered classroom.

Unrealistic mandates can force a teacher to compartmentalize her time rigidly in order to cover all the mandates. In other cases, mandates may force a teacher to teach material she doesn't think is appropriate for her children's ability level. Good teachers are frustrated when they feel forced to give first priority to subjects and second priority to children's developmental needs. When mandates are found to be impractical in the classroom, legislators must be free to change and improve them.

Misguided mandated kindergarten curricula that are doing damage now will do even more damage in the future as increasing numbers of children enter school, causing a national teacher shortage. The possibilities of new, inexperienced teachers following mandates without knowing which ones are better than others is disturbing. What's also disturbing is that publishers, rushing to serve the expanding kindergarten market, are designing materials with state mandates in mind. For the sake of the children, it is crucial that teachers and administrators familiar with the real needs of five-year-olds decide which materials are appropriate for the classroom.

Starting a Successful Full-Day, Child-Centered, Academic Kindergarten Program

Because full-day kindergarten is a relatively new phenomenon compared to, say, full-day first grade, and because no one class or school is exactly like another, teachers, parents, and administrators usually have to create new full-day kindergarten programs themselves. Though the process of creating a new program from scratch can be frustrating, it has many benefits. By not adopting a program handed down from "on high," teachers create a program they believe in. It's theirs. They thought it through, and they take responsibility for it.

The teachers want their program to work so they are apt to improve it willingly as they go along.
Teachers who believe in their programs train new staff members enthusiastically and get the most out of workshops, conventions, and in-service training. They also can help to train other teachers in other districts, thus gaining prestige for their own district and feeling a personal sense of pride and accomplishment. In good schools there is a sense of excitement as teachers share new ideas for activities and use of materials.

The worst way to plan a full-day kindergarten program is to take a first-grade curriculum and move it downstairs. Children are pressured to learn material that's too hard for them, and at the same time they are denied the rich assortment of concrete activities they should be experiencing in kindergarten. Young children learn best when they can figure out problems firsthand. They suffer educationally when such experiences are taken away in favor of paper, pencil, and the three R's.

What is said about the little girl with the curl in her forehead can be said about full-day kindergarten: when it's good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid.

What Parents Can Do to Help: Understand and Participate

Parents who are not used to full-day kindergarten have different reactions to the idea of one in their district. Some feel their children aren't old enough to be gone from home seven and a half hours a day, including transportation. They lament the loss of intimate parenting time. Others feel their children will benefit with increased intellectual stimulation, and many working parents breathe a sigh of relief upon hearing that their children will be supervised productively for a longer period of time at no cost other than the taxes they were already paying.

Districts starting full-day kindergartens often find it helpful to involve parents on committees right from the start so that parents feel a part of the start-up process. Parent discussion groups can help reluctant parents to feel better and all parents to understand the purpose of kindergarten. Some parents are expecting the three R's. They have a hard time comprehending how playing with blocks, making constructions with junk materials, and cooking in the classroom is educational. To them, this is just more "play." Such suspicions may be alleviated by arranging a visit to a neighboring good full-day kindergarten classroom so parents can see five-year-olds in action and observe how teachers work with them. After a full-day program is started, parents should be encouraged to visit the school to see how their children are doing.

Good teachers encourage parent visits because they find that the more parents see what's going on, the more they understand the purpose of kindergarten. The more they understand, the more they can be involved. Parents can help a teacher by sending in requested materials, chaperoning on trips, and volunteering to help with special projects, such as baking and sharing special hobbies.

What Kindergarten Teachers Want Parents to Understand

Kindergarten teachers want parents to understand that they are concerned with children's intellectual learning and also with their social, creative, and physical growth. They know that the needs of the "whole" child are important.

Kindergarten teachers want parents to understand that play is instructional. Play-as-a-method-of-instruction ("work/play") is not exactly the same thing as free play. Free play is a time when children can choose whatever they want to do.

Play-as-a-method-of-instruction or "work/play" refers to the type of activity through which children construct their own learning. For example, the fact that two halves make a whole is an abstraction for young children, and because it is an abstraction they are not interested. But to discover the same fact by playing with blocks or measuring cups is a different matter entirely. That's interesting! A skillful teacher asks children to bring her examples of how two halves make a whole. To do the activity, children have to think for themselves. In this way, good teachers ask children to think for themselves. They don't tell the answers; they let children discover them, which is more fun for the children-and more effective.

Both types of play are important for children to experience because play is concrete, firsthand, and active. Five-year-olds need to use their senses to learn. They are not at the stage where they can just hear about something or see a picture of it and know what it's about.

Good kindergarten teachers provide play materials and activities that are "developmentally appropriate," meaning that they fit a child's developmental stage.

Work, Play, and Tests

"Believing that kindergartners should major in more than sandbox, the school superintendent in Minneapolis ordered a competency test for youngsters before they could be promoted to first grade," reads an article in The New York Times, January 5, 1986. "The oral test, said to be the first of its kind for kindergartners in the country, measured such areas as recognition of the alphabet, colors, the counting of numbers up to 31, and the addition of coins to total 10 cents. About 15 percent of the 3,000 pupils-460-flunked in May 1984 and were candidates to be left back. Opportunities to make up work were offered, including summer school. The final say on whether pupils were ready for the first grade was given to their teachers."

The reason this item was news was that the test was the first of its find. What we, as parents and teachers, may find worth pondering is this:

Five, ten, or twenty years from now, will such a test be common? If such a radical change occurs in schooling, it should be one that parents and teachers have questioned.

We need to ask questions, such as: Can a standardized test reliably assess what children have learned in kindergarten? Many educators say no. If tests are given to kindergartners, will schools begin to teach "to the test" so that their children pass? In so doing, will schools have to shrink or eliminate parts of their program in order to make time for teaching "to the test"? What parts of the program will be shrunk or eliminated-playing at the sand table? What if experts say that playing at the sandbox is educational in demonstrable ways that are hard to assess with standardized tests?

More questions: What is the obligation of schools to make sure that kindergartners graduate with the skills they will need to succeed in first grade? Do some children need a considerable measure of structure, drill, and discipline in kindergarten in order to learn? Would other children find such discipline deadening and superfluous?

As we, parents and teachers, try to answer these complex questions, we may find our viewpoints polarizing and ourselves rigidly taking sides. One side may accuse the other side of wanting nothing but "play." The other side accuses the first side of wanting nothing but "work." This is silly. We have created a false dichotomy between socialization and learning. All we have to do is watch and talk with children in order to see that they differ widely and that we have to meet their needs, not our needs for ideological absolutes.

Some children need a more structured classroom in which they can take things one at a time. Others need more freedom to explore. All children benefit from a combination of work and play. Kids need structure and freedom, and that is the rub. Achieving the proper balance for each child is the teacher's art. The best thing about the Minneapolis test may be that the final judgment is left up to the teacher.

Kindergarten means "child's garden." As stated at the beginning of the chapter, the purpose of the new kindergarten is to teach children a rich, meaningful, and balanced curriculum of skills and information through age-appropriate activities that encourage children to want to learn more. This is the child's garden where today's child wants and needs to be.


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Based on the book THE NEW KINDERGARTEN: Full Day, Child Centered, Academic
A book for teachers, administrators, practice teachers, teacher's aides, and parents
Text © Jean Marzollo, Illustrations © Irene Trivas

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