HomeJean Marzollo, author of I SPY

The New Kindergarten

Chapter Two

The Content of the Kindergarten Curriculum:
Subject Areas, Skills, and Themes


    Kindergarten boy

The kindergarten curriculum includes seven main subject areas: language arts (oral language, listening, writing, and reading), social studies, science, math, art, music, and physical education.

These subject areas can be integrated through unifying themes that children enjoy exploring. Such themes may, but do not have to, coordinate with the time of year. Ten themes are presented in this book as examples of how the thematic approach to curriculum can be used in the classroom. The themes presented are suggested for certain months, but teachers should feel free to schedule them at other times. These are by no means the only themes appropriate for kindergarten. There are many other themes, and some of the best ones are those conceived by enthusiastic teachers-creative themes such as bears, fasteners, spaces and places, light.

Skills taught in kindergarten overlap subject areas. Counting, for example, may be practiced during a discussion of "The Three Bears" and experimenting with plants may follow a reading of "Jack and the Beanstalk." Kindergarten skills are not just taught once and dropped, but rather they are taught and reviewed over and over as they naturally occur in activities and discussions. Because they are presented in context, they are meaningful to the children.

In the new kindergarten children explore new topics in an organized fashion. A general method of activity children explore is to explore materials, record the results, and discuss the recordings with each other. In the process children use many skills, such as discriminating shapes and sounds, sorting, classifying, counting, sequencing, seriation, comparing, identifying, recording, and self-expression.

Subject areas, skills, and themes are integrated by the teacher in the new kindergarten. Blending them together takes creativity, knowledge of content, and, most of all, sensitivity to children's needs. It isn't easy. But good kindergarten teachers can do the trick.

In this book ideas used in the new kindergarten are presented with pictures and simple instructions. Teachers should feel free to adapt and expand upon the ideas to suit their children and locale.

Language Arts

Language arts encompasses oral language, listening, reading, and writing. In the new kindergarten these four essential aspects of communication are integrated, not only with each other but with the rest of the curriculum. Successful activities in the classroom foster oral language experience as children share their ideas and discoveries with each other. Oral language experiences in turn foster listening skills as children learn to listen to each other. Having ideas one wants to share leads naturally to a desire to record ideas in some fashion. In the new kindergarten teachers encourage children to record their ideas in a variety of ways: with blocks, with clay, with paint and other art materials, with graphs, with rebus messages, and with writing done at whatever level children are at. Some draw, some scribble, some string letters together any which way, some invent ways to spell that make sense (sm for swim), and some rare few can spell. It doesn't matter as long as a child wants to write. Often, a five-year-old will use several methods and be able to "read" them all afterward.


Children come to kindergarten with a great range of abilities. A rare child or two in a class is already reading, having begun the process with questions about print in books parents have read aloud. As these questions were answered, the child learned to read. Such early readers are called "spontaneous readers," and they are a source of amazement and pride to teachers and parents alike.

A few children don't catch on to the reading game until they're seven or eight. These children are perfectly normal, just a little late. The old adage "You can take a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" applies well to these children. If you are a parent or teacher of one of these children, don't nag. Instead, soothe yourself and the child by remembering that children learn to walk and talk at different times, and that late bloomers catch up.

Some kindergarten children have learning disabilities, specific and identifiable neurological and/or emotional problems that interfere with reading progress. Many problems, such as the inability to concentrate and write letters correctly, are natural to young children and will be outgrown in time. Certain problems, however, need special attention. We are fortunate to live at a time when special education teachers can help children with learning problems. Federal law 94-142 guarantees special education programs for children who require them.

Most children learn to read words and sentences when they are six, that is, in first grade. This is as it always has been. Developmentally, children haven't changed. In the new kindergarten, however, teachers realize that most younger children are interested in reading and eager to "read" on their own level. This may mean that, while they do not understand letter/sound association (phonics), they are able to read individual letters, read their own drawings and scribbles as stories, read rebus symbols, and read memorized words and stories. Good teachers find out what their children are "reading" and help them make the most of their accomplishments.

To help children move on, teachers give them interesting materials that fit their abilities. Interesting materials include well-written and well-illustrated picture books read and discussed at a daily storytime, picture cards with simple labels, poster-size books with big print that the teacher can point to as she reads aloud, and rebus puzzles in which certain words are represented by pictures that the children can "read."


Whereas children used to be discouraged from learning to write until first grade, when presumably they would be better able to spell and form letters, in the new kindergarten they are being encouraged to write in whatever way they can manage, and spell however they are inclined. "Invented spelling," such as "Ga" for "Grandma," is the result, much the way invented words ("ba" for "bottle") are spoken by babies.

The point, say teachers, is that the children want to write, so why hold them back? If we tell kids their letters are sloppy and their spelling is wrong, they won't keep trying. If we encourage them with praise, they will.
"Cow," said my nephew Ricky at the age of two, trying to pronounce my husband Claudio's name. "Cow!" we all said. Not a relative among us would have thought to criticize Ricky and demand that he repeat the name until he could say it correctly.

"I Want PI" writes a child under a drawing of a big blue blob. Later, she proudly "reads" her paper to her classmates. "I went swimming in a pool," she says with her eyes on her letters. Every child in the class listens attentively, and when the sharing of the papers is over, no one other than the teacher seems to have noticed how many different levels of writing ability were demonstrated.

Are these children reading and writing? Well, no, not exactly. But they are definitely learning to read and write, just as Ricky was learning to speak when he said "Cow" for "Claudio." Are the kids enjoying themselves? Do they want to do more? Yes, if you accept their efforts with joy.

Opportunities to write in kindergarten may entail dictating stories in a group to teachers who write them in big letters on big pads of "language experience" paper. Sometimes the sentences are dictated one per child, each written in a different color. The children remember their colors and their lines, and, low and behold, they are able later on to read their lines aloud.

Kindergarten teachers allow for a great deal of flexibility in writing and reading activities, always keeping in mind that some children are advanced, some are beginning, and most are in between.

Formal, or systematic, reading instruction on letters and letter sounds is appropriate in kindergarten, provided that the materials are developmentally appropriate and that they supplement active experiences. As one kindergarten teacher told me, "My district requires that I use a reading workbook with the children. So I use it this way: I give my children many concrete activities before they ever see the reading workbook page. When they finally get to the page, the children know how to do it, and they all succeed."


Kindergarten teachers teach math in concrete ways, using materials that give children firsthand experience with counting and thinking. Children learn math in formal and informal lessons all day long. Formal learning may follow a plan established by the school curriculum. Informal learning occurs spontaneously as children compare how old they are, count how many baby gerbils were born, and learn to solve problems by thinking logically.
In formal lessons the children may work at their desks or tables with counting chips or abacuses (a Chinese counting frame). They may measure the growth of plants with popsicle sticks and record the results on workbook sheets.

Sometimes the children may work in math centers, where they can experience abstract concepts such as addition, subtraction, and fractions by playing with dominoes, Cuisenaire rods, sequence blocks, number puzzles, measuring cups, and toy clocks.

Centers are special areas for independent learning around the room. In some classrooms teachers rotate children in and out of the centers at various times of the day and in various ways. Most classrooms have a math center, a science center, a language arts/reading center, a library center, a housekeeping or dramatic play center, a block center, an art center, and a game center. In addition, some have computer centers (there are at least a dozen good, interesting computer software programs for the kindergarten level-see Appendix), a listening center (where children listen through headsets to records and tapes-often in conjunction with books), and a music center.

A child working (or playing-an actively engaged child doesn't make the distinction the way adults do) at a math center may be exploring materials freely or carrying out a task directed by the teacher and further explained by a task card, which is more or less a picture recipe that reminds the child of the problem to solve. The task may be to sort a mixture of seeds into categories and then to count them.

The end result of a math activity is often recorded so that it can be shared later with others. Kindergarten teachers show children many ways to record an experience: by drawing pictures, by measuring with yarn or Legos, by taking Polaroid photographs of the steps in a process and pasting them in order on paper, by dictating one's thoughts to someone who can write them down, and by a special math activity called graphing. Graphing is an effective math activity that can be done on many levels.

At the beginning of the year, the teacher might say, "Let's find out how we came to school today." She puts a toy car on the floor and asks all those who came by car to stand behind it. Then she puts a toy bus on the floor and asks all those who came by bus to stand behind it. Last she puts a toy figure of a person on the floor and asks all those who walked to stand behind it.

In their three lines, the children look around curiously at each other, and the teacher poses a question. "Which line has the most children?" The concept of "most" is difficult on the abstract level, but easy to discuss when you're talking about real bodies. At some point, the teacher might give each child a counting chip and ask them to place the chips, one at a time, on a graph with three columns atop pictures of a car, a bus, and a walker. The children can see that the chips represent themselves; they can "read" the graphs, which have helped them make the difficult transfer from the concrete to the abstract. The more children graph, the better they get at it; and they like the work/play of graphing, especially when they can start with something concrete first, such as shoes, leaves, toys, books, dinosaur models, and monster pictures.

The most important aspect of math is logical thinking. Good kindergarten teachers frequently ask children questions that make them think. They don't tell children the answers; they wait for the children to reach them on their own. The questions they ask are likely to be ones that cannot be answered with "yes," or "no," or a one-word answer. Such thought-provoking questions often begin with phrases, such as: "What would happen if ... " and "How can we do ... "


Science on the kindergarten level offers five-year-olds a chance to shine. Their special ways of thinking are wonderfully flexible and creative, and they can think up many experiments that are interesting to execute. Born experimenters, children like to try things out for themselves by themselves because they instinctively know that this is how they learn best. The noted Swiss educational psychologist Jean Piaget knew this too and stressed throughout his work the importance of autonomy in a child's learning. As they work with children, teachers (and parents too) can encourage and preserve the experimental thought processes of children by giving them the freedom to work problems through on their own.

In kindergarten children should have experiences hypothesizing and predicting, manipulating objects, posing questions, researching answers, imagining, investigating, and inventing. A good kindergarten teacher encourages the scientific process. Children, for example, experiment with things that sink and float. Each child can be asked to find in the classroom two objects: one that the child thinks will float and one that the child thinks will sink. The child draws his predictions on a worksheet, executes the experiment, and records the results. The process is intriguing, inexpensive, and scientifically instructive as to facts and procedures. It's also fun.

When teaching science, kindergarten teachers once again ask children thought-provoking questions, not just "Did you ever see the snow before?" (which can be answered with a simple yes or no) but also "Where do you think snow comes from?" During the ensuing discussion, teachers encourage not just one right answer (convergent thinking), but many answers (divergent thinking). They encourage children to brainstorm, listing all the ideas they can think of. Five-year-olds excel at this.

Kindergarten teachers aid and abet children's natural creativity. Instead of looking for the one "right" answer, they welcome all answers, such as: "The snow is pieces of clouds" and "The snow comes from snowmen in the sky." After a stimulating discussion, good teachers ask children to record (draw, scribble, write with invented spelling) their ideas on paper.

Kindergarten teachers know that teaching is asking, not telling. They encourage children to find out correct answers for themselves. "How can we find out what snow is made of?" they ask the children. And as experiments are being carried out, the teachers stay flexible because they have learned through experience to expect the unexpected. If there's a surprise fire drill during a lesson on snow and ice, kindergarten teachers know that when the children return to the classroom, they are going to want to talk about the fire drill.

Social Studies

Social studies in kindergarten is learned primarily through the world of the classroom and places that can be visited, such as the post office, fire station, zoo, or pond. Parents who assist on class trips should dress comfortably. Kindergarten trips aren't like grown-up trips. Kindergarten experiences are active, sometimes even messy. Teachers often tell parents, "Please, don't send your child to school in party clothes. Dress them for paint, paste, and being outdoors."

Places children can't visit can be taught through pictures and video, but less effectively. Thus, city children learning about farms without ever seeing a garden is somewhat of a waste of time, as is country children studying skyscrapers and subways through pictures. The main purpose of trips in kindergarten is to broaden children's understanding of people and the ways they live together. Parents visiting classrooms to tell about their jobs is a way of teaching social studies, especially if the parents bring in tools and work uniforms-things the children can touch.

In social studies children learn about themselves, both how they are unique and how they are part of a group. Sharing, cooperating, planning, leading, responsibility, deciding upon rules, and following rules are practiced over and over throughout the school year. These are not innate skills but skills that are acquired in a slow process during the growing years. Next to the family, the school is the most important influence on a child's character. What schools do to encourage positive social behavior is crucial to society at large and not measurable by academic tests.

Kindergarten teachers have classroom rules that are stated clearly in positive ways so that they make sense to children. Instead of saying, "Don't run," early childhood teachers say, "We walk in the halls so that we stay together and so that we don't trip and fall." Kindergarten teachers maintain calm in the classroom so that the children can talk and listen to each other. Productive kindergarten classrooms are neither rigid with stillness nor frantic with noise.


Kindergarten teachers provide art materials that are accessible to children because young children like to do things for themselves. They like to express themselves and record their ideas with clay, paper, crayons, markers, paint, paste, and collage materials.

What's the point of the art project if they all turn out the same? Sometimes the point is to show children techniques, such as leaf rubbing, which is fine. And sometimes the point is to get kids to listen and follow directions, and that's fine too. But most of the time, children should be given the freedom to use their imaginations. Rather than being told how to make a turkey, they should be asked: How could you make a turkey? Or a monster? Or a spaceship? Or a magic egg in which you could live if you were a magic bird?


It used to be that most kindergarten teachers played the piano, guitar, or autoharp; nowadays, fewer teachers have these skills, an unfortunate development that hopefully will improve, for children respond well to music. They love to sing and enact musical fantasies. Musical activities give children another medium for expressing themselves and sharing ideas with others.

Using rhythm instruments, such as drums, bells, triangles, and shakers, children are helped to reproduce rhythms they hear and invent new rhythms for others to copy. It takes special talent and time to unfold young children's musical abilities, but the results are satisfying because music means so much to them.

Through musical shows children plan and practice together for parents, children gain in confidence and camaraderie. Often, such shows encourage parental involvement in comfortable ways that draw parents closer to an understanding of the overall kindergarten curriculum.

Physical Education

Young children are always being physically educated. Their bodies are growing rapidly, and they are constantly moving about. Just watch a group of kindergartners sitting on a rug in a classroom listening to a story being read aloud. They fidget and change positions. Even afterward, when they talk about the story, they move their hands, arms, and heads.

Physical education for young children focuses on movement in order to help children strengthen their muscles and coordinate actions. Recess does this too, but a special physical education program can focus on specific activities that supplement classroom learning: listening, following directions, knowing the difference between left and right, balancing, and moving to music.

In some districts where kindergartens are part of an elementary school, kindergartners go to the school gym for instruction several times a week. To do so, they may pass through the rest of the school, which in itself is a social studies trip that is fascinating to five-year-olds.

In the new kindergarten physical education teachers and kindergarten teachers plan together ahead of time to assure that the program is appropriate for the children and wherever possible related to themes being explored in the classroom. Sometimes they plan special movement activities involving music that supplements a special topic, such as wind, volcanoes, animals, or plants.


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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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