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The New Kindergarten


    Kindergarten boy

Kindergarten in changing. No longer a half-day "practice" session designed to help five-year-olds make the transition from home to school, in many districts kindergarten today resembles other elementary grades. It is a full-day program (usually from about 8:30 to 3:00) with its own special goals and curriculum.

The kindergarten curriculum is more academic than it used to be, not falsely so - with a flashy but superficial program of letters and numbers - but rather a genuinely academic curriculum in which children are taught to think, solve problems, share ideas, and write and read on their own level.

The new kindergarten retains the best of the old-fashioned kindergarten - an atmosphere of play and nurturing care in which children are treated as children. In today's classroom, however, play may be more oriented toward learning. Teachers promote "work/play" - the kind of serious play that children do when they are painting, building with blocks, modeling clay dinosaurs, counting beads, and writing stories.

Taken alone, none of these ideas is new: neither full-day kindergarten nor child-centered kindergarten nor academic kindergarten. What is new is that all three are being combined successfully today.

Various factors have brought about the change. First, in recent years, many parents have felt that their five-year-olds, who already spent a year or more in day care of nursery school, are ready for something more challenging. Such parents want more academic experiences for their children.

Second, many working parents, whose preschoolers are accustomed to day care, have found the half-day kindergarten offered by public schools something of a step backward. They want a longer school day.

Third, in recent years many kindergarten teachers have found that their five-year-olds are ready for a fuller, richer school program. Not a first-grade program, they are quick to point out; good teachers know that fives are still fives. Kindergartners need a special program of their own, one that's intellectually and emotionally suited to their wonderful five-year-old abilities. Research in recent years has supported what good teachers already know: that children learn best when they can direct their own learning.

Armed with new ideas and techniques, teachers have realized that with more time they can teach today's five-year-olds better and more. As one teacher put it, "In a typical half-day session, children take off their coats, play a little, do an activity, go to the bathroom, have a snack, go outside, come insider, settle down, listen to a story, clean up, get their coats on, and go home. There isn't time for meaningful hands-on science experiments. There isn't time to develop language and writing projects based on actual classroom experiences."

Fourth, many states and local school districts have been persuaded that children graduating from full-day kindergarten become better learners in elementary school, especially first grade. The costs of running a full-day kindergarten program can be offset by the gains of teaching children earlier and by spotting children who need special help earlier - the basic theory being that the sooner teachers catch problems, the easier it is to address them.

Thus persuaded, officials around the country have established public school full-day kindergartens. (They have also established variations of the full day: extended day, full-day every other day, and so on.) The results are mixed. In districts where the necessary groundwork is done wisely, programs fare well. In districts where kindergarten programs are tossed down from above with little thought and inadequate attention to research, programs fare poorly.

Where change has been mishandled, you see that children have been switched from old-fashioned work/play areas to desks in rows. At their desks they work, without a sense of play, in workbooks: first in a reading workbook, then in a math workbook, then in a science workbook, then in a social studies workbook. The children may look academically engaged but in fact they don't learn very much that's meaningful or lasting. Moreover, while at their desks, they are denied precious time to learn the way they learn best: actively, concretely, and autonomously.

The new truly academic kindergarten is child-centered, not teacher-centered. How a child-centered kindergarten works is the subject of this book. In my work as an editor of Scholastic's Let's Find Out kindergarten magazine for fifteen years, I witnessed the development of many new full-day, child-centered, academic kindergartens across the country. The teachers of these program are more thrilled than ever about their work.

Unfortunately, I also hear from teachers who are more unhappy than ever - teachers who don't know how to teach a full-day kindergarten and teachers who are required to teach in ways they feel are wrong.

It's a crisis time for kindergarten. Teachers and administrators whose programs are weak need to spend time observing in classrooms where programs are strong. Teachers and administrators whose programs are strong need to share them. All districts need to ask themselves if their programs improve the lives of young children.

Hopefully, this book, The New Kindergarten, will help teachers, administrators, aides, student teachers, and parents understand what a full-day, child-centered, and academic kindergarten can be like. With shared knowledge and goals, such people can cooperate to create and implement full-day kindergartens in which children blossom intellectually, socially, creatively, and physically.


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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