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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

The Early and Elementary Years / Are We Paving Paradise?

In our rush to promote achievement, we've forgotten how 5-year-olds really learn.

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The Early and Elementary Years / Are We Paving Paradise? - thumbnail
"You are worried about seeing him spend his early years in doing nothing. What! Is it nothing to be happy? Nothing to skip, play, and run around all day long? Never in his life will he be so busy again."<ATTRIB>Jean-Jacques Rousseau</ATTRIB>
Kindergarten teacher Celia Carlson passionately describes kindergarten in terms of transitions—it's theonly first time that children will begin school, and it should be a place where both children and families adjust to a new, challenging context. She worries, though, that we've let go of what makes kindergarten a safe place for children to start. In our push to do more, sooner, faster, we fragment children into little pieces of assessment information and let go of the activities that enabled us to get to know them in more personal and integrated ways.
Across town, teacher Wendy Anderson feels like a rebel. Working in a high-poverty school, she struggles to maintain a semblance of a child-centered program. When she found a sensory table stacked with extra materials in another classroom, she asked whether she could have it. The kids flock to it, in need of kinesthetic experience and the joy of pouring, measuring, and comparing. "Where did you get that?" a colleague whispered, as though Wendy had brought in a unicorn or something illegal. Hers is also the only classroom that goes out for recess in the morning. Again, her colleagues ask, "How do you find the time?" Although she doesn't know why no one else goes out for recess, she wonders whether other classes lose precious time because of behavior issues associated with children who have not had a chance to play.
Teacher Pamela Gordon thinks that many people see her as old and eccentric. While everyone else uses worksheets, she continues to do projects with her students. They research together; and as they go, they integrate content required in the kindergarten curriculum. Currently, they're studying the lives of American Indians, figuring out how they obtained food and water and how the environment shaped their lives.
One reason so many of Pamela's colleagues favor worksheets is that they provide evidence for parents of what their children are doing. Instead of sending home worksheets, Pamela carefully writes a weekly letter to parents detailing activities and related learning, a great complement to children who answer the question, "What did you do at school today?" with a generic "We played."
These three teachers work hard to cultivate a children's garden within their classrooms. But just like in Joni Mitchell's well-known song, kindergarten seems threatened by developers who want to pave paradise and put up a parking lot. These teachers aren't mindlessly resisting new methods in favor of an outdated tradition; rather, they're fighting to keep children at the center of kindergarten.

The Evolution of Kindergarten

From a Focus on Children…

Kindergarten has always been a bit of an odd duck. It was a latecomer to the elementary school. Its teachers were educated in different programs, and its classrooms often looked like home, with gingham curtains and play kitchens. Teachers were left to craft a program that focused on the social and physical as well as on the academic. Guided by knowledge of human development, kindergarten teachers were interested inchildren rather than curriculum content.

To a Focus on Outcomes…

As kindergarten was incorporated into elementary school, programming slowly moved from half to full day in many areas and became governed by a desire for more academic content. Two movements prompted these shifts. First, as the number of women in the workforce increased, so did the number of children in child care. Kindergarten's traditional role of socializing children into group experiences seemed less relevant. Second, the notion of early intervention captured the interest of policymakers and the public. When Hart and Risley (1985) noted that middle-class children typically heard 8 million more words in a year than children living in poverty did, investing in preschool programs seemed just the right solution. Justified as a way to close the achievement gap; reduce special education referrals, teen pregnancy, and incarceration rates; and enhance earning power in adulthood, these early intervention programs evolved over time to be more literacy and mathematics focused. Child outcomes, rather than children's experiences, became the major element of program evaluation.

To a Focus on Literacy and Math

At the same time that preschool was changing, the elementary school was changing, too. States and districts developed grade-level standards, measurable and organized by content area. A key element in this process was research that stated that if students did not read at grade level by grade 3, they would never catch up (Stanovich, 1986). Districts mapped trajectories for students to hit the 3rd grade mark as well as interventions to nudge along the stragglers. Expectations were made explicit at each grade level, with a greater focus on literacy and mathematics.
For the first time, kindergarten was included in this map, with curriculum often designed by content-area specialists with limited experiences with 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds. Although early learning standards covered kindergarten programs, the standards that counted— the content standards—were used to define a new kindergarten program. With the advent of pacing guides and high-pressure progress monitoring in literacy and math, attention to other elements of the kindergarten curriculum underwent a dramatic shift.

The Report Card: Then and Now

An easy way to see this shift is in the kindergarten report card. The report card I received as a kindergartner in 1960 was one page long; it focused on my ability to listen and play with others. In 1998—the year my oldest son started kindergarten—the progress report had sections on reading, speaking and listening, writing, science, social studies, social skills and work habits, and math, plus a large section for teacher comments. Each area included affective and behavioral information as well as skills. The social skills section was particularly informative, addressing issues of independence, flexibility, work habits, and peer interaction.
In contrast, the 2009 report card from that same school—note the name change from progress report to report card—reports on performance relative to expectations in language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. It includes a lean section called the Child as Learner and Community Member. There's a single line for comments for each content area.
Unseen by families are thick grading guides that direct teacher ratings for each content area, requiring days of painstaking assessment—not to inform instructional practice but to make sure that students are meeting learning targets. For many kindergarten teachers, the report card obscures their ability to know students because as one teacher told me, "I don't have time to listen to children anymore." The report is more about tracking progress for administrative purposes than informing families about how their children are doing.

The Kindergarten Chimera

Thus, kindergarten has become a sort of chimera, a mash-up that has the genetic makeup of more than one species. Kindergarten has the genetic code of early childhood, with its attention to multiple dimensions of development and its focus on nurturing social relationships, along with the DNA of the content-focused elementary school. The current political, educational, and social context supports the elementary school elements of kindergarten's existence. However, the early childhood parts are losing ground; they should be on the endangered species list.
As someone who taught kindergarten for many years, I agree with standards-based teaching and the need to align expectations and practices across the education system. However, I worry that in the rush to promote content achievement we've forgotten that children are multidimensional beings who learn in complicated ways. Because the curriculum increasingly reflects the expertise of content specialists in the district office, the parts of kindergarten not explicitly listed on the report card are withering away or, at least, are not cultivated in a way that supports a balanced program and a balanced child. We do not attend, for example, to the future architect who builds with blocks, designing structures, managing materials, and testing the laws of physics. We also ignore the aesthetic child who paints, draws, sings, and dances.
This lack of focus on the early childhood part of kindergarten is especially important in the context of transition. A child who moves from a developmentally appropriate preschool program to a content-focused kindergarten experiences a kind of whiplash. We need a more ecological approach to kindergarten (see "Elements of a Hybrid Kindergarten," p. 16).

Making the Case

For Play

The growing allocation of kindergarten time to academic content has firmly pushed play to the edges. What counts as play in many classrooms are highly controlled centers that focus on particular content labeled as "choice" but that are really directed at capturing a specific content-based learning experience, such as number bingo or retelling a story exactly as the teacher told it on a flannel board. It's like calling the choices of doing the laundry, grocery shopping, or cleaning out your closet "playful." It also means that in-depth project work that involves research into child-initiated questions just takes too much time. If students become fascinated with the birds at the feeder outside the classroom window, for example, this cannot become a focus of learning because it's not listed in the standards.
What's lost with this shift? Attention to anything but clearly defined cognitive aspects of development. Although vitally important, learning content is inherently intertwined with other elements like motor skills, aesthetic experiences, and social-emotional development. In an increasingly sedentary, structured context, students have few opportunities for rich experiences of moving, creating, or interacting.
The early childhood community, which has traditionally valued play as a learning tool, has not been very articulate about play's importance in our evidence-based school economy. It's no longer enough to argue that play is the work of children; we're now required to prove what children get from play. What they get must translate to increased achievement or reduced risk. So let's nail the evidence base.
Wendy Anderson takes her kindergartners out for recess and schedules free play because she recognizes that play is a complex activity that has many benefits beyond the pure joy it gives children. Learning to negotiate, share, and empathize are all key to playing; we deny children the opportunity to learn these skills in a kindergarten without play. Yes, Robert Fulghum (2004) was right: Everything you need to know, you learn in kindergarten. But the kindergarten he's talking about is one that values the social, the emotional, and the aesthetic; it's one that teaches through modeling, practice, and nurturing.
Rich play environments enable children to develop what psychologists call executive function. When children play, they learn to shift attention, remember, and inhibit impulses; as a result, they are able to plan, solve problems, and work toward a goal. These skills relate to later achievement in social areas and in academic content, such as mathematics and literacy (Bodrova &amp; Leong, 2007; Diamond, Barnett, Thomas, &amp; Munro, 2007). Doing away with play does away with opportunities to develop these skills.
In recent years, some have called for a kindergarten curriculum that once again includes attention to social and emotional competence (Raver, 2002), an important reminder that for children to succeed in school, a complex set of capacities must be carefully balanced.

For Relationships and Trust

Celia Carlson describes how students can no longer take the scenic route in kindergarten—her students are fast-tracked so they can get to the reading level mandated by the district by the end of the year. Although important, such reading supports often involve pulling students out of the classroom. Celia worries that she's not getting a chance to build the foundation that students need to be resilient learners who can handle frustration, work through problems, and focus on the essentials.
Relationships and trust take time— and time is in short supply in today's kindergarten. Celia sees students crumble when they hit any tiny bump— in the classroom, in the cafeteria, and on the playground. Her students dissolve into tears or pick fights in situations that challenge them. In the past, she would have better known their triggers and could have built opportunities for them to be resilient. The students have no reserves to draw from because teachers simply haven't had enough time to do this important work.

The Cutoff Conundrum

Policymakers have addressed perennial concerns about readiness by requiring children to be older before they can enter school. The kindergarten entrance date has slowly but surely moved back from January so that most states now require children to be 5 in September. Some states have moved it even earlier, to a summer cutoff.
I lived through such a move when I taught kindergarten in Missouri in the mid-1980s. As the cutoff date moved from October 1 to July 1, my students got bigger and bigger—and the baseline for "typical" followed suit.
I have to wonder if this solution is, in fact, contributing to the problem it's meant to solve. With slightly older students, the expectations become a little more intense, which makes people worry about the kids who can't cope with the demands—which makes us once again try new strategies to ensure readiness. Is kindergarten caught in a recursive cycle where every fix induces more problems?

Kindergarten: A Hybrid Version

I recognize that today's children are different from those of even a decade ago and that kindergarten must evolve in the same way a garden does. But that evolution must support the very children that kindergarten should nurture. We need to step back and consider whether all the innovations and interventions, all the programs and progress monitoring, are actually getting us what we want. In our work to develop assessment-driven instruction, have we driven off without the child?
The assessment that kindergarten children deserve is broad-based, contextual, and inclusive of all dimensions of development—not just those few that feed the accountability machine. We need to reassess both the means and ends of kindergarten, remembering that under all the data we generate are real live children. Those children need us to create education experiences that are responsive, challenging, and nurturing of all the complexity that is a 5-year-old.

Bodrova, E., &amp; Leong, D. J. (2007). Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Diamond, A., Barnett, W. S., Thomas, J., &amp; Munro, S. (2007). Preschool program improves cognitive control. Science, 318(5855), 1387–1388.

Fulghum, R. (2004). All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten. New York: Ballantine Books.

Hart, B., &amp; Risley, T. (1985). Meaningful differences. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

Raver, C. (2002). Emotions matter: Making the case for the role of young children's emotional development for early school readiness. Social Policy Report, 16(3), 3–18.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360–407.

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