Whatever Happened to Kindergarten?

It’s official: Kindergarten is the new first grade. And for any number of reasons, that’s just a bad idea.

Do you remember the sand boxes?

Anyone above a certain age will probably have fond memories of kindergarten (literally, ‘children’s garden’ in German).

Making finger patterns in the sand; filling little buckets of water; trying on costumes; getting sticky glue everywhere during art projects. And of course, reading stories.

New skills

It was fun, and frequently chaotic. Kids did a lot of different things, moving from task to task, and that was kind of the point.

At heart, kindergarten was always meant to be a dress rehearsal – a practice run before the educational journey began in earnest.

Of course, kids would pick up plenty of new skills and interesting facts. (That’s the beauty of play-based learning; while having fun, children are still learning.)

But the focus was on providing a range of creative experiences that would help stimulate and grow young intellects and imaginations.

Testing times

Not any more. A massive new study, which covered 2,500 teachers from 1998-2010, has confirmed what most people already suspected: Kindergarten has changed beyond all recognition.

Over the 12-year study period, standardized tests (unheard of in 1998) gradually became the norm. Time spent at desks increased dramatically. And the number of teachers who thought children should learn how to read while in kindergarten shot up from 31 percent to 80 percent.

Boy reading 640px

Inevitably, with the kids spending so much time studying, all those costumes, water buckets and sand boxes started to gather dust in a corner.

The report noted a double-digit drop in ‘play’ time. There was less music, less art, less space and dinosaurs-style science lessons. Less fun, in other words.


In short, kindergarten has transformed into an extra first grade.

Valerie Strauss, writing in The Washington Post, hit the nail on the head: “Five- and 6-year-old kids now spend hours in their seats doing academic work, often with little or no recess or physical education, or arts, music and science.

“These kids are tested ad nauseam and expected to be able to do things [that] many are not developmentally prepared to do.”

Across America, kindergarten now looks and feels more like a standard classroom. Learning by rote and taking tests, young children are reduced to little automatons – and hurled headlong into a complex education system before they’ve even picked up the basics.

Learning curve

Why is this a bad idea? Where do we start? First, early education experts increasingly believe that free play is fundamental to raising bright kids. For young children, having the time and space to unleash their creativity and imagination is critical.

Second, part of the role of kindergarten is to sugar the educational pill – to show children that learning can be fun. The little ones who look forward to the play-based actrivities are growing to understand that school is a rewarding and worthwhile environment.

Third, kids learn a huge amount about social interaction in kindergarten. Little Johnny, who absolutely loves the sand box, only discovers that he also has to occasionally let someone else have a turn once the teacher tells him so. That’s not something he’d pick up sitting at a desk all day.

Free to choose

At Book Trust [where we empower low-income children to buy books], our approach mirrors the more creative kindergarten model in many ways.

Just as kindergartners prosper most from having the freedom to explore and discover their own ways of learning, we give our students complete freedom to choose which books they read.

Group shot kids BLOG

And it really works. Of the 38,000 Book Trust children who became the proud owners of nearly 1 million books last year, countless numbers jumped grades and saw huge improvements in their literacy skills.

And all that progress was rooted in giving our kids a choice, then trusting them to reap the maximum benefit in their own way. Especially with younger children, each learning journey is subtly different – so it pays to let them find their own way a little.

Even younger

If you happen to agree that the focus on rote-learning and tests in kindergarten is a bad idea, then hold on to your hat. Because there are indications that the ‘earlier is better’ education model is even now pushing to new extremes.

Last year, the University of Illinois published a report that looked at what is appropriate in early childhood education.

It included this slightly chilling line: “Academic pressures now familiar to kindergartners have been increasingly pushed down onto preschoolers, putting 4-year-olds in the position of going to school in the same atmosphere as older children.”

Social learning

So what’s next? Toddler spelling bees? Infant math tests? Surely, something has to give.

Young children have a lifetime of testing before them. Kindergarten should be a time to focus primarily on social, emotional and intellectual development rather than narrow academic goals.

Because the old kindergarten that you and I remember – the one with the sand boxes, story times and sticky glue?

It wasn’t broken: It didn’t need fixing at all.

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