Kindergarten cram

Kindergarteners should play more and spend less time on reading and math, argues Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times.  She cites Alliance for Childhood‘s new report, Crisis in the Kindergarten, which argues that academics are crowding out play.

A survey of 254 teachers in New York and Los Angeles the group commissioned found that kindergartners spent two to three hours a day being instructed and tested in reading and math. They spent less than 30 minutes playing. “Play at age 5 is of great importance not just to intellectual but emotional, psychological social and spiritual development,” says Edward Miller, the report’s co-author. Play — especially the let’s-pretend, dramatic sort — is how kids develop higher-level thinking, hone their language and social skills, cultivate empathy. It also reduces stress, and that’s a word that should not have to be used in the same sentence as “kindergartner” in the first place.

Five is the new seven, she writes, pointing to her upper-middle-class friends’ designer children.

But the children of poorly educated, low-income mothers start school without the vocabulary, conversational skills and knowledge of middle-class kids. If they’re not taught in school, they won’t be taught at home. They can play at home.

Teaching kindergarteners has “produced significant gains in reading and math achievement,” writes Jay Mathews in response to a mother who complains her children’s kindergarten curriculum is too demanding.

The achievement gap between white and minority students has narrowed as a result. I have seen no research confirming your impression of an increase in bad side effects, but they might be there. Anybody have any ideas for preserving those gains with less pain?

One reason that kindergartens today look like first grades of the past is that so many kids go to preschool, which is a lot like kindergarten used to be. “Duck, Duck, Goose” gets old after awhile.

About Joanne


  1. “Five is the new seven,” Orenstein writes. But actually, in more and more schools, six is the new five. Consider how many schools have moved up their age requirements in recent years, such that more and more kids must be least 5 by the start of the school year. By the end of the school year, 3/4 of them are 6.

    So it’s more like schools have outsourced kindergarten to the preschools, and have turned kindergarten, in more ways than one, into first grade.

  2. Parent2 says:

    “They can play at home.”

    Really? Many people living in dangerous neighborhoods can’t let their children out to play. An earlier post on this blog mentioned that parents are expected to keep very close tabs on their children. The days of playing stickball in the street have passed.

    In our affluent suburb, many children join organized activities, because that’s where you can find other children their age. If both parents are working, the kids are either in daycare or with a nanny.

    It’s play with other children their own age which makes a difference. I think that for many children, of all levels of family income, that’s most readily available in a kindergarten setting. Watching TV, or playing a video game, are not the same thing.

  3. Tom in GA says:

    “It’s play with other children their own age which makes a difference.”

    I was going to say the same thing. Kids should learn interpersonal skills at an early age.

    Kids need to figure out how to get along with other kids and be corrected when they can’t get along and resolve it on their own.

    School is an academic environment first and foremost but with the minimum 14 years of education we expect them to endure (pre-K through 12th grade), we’re all better off if we can encourage positive interaction.

  4. Therese says:

    The kindergarten curriculum in Palo Alto is so extensive now, that my son’s kindergarten teacher had to eliminate show and tell due to lack of time. She actually sent home work when he was out for a day sick with the flu. Talk about increasing his already high stress level. And this teacher is a great teacher who pours her heart and soul into teaching everyday. But the system puts her under stress to make sure her kids pass the requirements that creep up each year (know all your addition fact up to 5 increased to to knowing your addition facts up to 6).

  5. Isn’t this inconsistent with the post last week that what matters is not gains in elementary school, but in high school. What is the point of pushing kids at this age, when we don’t see gains at the end? By the way, we see the same pattern historical pattern in private and public schools.

  6. “One reason that kindergartens today look like first grades of the past is that so many kids go to preschool, which is a lot like kindergarten used to be.”

    Just give it time. My sister is a daycare worker who is already shaking her head at coworkers who design pre-school programs that have less and less play. Her theory is that these people went to get their Early Childhood Education degrees right out of college so armed with no experience but figuring their degrees have to be put to use somehow (they paid a lot of money after all) become intent on ordering and making productive the lives of the children under their care.

  7. Homeschooling Granny says:

    “It’s play with other children their own age which makes a difference.”

    Even that is very limiting. Kids need to play with people of ALL ages. They can learn a great deal about what is just ahead for them when they associate with children slightly older. They develop caretaking while enjoying demonstrating their own hard won skills when with younger children.

    Some of our teenagers are in trouble because they socialize entirely with kids their own age. Their social skills are far too limited.

    The home-schooled kindergartners I see spend a great deal of time at play with people of many ages. I can usually tell whether or not a child is homeschooled by how he or she talks to me.

  8. Therese says:

    Since I work full time, my children spent a lot of time in daycare and after-school care. Many people comment to me on well my children speak to adults, on the phone, etc. I credit this with them having to fend for themselves and not rely on me to speak for them. Of course, spending time in daycare does mean that they are with a 5 year span of ages as well.

  9. deirdremundy says:

    The intensive, all-day kindergarten programs are one reason why my family home-schools. Seriously, we can surpass the state’s K goals in about 6 months working 30-45 minutes a day on academic stuff. And then my kids have MORE time for stories, puttering in the yard, dance and art, playdates, and trips to interesting places (zoos, museums,state parks, etc.)

    HOWEVER, I do understand that the research shows an improvement for kids from deprived backgrounds. But Full Day K is really a waste of time and money for other kids….. except if you look at it as state-sponsored daycare, of course.

  10. and how much do they play when their school day is over?

    after-school programs, daycare, and adult-organized activities (dance class, tae kwon do, soccer, baseball, art camp, space camp, computer camp…) .. how much time do these kids have for *free* play?

  11. The private Waldorf schools don’t believe in teaching academics until children start losing their baby teeth. The delayed formal academics don’t seem to be hurting their graduates any…

  12. Therese says:

    I believe that they don’t start teaching reading in Scandanvian countries until the kids are 7 years old. By 5th grade, there is no difference in test scores.

  13. McSwain says:

    I agree with all the above comments–study after study has shown that all this early learning doesn’t hold. I am seeing a lot of kindergarten “red-shirting” here in affluent SoCal–many kids are first-grade age when they enter K. I’d go on to say that by the time the kids I teach are in fourth grade, they are far behind where children used to be in the area of interpersonal problem-solving skills, and their manners are so poor and they are so self-centered that it is very difficult to get them to behave well enough to teach effectively.

    Kindergarten used to be very much about teaching children to get along and how to behave in school. They’re not developmentally ready for all of that in preschool. Now we’re so busy cramming curriculum and homework down 5-year-old throats that they don’t learn the problem-solving and social skills that have historically been gained through play.

  14. “But the children of poorly educated, low-income mothers start school without the vocabulary, conversational skills and knowledge of middle-class kids. If they’re not taught in school, they won’t be taught at home. They can play at home.”

    Very strong and valid point here. It’s a tricky stage of education yet so rewarding. But I do agree that there has to be a significant balance of activities for kindergarten children. Playing will be huge part in their development but the classroom teaching will be done carefully.

  15. The term “developmentally appropriate” springs to mind. Of course, that phrase has become “dirty” around the reformers, the vast majority of whom have never taught.

  16. momof4 says:

    All of my kids were late birthdays, in an area where first-grade redshirting (2 yrs kindergarten) was common, so they were likely to be 1 1/2 years younger than most of their classmates. They all did fine, both socially and academically. In the majority of kids, I don’t buy the “developmentally ready” argument, since all of mine were reading before they started kindergarten. They were al 8 and in 3rd grade before they started losing their baby teeth, so I’m not very impressed with that argument.

    However, there are two major differences between kids today and kids of 40+ years ago: even poor and minority kids used to come from stable, two-parent families who taught manners and respect for authority at home and kids played with neighborhood kids of all ages without parent interference. Today, too many kids are either ignored/abused or spoiled and they have never learned to get along in a group,on their own, even if it means learning the hard way. Johnny and Jimmy settling their differences with their fists and clearing the air isn’t allowed. A LOT more discipline used to be applied in school, and supported/repeated at home, too.

    There are differences among kids, however and being in kindergarten is certainly better than kids fending for themselves at home or on the street, as long as school teaches them the behavior, habits and skills they will need for a successful first grade. I’m opposed to one-size-fits-all solutions.

  17. I have pretty strong reservations about the developmental appropriateness of academic kindergarten — or expecting all 5 year olds to perform at a physical and intellectual level of 7 year olds.

    To take one example: handwriting. Being able to form letters accurately and quickly has precursors in gross motor function (stability of trunk & shoulder girdle) and fine motor function (coordination of the fine motor skills in hand & arm).

    You cannot make a given child develop those motor skills more quickly than her own individual development allows.

  18. Joanne, I’d like to hear from some long-time elementary school teachers on the issue of academic kindergarten.

  19. Parent2 says:

    Let’s see.

    1) We’re concerned, to the point of paranoia, about our students’ relative standing on international achievement tests.

    2) We start formal reading instruction in kindergarten.

    3) The highest scoring nations don’t start formal reading instruction until 7 years of age. Their scores surpass us on a consistent, sustained level, over multiple tests.

    4) Therefore, we need to redouble our efforts at early reading instruction. Obviously, if what you’re doing isn’t working, you don’t reconsider your approach. No! Your kindergartners just aren’t working hard enough. There is an increase in scores. That it dissipates before high school is immaterial.

    There seems to be something amiss in the approach, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…

  20. Joanne: Jay Mathews is wrong about the “achievement gap” narrowing because of academics in kindergarten. Results of the National Assessment of Education Progress show that we were doing better before the current mania for testing and early academics.

    The most effective way to develop children’s vocabulary and conversational skills is to give them lots of opportunities for dramatic, make-believe play–which most are not getting at home, as others have noted. Please note that the subtitle of “Crisis in the Kindergarten” is “Why Children Need to Play in School.”

    Edward Miller
    Alliance for Childhood

  21. I’m hesitant about the validity of comparisons between American and Japanese or Scandinavian practices. Japan is overwhelmingly homogeneous and ferociously competitive; think “education moms” and suicides after GATEKEEPING TEST failures. Finland is also homogeneous and has a much smaller population. I haven’t seen an ethnic breakdown of Swedish scores, but would be interested, because Sweden does have a Muslim population, concentrated in Malmo, which is causing problems with crime and poor assimilation. Is that population doing well in school, or is it even in school? Also, is it large enough to have a significant effect on overall scores?

    I’m not exactly sure what the last poster meant by “dramatic, make-believe play”, but if it means use of a dress-up box, acting out stories or poems or playing with any sort of dolls/action figures, all of my kids (both sexes) and lots of their friends (especially boys) completely tuned it out at best and loudly refused at worst. Since they all had very high verbal skills and very high conversational abilities with both other kids and with adults, I’m not convinced that approach is necessarily the most effective. It could certainly be an option for interested kids, but I would not like to see it required. I remember too much suffering through other kids (usually girls) acting out a scene from a book, or making a diorama, instead of actually writing a book report in proper format. This was probably 2nd grade and older, but the point still holds.

  22. Momof4: By “dramatic, make-believe play” I meant the kind of play that starts with “let’s pretend.” You know–“You be the mommy with the sick baby and I’ll be the doctor” and that sort of thing. It might involve dress-up or dolls or action figures, but they’re not essential. Its essence is pretending to be someone else.

    It’s not an “approach,” and it’s not something that kids refuse, because it can’t be imposed or “required.” It springs from inside the child, and children all over the world, in every culture and social class, do it as part of learning about the world and other people.

    Imagining what it is like to be someone else, by the way, is the basis of every moral and ethical system. We deprive young children of this experience at our peril.