Persistent Dilemmas in Kindergartens Then and Now (Part 2)

In Part 1, I described a 1924 study of kindergarten teachers’ lessons. Mary Dabney Davis analyzed 449 kindergarten lessons from across the country, offered typical daily schedules, and reported teacher responses to a survey she had designed. Teachers in the 1920s faced questions about how much academics and how much play to include in their kindergartens and to what degree teachers should direct lessons and to what degree children should be self-directed. A century later, these dilemmas persist.

Consider New York City schools welcoming of 50,000 four year-olds to prekindergarten in 2014. Journalist Ginia Ballafante summarized crisply the dilemma facing over 4,000 pre-K teachers:

“How the city’s educators will cultivate an environment of thrilling … learning while aiming to reduce the enormous word deficits many children come to school with and at the same time keep the tensions and pressures of high-stakes testing from filtering down to the world of tiny people with Pixar lunchboxes remains one of the most significant and least explored questions around the expansion of prekindergarten. How they will nurture the distinct kind of teaching skill required to execute play-based learning successfully is yet another.”

And she was right on the mark. If kindergarten is the new first grade as some critics point out, then prekindergarten threatens to become boot camp for kindergarten.

First, let me establish that kindergarten is, indeed, becoming the new first grade. In a recent study looking back at how kindergartens have changed in the past 15 years under a regime of testing and accountability, researchers found the following:

*The percentage of teachers who indicated that incoming kindergarteners need to know most of their letters or count to twenty doubled. In 1998 less than one-third of kindergarten teachers agreed that children should learn to read in kindergarten. By  2006 that number had more than doubled to 65 percent.

*Time spent on reading and language arts rose from 5.5 hours to 7 a week.

*There was no change in percent of time spent on math instruction but there were significant drops in teaching time spent on social studies, science, art, and  physical education.

The onset of testing five year-olds has commenced: 25 states mandate assessing 5 year-olds. So how to get young children up to speed to do well on these tests has accelerated the move toward academic instruction for kindergarteners with the pressure inevitably seeping down to three year olds.  This shift toward academic instruction has put the spotlight on exactly how much of school experiences for three-to-five year-olds should be play and how much academic work in light of the demands of testing for determining first grade for young children and teacher evaluation.

Two Bank Street College educators (New York City), however, do not see a conflict between work and play for young children. “This is a false choice,” they say. “We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.” They continue:

“As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time.”

What does play look like in a room filled with three- and four year-olds?

“When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

 In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.”
Work and play become one. “Play, they say, “has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school.”
That play and work are intimately connected and that learning in young children is not put into silos but are as one means that there is no dichotomy, no dilemma. It is a classic case of reframing what appears as a dilemma into a problem that can be solved. That is what these educators are trying to do. “Trying” is the operative word, however.
When private kindergartens became public in the late-19th century, the competing values of developing the whole child and preparing 3-5 year-olds for the first grade were evident. Until the 1980s, academics were subordinate to socializing young children and learning through play. But in the past thirty years, that balance has been re-set as most parents, policymakers, and political leaders have pushed schools to meet higher academic standards, become accountable for student outcomes, and responsive to market forces. In this business-oriented climate, schools have become academic engines for children and youth to compete for jobs and strengthen the overall economy.  And the dilemma kindergarten teachers faced nearly a century ago persists today.




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8 responses to “Persistent Dilemmas in Kindergartens Then and Now (Part 2)

  1. jeffrey bowen

    Presumably the balance or integration of socialization, play, and acadenic learning moments helps explain why NYS maintains prek- 2 as well as 3-5 teaching certifications. The needs of early graders also explains why the state has specially developed learning standards in this area. The policy comparisons with other states would be interesting.

  2. thisisentirelybogus

    I recall that having to graduate from kindergarten in the early 1950s, I had to shinny up a two inch pipe and demonstrate that I could mark rhythm in a piece of music. In my case it was Bizet’s _Toreador Song_ (without the alcohol). Today, me grandchildren and their contemporaries are expected to know some of what I learned in first grade *before* entering kindergarten. It’s not surprising I regard them as diminutive geniuses. This brings me to my conversations about composition teaching in university where my friends universally bemoan the illiterate state of the college student. The conflict is hard to reconcile. It’s not like I can’t penetrate my bubble. I teach in a school that runs from infant to high school and what I observe is baffling in its diversity.
    I can only suppose that we require Nature to fall within our expectations and are disappointed with her.

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  4. Pingback: Persistent Dilemmas in Kindergartens Then and Now (Part 2) « Analyzing Educational Technology

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