Work vs. Play in Kindergarten
Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast correctly described kindergartners as "natural learners" in the May 23 front-page article "More Work, Less Play in Kindergarten." Kindergartners are also natural artists, scientists and musicians. And perhaps above all they are natural players, because through play young children practice many basic skills and play helps children learn how to engage with the world.
Proponents of ramping up standards in early elementary education frequently focus on academic achievements such as reading without saying whether those achievements are coming at the expense of other skills young children need to learn. Parents and the public are bombarded with admittedly impressive statistics showing how many young children can read or do math. Meanwhile, the impact of schools' intensified academic focus on kids' self-esteem, creativity, motor skills and social abilities goes unmeasured. How many kindergartners are coming home to their parents, as some children in my neighborhood did last year, describing school as "too much pressure" or saying they feel "stupid" because they are struggling to read? How many young children think the early grades are fun? Having fun might sound frivolous to some, but it is key to developing enthusiastic learners who go on to succeed in the upper elementary grades, middle and high school, and beyond.
Parents and educators are responsible for educating and developing lifelong learners. Overemphasizing academic achievements for young children risks promoting some academic skills at the expense of educating the whole child.
While a longer day in kindergarten may make sense for disadvantaged children in particular, I wonder whether such an emphasis on early reading is a good idea. As reading theorists know, after third grade vocabulary is the best predictor of reading ability. Poor children come to school knowing half the words that middle-class children know, and this gap is not easily closed. Perhaps the emphasis of full-day kindergarten should be on increasing vocabulary through stories, games and plays, with less time on learning to read easy words. This may have a greater effect on children's educational attainments in later years.
You report big gains in tests of kindergartners' reading. But the acid test is what kind of readers these students will be in fourth grade and beyond. Will they be avid readers and learners? Research suggests that they won't. We see more and more children who are burned out by academic pressure by the fourth grade.
The demise of child-initiated play adds to the problem. Kindergarten teachers report that many children are at a loss when given time for imaginative play. Children are being robbed of their creative capacities, with vast implications for their lives and for society. We need creative thinkers to sustain democracy and to find innovative solutions to our problems.
There is no clear evidence that early reading brings long-term gains. This vast experiment needs careful scrutiny, not uncritical praise.
Alliance for Childhood