Back in 2014, I wrote about a New York school that canceled its annual year-end kindergarten show because — are you ready? — the kids had to keep working so they would be ready for “college and career.”

If you think that was a singular event, guess again. Preschool and kindergarten have become increasingly academic for years, often to the exclusion of structured play-based learning that has long been seen by experts as being the best way for young children to be educated. Things have gotten to such a point that children who leave kindergarten without having learned to read are often considered failures.

Phyllis Doerr is a veteran kindergarten teacher in Newark, who is sick of the status quo. In this post, she writes about why so many kids “are doomed right out of the gate,” and she provides a road map to remedy the problem and making early learning joyful again.

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By Phyllis Doerr

I once watched a kindergarten teacher pass by my classroom door, struggling to move a large wooden play kitchen toward the exit of our school building in New Jersey.

“What are you doing?” I asked my colleague.

“Moving this out of my room — we have no time for play!”

My heart sank.

To all who love and care about kindergartners

Dear parents of young children, kindergarten teachers, elementary school principals, district and state superintendents, university education program professors and administrators, and any person who cares about the education and well-being of our youngest learners:

Have you ever watched a 5- or 6-year-old child play? Have you seen a little boy cradle a baby doll, pretending to be a daddy? Or watched a team put together a giant floor puzzle? Or observed a pair of students work together creating a magnificent cityscape with blocks that includes a bridge? Or seen a little girl don a chef’s hat and apron and happily serve pizza to her customers?

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Kindergartners should love and be excited about school. Their first year of formal education should be … maybe even a magical year. Early education expert Dorothy Strickland, a Rutgers University professor and researcher, said that a child’s first learning experience determines a child’s attitude toward school for years to come. She maintains that the primary focus of kindergarten should be executive functions such as problem-solving, organizing, sequencing, conflict resolution, decision-making, and reasoning.

There is an important debate taking place over questions such as: What is age-appropriate to teach in kindergarten? What are the most appropriate teaching practices in the kindergarten classroom?

As kindergarten registration gets underway in the United States for the 2019-20 school year, let’s consider these questions: Which methods are working to achieve the goal of best educating young children? And which are not serving our goals for the education of our youngest learners?

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These days, words that you will hear some educators and decision-makers use when discussing the question of what should be taught and how in kindergarten are: rigor, stamina, technology and standardized testing. Oh, and data.

I would argue that joy, character-building, social emotional learning, recess, multi-sensory/hands-on/interactive learning and multiple intelligences are more appropriate terms when it comes to discussing the kindergarten learner. Integrating these methods into instruction in the kindergarten classroom will result in better “outcomes.“

Things are not going well

As a kindergarten teacher for 10 years, I am surrounded by teachers both in my school and other schools. And I talk to parents in and out of my school. I am finding out that things are not going well for many kindergartners.

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  • Recently on a plane, a kindergarten mom sat next to me. She lamented that she was pulling her child out of the expensive, private school her daughter was attending. The mom was upset that the school planned to hold the child back in kindergarten another year because she was not reading sentences.
  • A friend who is a mom of twins in kindergarten is panicked because her son is not reading proficiently, and the teacher has discussed keeping the child back. She instructed the parent to work harder with this child at home so they could bring him up to speed.
  • A fellow teacher is very concerned because her son is losing interest in school. In kindergarten!
  • A worried parent on an advice blog geared at helping parents raise their kids wrote: “My son is having a really rough year and it’s breaking my heart. He went to preschool for two years and did awesome! The teachers thought he would do great and I never had any behavior complaints. Kindergarten has been a nightmare. This year he’s having a hard time reading and writing. He says he hates school and he’s totally uninterested. I’m constantly getting phone calls that he’s distracting the class and acting out.”

The truth is, it is not that hard to do things right in kindergarten; to do things in such a way that optimal learning is accomplished and the child experiences joy, growth and even wonder.

Thanks to hundreds of child psychologists, researchers and experts in the field of early-childhood education, we have always known what makes a kindergartner flourish. John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky pointed the way in the past, and more recently, early-childhood education experts such as Strickland, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Pasi Sahlberg and James F. Christie have added to our knowledge.

This has not changed over time because the brains of 5- and 6-year-old children have not changed. Psychologists, researchers and educators who have done the work for a very long time point to the same conclusion.

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Kindergartners will not thrive as long as we continue to push developmentally inappropriate concepts, like:

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  • Reading too soon.
  • Writing too soon. (They have been out of the womb five years and many of their little fingers cannot yet grasp a pencil.)
  • Making them sit for long periods of time. (Kindergartners can typically attend to a task that is of interest for 10-15 minutes, according to most reputable sources.)
  • Forcing so much time engaged in academic areas that no time is left for creativity, building, constructing, pretending, imagination, music and movement, social skills practice and so many other activities essential to the healthy development of the young child.

So what should we do?

Based on my experience (and lots of research done by passionate, dedicated professionals) kindergartners will thrive and love school when we:

  • Integrate instruction based on multisensory learning. Kindergartners learn with their five senses — exploring, creating, building, testing, sorting, organizing, pretending, moving, singing, chanting. Sitting still and listening for long periods of time is not how they learn. In fact, it is the opposite of how to best teach a kindergartner and is guaranteed to shut them down to learning.
  • Stop over-testing and teach with the premise in mind that testing is not teaching. (The curriculum my school uses includes a test on singing “Old MacDonald.” You read that correctly. A TEST. The child is to be given a SCORE on how they sing the song.)
  • Teach foundational skills in kindergarten in math and language arts, not complicated, developmentally inappropriate concepts that are largely beyond a 6-year-old’s reach. By all means, expose them to lots and lots of books!
  • In literacy, teach letters and sounds and pre-reading skills. With some exceptions, the brain of a young child opens the door for more proficient reading in first and second grade — not in kindergarten!
  • Stop making 5- and 6-year-old children take tests on computers. For many, the results are completely inaccurate because of the vehicle. Young fingers don’t work well on the keypad yet due to small-motor immaturity.
  • Bring back a balanced approach to teaching kindergarten. Learning through play in kindergarten should be a primary method of learning. Play is a child’s work.
  • Include an hour of outdoor play in the school day. Children are meant to be outside. Watch how they blossom in the classroom when they have enough time outside.

Major research spells it out

According to a major 2018 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics:

The most powerful way children learn is on playgrounds and in playrooms…Play is brain building, a central part of healthy child development, a key to executive function skills and a buffer against the negative impacts of stress.

It is mind-boggling that in our current climate, major research had to be conducted to reiterate what 100 years of research has concluded and recorded in papers, textbooks, and articles by the thousands. Kindergarten-age children learn best through action-based, hands-on activities that engage their five senses.

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Yet we continue to push practices that have been proven ineffective and counterproductive for most students. If Strickland is right, and I believe she is, our youngest learners are doomed right out of the gate.

What could be driving this trend in American early-childhood education? Why are we administering instructional practices that have been proven by every bit of research for years to be the WRONG way to teach kindergartners? Why on earth have, as Carlsson-Paige asked, teachers and other professionals who are concerned about poorly designed standards and an over-focus on academic skills been shouting into deaf ears for years?

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One can only guess.

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A road map to kindergarten success

To best illustrate what will most definitely open the kindergartner to learning and set the tone for their entire educational experience, I would like to borrow a profoundly important document from brilliant teacher, child specialist and pre-eminent teacher trainer, Jean Feldman.

I believe that when we adhere to the Kindergarten Bill of Rights, which is in effect a plea for a balanced and developmentally appropriate approach to teaching kindergarten, we will no longer hear that our youngsters are disinterested, hating kindergarten, acting out and “failing” because they are not yet reading. We will instead see excited, happy children, whose minds are open and fertile for learning and who enthusiastically look forward to school. Should it be any other way in kindergarten?

Kindergarten Bill of Rights by Jean Feldman

  • Kindergarten children have the right to the pursuit of happiness.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to wooden blocks and a housekeeping center.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to play dough and puzzles.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to hold hands with their friends and play games.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to free play outside.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to sing and dance and be silly.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to explore with paint, crayons, markers, glue, scissors and to make a mess!!!
  • Kindergarten children have the right to have books read to them … many, many books.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to go on field trips.
  • Kindergarten children have a right to a quiet time every day so their brains can process information.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to think school is the most wonderful place in their world.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to think that they are capable and worthy.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to hopes and dreams.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to smiles and hugs.
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