Kindergarten is Not What It Was!

Four children play with an adult in a classroom

by James St. Clair


Something is missing in kindergarten. I know this because for the past year I’ve been substituting in the district where I taught kindergarten for 28 years. I’ve been troubled as I talk with my colleagues and they tell of their frustration at being required to put their students to academic tasks that can be either boring or too difficult and often lack excitement, interest or connection to anything that the kids are curious about. They also worry about the proliferation of behavior problems in the last 5-10 years as children seem less able to cooperate and work together. I can observe the behaviors myself. Let me give you an example of two different classrooms where I substitute taught. The first was a kindergarten class of 4 and 5 year olds where there was lots of play-led learning. Some children were in the block corner and they had laid some rectangular blocks in a long line. “What’s going on here?” I asked. They told me it was the Red Line, a Boston subway line. I asked where it went and they told me it went to Alewife (the last stop on the line). I printed that on an index card and propped it up at the end of the line. “Where else does it go?” I questioned. They came up with the names of some more stops they knew. I made one more sign but then some students at a table nearby wanted to help make signs. Some wanted to copy, some wanted to trace, and some wanted me to tell them the letters. Eventually there were a couple of block builders who began writing signs for Park Street and Central using their knowledge of phonics. Part Street was PRK STR. To my way of thinking, this was appropriate, play-based, kindergarten learning, the kind that is so crucial in the early years. Children were working and playing together at something they chose. Motivated by interest, they were using the skills they were learning to create and solve problems. A lot like real life. I didn’t see any behavior problems.

The next day, I was in an older kindergarten class for 6 year olds. I found myself working–definitely not playing–with of group of 5 children on a required activity.  They had been given the task of tracing a row of X’s and then printing lines of X’s, maybe 20 in all, down the page. They were not enthusiastic about doing this, and almost immediately there was squabbling over sharing the erasers.  Someone accused someone else of poking him. The joy and spontaneity of learning I had witnessed the day before in block building just wasn’t there. But the behavior problems were.

When I got home I began reflecting on my 28 years in the classroom. I was very fortunate in that I always had time and space for play-based learning. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t just tell kids to go play while I read the sports page. There were lots of discreet skills that I was required to teach, and many of them were exactly that: direct teaching. Maybe it would be a quick lesson on how to correctly form a lower-case ‘a’, or different ways to group a set of seven items. Near the end of my career I was squeezing in writing time, math games, some phonics lessons and even some small reading groups for those who were ready. But what my former students remember when I talk with them is ‘Choice Time’ and choice time was daily and it was sacred.

I looked at some old video footage recently to remind myself of what went on in my classroom. There were two children at a water table who had looped some tubing to hooks in some pegboard on the wall.  They carried a funnel up a small step leader and were pouring water into the tubing and seeing how it powered a water wheel. There was a sand table large enough for three kids who were trying to make a tunnel all the way through a mountain of moist sand.  In a corner nearby was a boy by himself painting at an easel. Next to the easel was a little dramatic play area that was set up at that time as a little stage with a curtain. There were three girls there working on a puppet show. Across the room were two boys and a girl building a zoo in the block corner. There was also a collage table, some children drawing and writing at another table, an area where a few kids were making designs with some shape blocks, and a quiet spot for listening to books on tape. Everyone had chosen their area and were encouraged to stay there. All of choice time would last anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. We’d always leave some time before cleanup for children to record what they’d done. On clipboards they could draw, dictate or try writing themselves what they had been doing. Then after cleanup we’d come together and share our work. It was fun and it was quite common to see this kind of thing in kindergarten rooms everywhere at that time.

Myself, and most of my colleagues, felt that because of the joy of choice time children were a lot more tolerant of some of the required work on discreet academic skills. They also got to use some of those skills during choice time which made them all the more relevant.

Something else happened at choice time. I always liked to think that activities were varied enough that every child could be an expert at something. I think of Howard Gardner’s seven intelligences. Choice time was a place for the movers, builders, artists and actors to show their stuff. It’s also, when you think about it, a lot like real life. We go to work and often we’re working on something together with other folks trying to create something or solve a problem. We have to communicate and share.

So where did it go? Talking to teachers that I know I can see they are trying very hard to keep creative, engaged learning alive but it is getting harder. In many rooms choice time has gone from the core curriculum—from being the center of the day–to being a free play time at the end of the day “if we get all our work done”. Sometimes it’s even a reward for getting the work done. But it should be so much more than that. It should be the work of learning at the center of kindergarten.

Children do need to learn how to write letters, add groups of numbers and read words. These skills are important. But they become so much more exciting for young learners when they get to use them everyday while creating, solving problems and following their interests with their friends.

Let me give a cooking analogy. When learning to cook I had to learn to chop onions, sauté meat and crack and beat eggs. But the importance of those skills was in putting the meal together. That is where we become chefs and create something that gives us great satisfaction. Do we want our children to be onion choppers and egg beaters or do we want them to be great chefs and create the future. I know what I want.