It is 1984. I’m six-years-old. I’m immersed in a bout of pretend play with my friends, Cheryl and Robin. I’m the princess and Robin is the queen. Poor Cheryl has to play the boy. She is the King. Our play area backs up to wooded lot and we are allowed in them as long as we can still see the teachers. We play for a full hour before it is time to go back inside. In the classroom again, we are fully energized and excited to sing, “Little Bunny Foo Foo” in chorus with our teacher. Next, we’ll listen to a story and maybe learn a letter of the alphabet.
This memory comes from the past -- just over 30 years ago. When I think of Kindergarten, this is what I recall: plenty of storytelling, hours of playtime, cooking in the classroom, singing songs, and learning my alphabet - all of them happy memories. Fast-forward 30 years, and my oldest daughter is entering kindergarten. Only she is five-years-old, one year younger than I was when I had these memorable experiences. And kindergarten has drastically changed.
I still remember open house night for my daughter’s kindergarten. The seasoned teacher sat right in the middle of all the parents. She had us circling her, which I remember thinking was brave. She didn’t look as excited as I had anticipated she would be to meet the new parents. She scanned the room, looking each of us in the eye and said, “What we are doing to your children is a disservice.” She frowned. “This really isn’t kindergarten anymore.” She took a deep breath and laid out the facts for us, “We are going to treat your children more like first graders. We will focus mainly on arithmetic, reading, and writing. We won’t have time to develop the little fingers of the hands for skills like cutting or handwriting like we did in the past, or help them learn how to tie their shoes. You’ll have to do that now.” It felt like she was not only trying to prepare us, but that she was warning us.
As a pediatric occupational therapist that spent years learning the value of independence and developing healthy fine and gross motor skills in children – I shuddered. This can’t be good. This is wrong. I kept thinking, over and over. It only got worse from that day on.
They started off with a five-minute snack and a twenty-minute recess session, which already felt like they were rushing the children. When the snow fell, (which if you live in New England - you’ll know there is snow on the ground for about four straight months) they took away their recess completely. “No time to get all of those kids dressed,” reasoned the teachers. Then shortly after they got rid of recess, they got rid of their snack time. They also started pushing reading so much that my child started coming home saying, “I hate school. I hate reading.” My heart broke and I finally had enough. I pulled my daughter out of kindergarten.
We have a big problem here. Children are expected to do more than ever before at a very young age. What we recall as the precious skill-building and playful days of kindergarten are gone. Creating a heavy academic environment early in life with little time to play is already developmentally inappropriate and most likely damaging. On top of this, more and more children are not spending nearly enough time playing outdoors as years past. Therefore, a lot of children are lacking the sensory and motor experiences they need from hours of outdoor play to develop into strong and capable children. Instead, many children are having difficulties with balance, attention, coordination, and strength before they even enter kindergarten.
This is creating a big divide – we are expecting more from children at an earlier age, yet children are less prepared to learn than ever before. Hence, one of the many reasons why there has been a huge rise in the need for occupational therapy services over the past decade. This mismatch has many consequences. When children are expected to do things that they are not ready for, they can become labeled as a “problem child” or as having a learning disability even when they don’t. They may also be pulled out of the classroom for special intervention (i.e., reading) if they aren’t keeping up. They can think they are a failure even before they begin their school careers. They can be turned off of learning from the start – setting them up for years of frustrations and disengagement. Nothing good comes from providing curriculum that is not developmentally appropriate.
What should Kindergarten be about? Kindergarten is not a time to memorize facts and figures. It is not a time to figure out who needs intervention – it is too early for that. It is not a time to “buckle down” and dive deep into academic concepts. NO. It is a time to develop the senses, refine the motor skills, learn some important life lessons, and even get children thinking in new ways. It is a time of preparation and laying a strong foundation for future learning and academics.
In order to do these things, we need to allow for more play at school and home, longer recess sessions, time to eat snack and lunch without being rushed, time to cut and paste, time to test their creativity, time to explore and ponder, and time to learn things deeply before moving quickly to the next subject. What’s all the rush for? Let’s give our children plenty of time to grow into the capable children they were meant to be.
Just like plants need sunshine, time, and space to grow. Our children need and deserve the same thing!