Kindergarten and the Big Divide

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!


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30-Apr-2015 03:59 PM Joann Bernhofer

As a retired Physical Educator, I agree with you completely.

30-Apr-2015 04:08 PM Sonja

I so agree with how times have changed. Makes me wonder why and what for? I agree that children are not allowed to just be children anymore and that impacts terribly on their natural development to be great one day! There are pressures on them that is and was created by adults that's scared that they will fail or fall behind or not develop their full potential, but no one ever paused to ask how this pressure and new curriculum impacts on the child and at what cost the pushing them into their "full potential" will come.

30-Apr-2015 08:53 PM Gabrielle

Hi! I am also a pediatric occupational therapist and I couldn't agree more with you. I actually worked for Timbernook while I was still an OT student and I worked at Growing Places preschool as well! I wish we could take the practices of both Timbernook and GP and extend them to public kindergartens.. Somehow. I fully admire your decision to pull your daughter out of kindergarten! Just wanted to comment and let you know :) thank you for writing that!

30-Apr-2015 11:23 PM Ingrid jansen

Aa a kindergarden teacher I couldn't agree more. We need to ge back to the old days

01-May-2015 02:03 AM Ingrid Wubben

As a Tomatis® practitioner with a background in occupational therapy, Steiner-Waldorf education and early childhood education, I see first-hand the impact of our toxic environment on children. Play , story-telling the Waldorf way, and being at peace 'in the moment' are essential tools for parenting in this age. Thank you for sharing your insightful wisdom.

01-May-2015 07:40 AM Brenda

This is said so well. I have preschoolers and I feel the same pressure to push them even at this age. I wish we could get people to understand. On top of that,teachers have so much pressure to document and justify what they do and why they do it, the relaxed playful environment is compromised. We continue to do the best we can for the kids sake while trying to fit into the ever growing restraints we must work within. Keep smiling it makes a difference.

01-May-2015 09:38 AM Mauricio Herrador

as a Physical Therapist Assistant I see many young kids come for therapy, many times due to sports injuries, many with intractable pain. Ive been obserkving the frequency of this phenomenon for the last 6-7 years wondering why. One of the reasons I love and always share this blog is because it has provided for me the most sensible anwer to this problem. I see that not only children are not having the opportunities necessary to develop healthy motor skills (among many other). I see children having surgeries that were meant to "fix" a problem that could have easily been dealt with by teaching them those latent motor skills also. And then on the other hand we have highschool age kids that are being pushed so hard to perform by coaches and parents that they are literally breaking their backs in the process. I am trying not to go on a rant, so let me just say that I perceive this as an "epidemic" !!!

01-May-2015 11:18 AM Kristin Larson

Well, I am going to upset the trajectory of this discussion a bit. I am not a pediatric professional in any way ( I'm a lawyer), but would say, that my son (soon to be 5 years old) who has been in wonderfully enriching preschool settings for the past three years, which are modeled on the Waldorf style emphasizing flow creativity, interaction across the 2 to 5 year old spectrum and very little imposed structure, is entirely ready and eager for the beginnings of academic structure in kindergarten. This is to say that a preschool experience, if thoughtfully conceived gives children the very type of environment that the author had in her kindergarten, thus making the transition to the new reality kindergarten very appropriate ... So I guess my rant, if I had one, would be to emphasize early childhood education in the preschool context, ensuring that it is an open and creative environment. And further that all children should access to these preschools.

01-May-2015 11:44 AM Rensche Senekal

Kindergarten teachers and parents should take back the power to object to the neglect of teaching what is needed most at age 5.

01-May-2015 02:12 PM Julie Morra

My daughter had all kinds of gaps in her recall. For instance, she couldn't sing the alphabet song. Or she would describe an object that was red, round, rubber and bounced, but couldn't pull out the word "ball." Extensive testing at our own expense provided clarity. She's a kinesthetic learner. In order for the information to anchor and go in, she requires movement. On the advice of special ed educators, we made a concerted effort to give her tactile experiences to draw upon so when she was sitting in class reading about a tree, she could bring up the memory of tree bark. She marched in circles doing her math homework and we got special permission for her to chew gum in the classroom as well as sit in a bean bag chair rather than always at a desk. I can't imagine what her life in school would have been like if we had not taken the initiative. I don't know how non-traditional learners cope in classrooms so stagnant and free from movement. Even now she struggles in college where it's expected that an adult can sit through, and understand, a 90 minute lecture. Taking notes is important for her, but everything takes hours longer as she has to re-teach herself the information when she gets home. This change in kindergarten, aimed at giving kids an academic edge, is only crippling them.

01-May-2015 03:11 PM Jenn mc

We live in NH . On orientation day my son's teacher told us, there would be "limited recess" in good weather and no recess in the winter. This was to be a very academic program. I almost cried. As a former pre school teacher working with creative curriculum this was not what I wanted to my barely 5 year old. He loves school but he struggles. He often gets in trouble for talking and trying to play in class, He has come along way academically but that is not good enough for them. We are not allowed to "red shirt" due to children needing to be in school full days by age 6. I hate common core and want my child to be able to play!

01-May-2015 06:01 PM Merry Ann Schell

This is well said. Our children are too precious to be pressured into learning that is not appropriate for kindergarten. Let them learn social skills and how to relate to one another with LOVE.

02-May-2015 12:34 PM Lynn Sollitto

My kinder is 6 years old and I am so grateful we waited the extra year for her. She has sensory processing disorder and challenges with both fine motor and gross motor. I've given up trying to get her to have perfect handwriting or even make the letters "the kindergarten way." (They use D'Nealian handwriting.)

She has a project coming up to learn about an animal that lays eggs. She has a RUBRIC for the assignment! I didn't even know what a rubric was until college! And it's just getting worse with the Common Core Standards.

I give my kids days off to merely play and relax, and then send a note to the teacher. Generally, the teachers are very understanding. I think playing is just as important to learning as classroom time.

03-May-2015 10:11 AM Deb Landman

Unfortunately, we are preparing them for a world of work standards Where anything below a 90% on some audit or checklist equals a failure and can result in your dismissal from your job. We are now a society that no longer tolerates anything other than perfection.

03-May-2015 02:48 PM Car Sher

To the lawyer who is so proud of his son and his preschool...not all children with even all the exact same exposures develop at the same rate for the first 7 - 8 years of life. By 2nd grade your ahead child will have others catching up and many creating too many distractions for his teacher because those children already feel like failures when actually they just were among the slower to develop children. I know what I'm talking about from two fronts - a 2nd grade Early Childhood degreed with a Master's Reading Specialist and the mother of two whom were three years aged difference but only about 1 1/2 years developmentally different by the time the youngest was three. Both finished high school with all A's and graduated college with A's except 3 B's between them. The differences between the two at ages 5 to 7 were night and day! The oldest who is a perfectionist would have never survived and developed into the articulate professional she is in today's kindergarten and first grade classroom even with my guidance so can you imagine how it is for other children?!

03-May-2015 04:34 PM Colleen Kilroy

i work in an integrated preschool and at this time of year the children going on to kindergarten bing in a check list for us to fill out and some of the skills they expect are not developmentally appropriate. Some are 8 and 9 year old skills not 5.

05-May-2015 06:41 PM lisa g

I'm dealing with this RIGHT NOW! I hate it and my sin is miserable. They have a color coding behavior chart. From purple to red with clips. They made a new level, black, just for my son. They put his clip on the foor. They routinely gets black for talking too much. I was talkative a real smart allec. As an adult that skill, aling with tact, is called a leadership skill. In my son's case it's considered shameful. He's also gotten in trouble for crying all day after being teased fir standing up for a friend. He hit a student yesterday n today. So he's not a saint. But i know in other schools he'd be corrected and theyed move on. His teacher n principle have told me they dont have time in their strict daily schedule to be giving him extra attention to clam his outbursts with the other 21 students in the class. I've considered pulling him out for the rest of the year n sending him back to his sitter. There he was the star pupil used as an example during learning time. I can't wait for this year to be over. I'm sending him to a different school.

06-May-2015 12:25 AM Jody K

I believe that Montessori education is the answer. It is multi-sensory, it goes at the child's pace, and it is amazing. A new book is out by Charlotte Cushman, who has over 40 years of Montessori experience: Montessori: Why It Matters for your Child's Success and Happiness. It's a great read and is wonderful for parents and educators. I would choose Montessori education if I had it to do all over again. Done properly, it educates the whole child -- gross and fine motor skills, critical thinking, social courtesies and so much more! It's everything an early childhood education should be, teaching a child how to think and also teaching them to become independent.

06-May-2015 06:26 AM Concerned Parent

I read all these comments and some of you are stressing the 'play' time. But I also am curious how many of you let your child use your smart phone, watch tv, etc? How many hours a week do you let your child access to the screen and completely ignore them yourself. How many of you look at your smartphones while you are with your child. Very easy to place blame on others, but we really need to look inward ourselves to make sure we are doing everything perfect before critiquing others. Once we ourselves our perfect, then we should start examining everyone else. Perhaps all the behavioral problems stem from a parents lack of focus on our children. Childcare/daycare itself could also be part of the problem. There was once one parent at home all the time with the child. Now often both parents work. So..I think there are so many influences in a child's life and to consistently place that blame on others is a bit ridiculous and we really should look at ourselves first. That is all I have...Thanks!

06-May-2015 09:31 AM Julie H

Angela, May I ask what you did with your child once you pulled her from kindergarten? Did you home school or wait a year? I just read your blog in the Washington Post and started weeping because it rings so true; I was in kindergarten in 1985 and have the same memories-- playing outside, playing make believe, and singing. Fast forward 35 years and my daughter is failing kindergarten. She is a bright child and even scored highly on the initial assessment test when she first entered, but almost a year in and her confidence and curiosity to learn are at an all time low. Reading my child's words through the voice of yours gave me chills: "They also started pushing reading so much that my child started coming home saying, 'I hate school. I hate reading.'”

Mid-year we even brought her to a psychologist to see if there were any learning disabilities or behavioral issues getting in the way-- as expected, nothing is conclusive at this age because it's too early to tell and my hunch is she's just developmentally not there. At the same time, my once sweet and curious little girl is now anxious and full of self doubt. This is compounded by the fact that her teacher does not show any sensitivity or understanding; to her, my daughter is a problem (because she has trouble following directions and doesn't complete her work in time), so she is singled out, put in preferential seating with those who have behavior problems, and not allowed free play until she finishes her work. I am heartbroken and outraged. What can we do???

06-May-2015 04:22 PM Green Grandam

Amen. Amen. Amen. And amen.

06-May-2015 10:21 PM Anonymous

I was reading my own thoughts. My oldest entered kindergarten this year and get teacher warned us as well that " this is not kindergarten as you know it. It's insane what's asked of these little people. But the good news is I still want to be here. For now." Wow I thought. But yes lunches are rushed. Recesses also short. Recess had no grass in an upper middle class area. Whose idea was that. And yes during winter these kids never went out. Nor did they run around in the gym gone were the crafts of preschool.

07-May-2015 05:39 AM Tanya Murray

I agree with you! I believe there is also no flexibility to provide different teaching methods to suit the different ways children learn. All children are expected to learn the same, at the same age, in the same amount of time.. There are a million ways children can learn concepts and life lessons and these are more likely to be achieved when a child is interested in what they are learning. The best way to know a child's interests is observing them in PLAY!

07-May-2015 07:15 AM Debbie Polkowski

As a newly retired pediatric occupational therapist who spent 30 years working in a school system, I passionately and wholeheartedly agree with your article. Every word you wrote should be plastered on billboards across the nation, and shouted from the rooftops of every building! I have been preaching the importance of fine and gross motor development through play for years and it makes me so sad to see the direction of education in this country. Thank you for this excellent article. I wish it was required reading for every legislator who is making decisions for our children.

07-May-2015 07:54 AM Louise

I would like to know your/others' thoughts on Montessori education in relation to this.


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