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Reflections on kindergarten: giving young children what they deserve.

After being directly and intensely involved with the educational aspect of this unique time, it seems appropriate to reflect on what kindergartners truly deserve as l begin a new sort of journey, through my grandson's eyes.

Walking into school with my grandson on several mornings of his first few weeks of kindergarten has brought back a rush of memories. My senses tell me that some things never seem to change, such as the sight of the crossing guard holding up her red sign, the sounds of screechy school bus brakes, the smell of fresh wax on the shiny floors, the glare of the fluorescent lights overhead, and the colorful posters hanging on the walls with their not-so-subtle reminders of the school's rules. As a parent, kindergarten teacher, program director, supervisor of student teachers, and consultant, I've been involved for well over 40 years with a vast number of children as they've had their very special first school experiences. After being directly and intensely involved with the educational aspect of this unique time, it seems appropriate to reflect on what kindergartners truly deserve as I begin a new sort of journey, through my grandson's eyes.

During one of our morning walks, I asked my grandchild (now a veteran of one month of kindergarten), "What would make kindergarten really great?" Without hesitating, he responded, "Well, it should have a big playground outdoors, with enough swings and slides and other stuff for everybody to play on. The children should be allowed to go out to play two times--long times--every day." His answer did not surprise me.

Looking at Kindergartners' Gross Motor Development

Interestingly, as I reflect back to my first year of teaching in the 1960s in a small rural school outside of Syracuse, New York, I realize that I quickly learned how important outdoor play was for my young students. After they completed a very long school bus ride, all bundled up in snowsuits and boots, it was nearly impossible for them to keep their minds focused. Their little bodies were simply not able to sit for yet another half hour while we began the day with circle time and math. I quickly asked my principal for permission to change our recess time to 8 a.m. Fortunately, in addition to being a very supportive, caring administrator, my principal also was flexible and quite cognizant of young children's developmental needs. With the simple change, the students were able to channel their energies in positive ways, and each school day began much more happily for the children and me!

On the other hand, during the 1970s, when I was directing federally funded after-kindergarten programs located in an urban Pennsylvania school district, I was called into the superintendent's office to answer a complaint. He'd received a report from the on-site principal that our kindergartners (who were bused from several schools) put messy nose prints and fingerprints all over the classroom windows on snowy days. I assured him that I would speak to the teacher. The superintendent and I were not really on the same page at all, however. I continued to explain to him how sad I, too, was about those inside prints on the windows, since the children certainly needed to be playing outdoors in the fresh air and physically experiencing the wonders of a snowy day.

Today, with the pressures that school administrators and teachers are feeling from the mandates of "No Child Left Behind" to get school-age children ready for standardized testing, such time-honored and valued activities as recess and play have been all but eliminated from many kindergarten programs (Scofield, 2003). In some states, like Texas, physical education teachers must follow the state regulations for kindergarten, which emphasize learning fundamental movement skills ("Texas essential knowledge," 1997). In some schools, unfortunately, physical education for 5-year-olds consists of students standing on assigned numbers and performing exercises. Obviously, such an activity is not really a whole lot of fun or particularly appropriate for this young age. And, of course, with children's diminished physical activity at school, as well as at home, childhood obesity rates are on the rise.

What changes need to be made in order for kindergartners to develop their gross motor skills in healthy ways? My grandson had the right idea--get young kids outside frequently, in big blocks of time, so they can develop their play activities with their friends on ample, safe equipment. Children need opportunities for spontaneous physical play--a grassy area for tag, or a jungle gym apparatus to climb up and then quickly slide down (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Props should be supplied for active theme play, such as riding trikes through a "drive-through bank" or creating "giant canals" in the sandbox. And, digging and planting gardens, as suggested by Froebel (Morrison, 2004), is still a great idea!

Indoors, wooden block play should be available daily so that kindergartners can strengthen their large muscles while lifting, pushing, and pulling the blocks as they create exciting constructions. Young children need to be encouraged to move their bodies with great games and songs, like "Monkey See, Monkey Do" or "This Is the Way We Wash Our Clothes," instead of always sitting during circle time. By providing boxes of colored scarves or streamers and interesting musical selections, 5-year-olds can be prompted to participate in fascinating impromptu creative movement activities.

Examining Cognitive Development

When I reflect on the cognitive development of kindergartners, I think about some of my early experiences during the mid-1960s in a brand new, non-graded, team-teaching, open classroom setting in suburban Syracuse, New York. In our classroom, which was based on the "Open Education" programs thriving in England, our vertically grouped K-2 children worked and played together in small groups during various portions of the day. Much of the language and math was integrated around themes of interest to the children (family, farm, winter), with the children creating their own books and solving problems cooperatively.

When I became a master teacher for the kindergarten at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s, I adopted this style of teaching. Learning was great fun--the way it's supposed to be! One semester, we regularly visited and "supervised" the building of a neighborhood house; back at school, the 5-year-olds created their own model of a house. The children drew and "read" architectural plans. They dug and measured their own foundation in the sand pit. On the Science Table, the 5-year-olds sorted building supplies by properties (wood, metal, plastic, stone). They classified nails and bolts by size and shape in the Math Center. At the Art Table, they designed colorful patterned wallpaper. In the Writing Center, they wrote bills for building supplies. And, they read wonderful books about houses, like The House That Jack Built, in the Library Center. Of course, the kindergartners acted out their version of the classic tale of "The Three Little Pigs" in the Dramatic Play Center. They measured and created interesting window frames and functional furniture at the Carpentry Bench. During circle time, progress reports of the building process were dictated, written down on experience chart paper, and shared. Children also participated in lively songs, such as "Johnny Works With One Hammer."

During my dozen years of teaching young children at the Kutztown University Early Learning Center, I watched the children learn how to read, write, spell, speak, and solve math problems--the very things that young children are tested for today--in a very natural way in a rather child-centered atmosphere. I subscribed to Piaget's theory that young children learned best by hands-on experiences (Morrison, 2004). Partially as a result of the children's participation in various center activities during free-choice times, workbooks and worksheets never seemed necessary in order for them to learn the basic academic skills.

Even though it was a full-day kindergarten program, the children did not feel the effects of an imposed pushdown curriculum, overloaded with heavy academics, such as is so prevalent in many schools today; they followed their own interests and moved at their own speed. I used a Vygotskian approach (as described in Driscoll & Nagel, 2002) when the children were ready. Through cues, demonstrations, and other guides, supportive adults (e.g., student teachers, older children, community volunteers, parents) scaffolded the 5-year-olds to move to higher levels of learning.

Today, when I visit my grandson's school or when he shares what happens there, I am pleased to hear how the music and art teachers are reading wonderful picture books as springboards for learning exciting songs and generating interesting artwork. These activities certainly help make for a well-balanced kindergarten program--just what young children deserve!

However, I must admit that when I was supervising student teachers and visiting a number of schools over the past 10 years, I was concerned to see so many children coloring in, and struggling to write on, masses of worksheets and workbook pages. For many children of this age, hand-eye and fine motor coordination is not yet fully developed, making these paper and marker experiences very frustrating. For others, their creativity and interest can be stifled if worksheets simply become low-level, non-productive busywork. My hope is that teachers will use these materials sparingly and supplement them with rich manipulative type of activities, like clay and colorful table blocks, that challenge the kindergartners' creative and critical thinking skills (Miller & Cantor, 1999).

Many kindergarten classrooms I visit today appear to be exclusively using packaged commercial programs for whole-group instruction. When I ask for an explanation, I am told that the entire school or district has adopted a comprehensive textbook series or program and it is perceived that the sequence must begin with kindergarten. Another justification given is that by working through such a program, it will influence how children eventually score on the mandated tests.

How can 5-year-olds be given a little breathing space from a heavy diet of these pressures? For starters, remind the local district textbook or grade level committee decision-makers that 1st grade is just that: the first place where children need to be introduced to these more rigorous purveyors of basic curriculum. Kindergarten, on the other hand, was meant to be an "introduction" to learning, a time of discovery through play and actual experiences--just think of Froebel's "garden of children." I believe that well-trained, motivated, resourceful teachers (or teams of teachers) can find a multitude of marvelous, appropriate ways to involve their 5-year-olds in large- and small-group or individualized instruction while integrating the required state standards and national mandates. And no doubt, their ideas will be much more relevant to their local programs than the dictates found in many textbooks.

Any mention of reading always elicits a lively discussion. However, I think that most kindergarten teachers agree that it is valuable for children to be exposed to a wide variety of printed materials (e.g., books of different genres, including poetry, informational, and fairy tales; magazines; posters; signs; etc.). Because children have such different learning styles, I found that a combination of whole language and phonics, along with taking children's dictation and encouraging them to use "invented" spelling, seemed to be the most viable approach to reading instruction. I must say, I do become nervous when I observe a predominantly phonics approach being used and I hear all of the children at one time stuttering out words ("d-d-d-dog"). It still seems to me that young children deserve to learn to read words in a realistic context, rather than merely memorizing the "word of the week" on a flashcard.

Facilitating Young Children's Social and Emotional Development

With the great emphasis placed on academic accountability as a result of the NCLB mandates and a fear of funding being withheld if schools do not "measure up" academically (Swadener, 2003), the social and emotional growth of kindergartners is sometimes unintentionally de-emphasized. However, when young children are asked, "What do you like to do at kindergarten?" one of the most common responses is, "Play with my friends." A great deal of children's learning and how they feel about themselves occurs as the result of their social interactions with each other (Dubois, Manna, Squires, & Stockman, 2003).

One of the most wonderful examples of a school that children truly deserve evolved about 10 years ago when I was a consultant for the pre-K and K programs in a small, rural town in southeastern Texas. Teachers planned some interesting activities in these teacher-oriented, worksheet-driven kindergartens, but the children were not experiencing a whole lot of communication or interaction. When I suggested designing and implementing a sand and water playscape in the no-play zone (in the fenced-off courtyard), the children, teachers, and community immediately jumped at the chance. It was a group effort. Children, parents, grandparents, Boy Scout troop members, high school "PALS," teachers, the principal, and adults from the community worked cooperatively to dig a base, add pea gravel (donated by a neighborhood store), and collect and put together equipment. A local industry generously created and donated a gigantic sandbox, side-by-side water tables, and huge double easels.

When the playscape was finished, the students laughed and painted together, learned to cooperatively join yards of PCV piping on a wire wall, spelled each other's names in the damp sand with alphabet letter molds, shared pumps and funnels in intricate water projects, and planned elaborate sandbox treasure hunts for each other. Splashing water and digging big holes offered opportunities for the 5-year-olds to release tensions in positive ways. When the plants they carefully watered flowered, their sense of achievement blossomed as well.

These children were involved with a dynamic model of intergenerational cooperation, as people from many cultures worked together for a worthwhile common cause. Because the environment was exciting and satisfying, the kindergartners felt comfortable and good about themselves. Inasmuch as these experiences occurred daily, the children learned to treat others and the materials with care and respect. Discipline problems were minimal. Teachers and other supportive volunteers were accessible as facilitators and encouraged children to work together to solve their problems. Furthermore, the increased communication and positive interactions among children and adults transferred to the indoor classroom setting.

Since I am an advocate of 5-year-olds learning to be problem solvers (Miller & Backer, 2000), I sometimes worry when I visit kindergarten classrooms and observe adults manipulating children's behavior by separating those children who talk to each other. Or, another non-self-esteem builder used to socialize young children is to remove a scoop of "ice cream" from their paper cone or take a "petal" off their paper daisy as a punishment for getting too excited during circle time and blurting out an answer instead of raising their hands. Parents soon learn to ask their anxious kindergartners whether they received a "green" or "red" light for their behavior for the day. Instead of relying on such "quick fixes," it seems prudent for teachers to help young children learn how to monitor their own behaviors and interactions for the long term (Epstein, 2003). In order to create ample opportunities for 5-year-olds to learn responsibility for controlling their own behavior and playing cooperatively with others, teachers can provide a healthy balance in their schedules, environments where small groups can learn to interact, and sufficient materials that are age-level appropriate.

Conclusion

Since so many schools today appear to be struggling or failing, maybe it behooves us to reflect back to different times when kindergarten seemed to be more relaxed and was fun. Because there is no one perfect program for all kindergartens or all 5-year-olds, teachers will need to draw from a vast number of programs available today and their own successful experiences to create the best one for their children. Implementing some of the practices that worked well for children in the past is a good place to start.

References

Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (Eds.). (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Driscoll, A., & Nagel, N. (2002). Early childhood education, birth-8: The world of children, families, and educators. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Dubois, S., Manna, C., Squires, J., & Stockman, J. (Fall 2003). Vermont early learning standards: Guiding the development and learning of children entering kindergarten. Montpelier, VT: Vermont Department of Education.

Epstein, A. S. (2003, September). How planning and reflection develop young children's thinking skills. Young Children, 58(5), 28-36.

Hyun, E. (2003). The "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001: Issues and implications for early childhood teacher education. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 24(2), 119-126.

Miller, S., & Backer, B. (2000). Problem-solving kids. Torrance, CA: Totline Publications.

Miller, S., & Cantor, P. (1999). Worksheets in preschool: Too much, too soon. ACEISpeaks. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.

Morrison, G.S. (2004). Early childhood education today. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Scofield, R. (2003, January). Cut recess and get sued? School-Age NOTES, p. 1.

Swadener, B. (2003). "This is what democracy looks like!": Strengthening advocacy in neo-liberal times. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 24(2), 135-141.

Texas essential knowledge and skills for kindergarten. (1997, September). Physical Education, Kindergarten, A30-32. Available www.tea.state.tx.us/curriculum

SUGGESTIONS FOR MAKING KINDERGARTEN THE VERY BEST FOR YOUNG CHILDREN

What can be done to make sure that kindergartners have the schools that they deserve? Let's begin with making sure that their teachers are treated like professionals. Every effort should be made to help them obtain and maintain the skills necessary to do their job; for example, providing funding for college and inservice courses. In particular, kindergarten teachers need to be trained as professional observers and evaluators who can assess young children's progress on a regular basis by using authentic assessments. In this way, expensive commercial assessments could be eliminated for many children, and teachers would not feel so pressured to get children "ready" for testing. It should be made easy for kindergarten teachers to stay on the cutting edge of new techniques, share effective ideas, learn about legislation that may affect them, and look at pertinent materials by furnishing classroom substitutes to encourage, rather than eliminate, conference attendance. An on-site professional library should be maintained with an assortment of materials, such as journals and books selected by a committee of teachers and the principal.

Teachers need to be given support to perform their jobs effectively. These early childhood educators must be paid an appropriate wage so they will want to stay in the field rather than leaving after only a few years (Hyun, 2003). The classroom budgets must be sufficient so that teachers do not have to spend their personal funds to purchase basic school supplies, like construction paper and colored markers. Kindergarten classes must be kept small, or else an assistant should be provided, so teachers can work with manageable-size groups and meet the needs of their children in a timely fashion. A trained core of volunteers should be established through the PTA to oversee the school's workroom (performing such chores as cutting out games and duplicating newsletters), thus freeing up the teacher's time for planning activities and teaching the children. And, parents can show support for the teachers" requests by attending school board meetings and voicing their concerns or signing petitions.

School administrations, legislators, and the public need to be informed of both best practices and the needs of kindergarten programs. Because it can be difficult for one voice to be heard and a single teacher might feet vulnerable, this can be done effectively by working through professional organizations, such as the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI), the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and the World Organization for Early Childhood (OMEP). Sponsoring memberships for student teachers or beginning kindergarten teachers should be considered as a means of getting them involved professionally at the beginning of their careers. It is important to work through committees in local and national teachers" unions to influence legislation and effect positive changes. Develop ongoing relationships with legislators by regularly calling and writing them. Share copies of kindergartners" work, or photos of them in action, with legislators so they can see young children as more than an aggregate of test scores. Encourage administrators to accept invitations to attend conferences, such as the Early Childhood Institute (formerly the New England Kindergarten Conference), with their teachers so that they will consider events from a kindergarten perspective. Finally, kindergarten children's wonderful unique projects need to be showcased throughout the community to keep the taxpayers informed of just what young children really can do, and as a visual campaign to solicit neighborhood volunteers.

Susan A. Miller is Professor

Emerita, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.
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Author:Miller, Susan A.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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