My young granddaughter has been the cause of some consternation around the Walsh household lately. It seems that Schuyler has reached the ripe old age of 13 months without a tooth in sight. This has driven my daughter Megan, Schuyler’s mother, onto the internet and into the doctor’s office seeking information on “tooth readiness.” After all if the kid can’t even grow teeth in a timely manner, what possible chance does she have to be “kindergarten ready” let alone “college and career ready” as the Common Core demands that she be by the time she graduates high school. Schuyler’s readiness checklist has a gaping hole where it says: “Has teeth.”
Right now the education nation seems to be obsessed with “readiness.” Kids apparently need to be ready for pre-school, which leads to being ready for kindergarten. Teachers sit around at this time of year and discuss whether their kindergarten children are ready for first grade. Of course we know that the Common Core State Standards were developed to ensure that students were getting “college and career ready” starting from the moment they entered the school door.
At the recent Network for Public Education conference in Chicago, college professor, author and researcher, Yong Zhao, said the country has this all backwards. The question is not whether my child is ready for kindergarten; the question is “Is kindergarten ready for my child?”
This is exactly right. It is the job of the adults to design a learning environment that meets every child’s need. It is not the responsibility of the child to adapt to what the educators have decided they should be doing. We know that young children vary greatly in their development. We cannot fit 5 year-olds into one-size-fits-all curriculum straightjackets, any more than we can expect my granddaughter to develop teeth on our timeline.
So, what kind of kindergarten is child ready?
A kindergarten that is ready for children is one that recognizes that play is the work of children. Play in kindergarten is a special kind of play; it is play that is skillfully designed by the teacher to create environments for learning. According to Bedrova and Leong, (2006), the kindergarten year “must emphasize the underlying skills that will make later academic success possible. This should be accomplished not by pushing down the curriculum goals and objectives of first grade, but by creating learning opportunities that will address the unique developmental accomplishments that ought to emerge in kindergarten” (p. 142). Notice “not by pushing down the curriculum goals of first grade.” One thing I hear over and over again is that the Common Core and before that NCLB makes kindergarten like first grade.
What do children learn through structured play? The list of learning that takes place in appropriately structured block play and dramatic play is very long. Children learn to problem solve, sort and classify, work cooperatively, measure, balance, gain number sense, self-regulate, consider another’s point of view, develop spatial awareness and delay gratification. Perhaps most impressively and importantly, children engaged in active and structured play with other children develop their oral language, their vocabulary, their ability to listen, sequence and retell and their ability to represent objects and concepts symbolically. This oral language development becomes the child’s greatest ally in coming to be literate.
But kindergarten should not be all play. There is plenty of room for academic content in the kindergarten classroom. The question is not should we teach stuff, but how should we teach stuff? The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has guidelines for Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). They say that young children learn best through a variety of instructional designs including large and small group instruction and play. Direct teacher instruction has increased greatly over the past few years. While this design can be used in small doses, over-reliance on large group instruction is an artifact of No Child Left Behind and Common Core and is not the best way for young children to learn.
Some children will enter kindergarten reading, some will be on the cusp of reading, and some will still be learning their letters. All will benefit from play, but all will also benefit from large group instruction such as morning meeting activities and small group instruction that can target their particular skills. Children who come to kindergarten reading should be able to continue their growth as readers and children who are just beginning to learn letters and hear sounds should receive instruction that helps them acquire these literacy abilities.
We must be careful, however, to make sure that the greater academic focus of kindergarten does not crowd out the traditional role of kindergarten in developing children socially and emotionally. According to the NAEYC, teachers believe social and emotional learning is more important in the early years than academic learning.
The Common Core is mute on social and emotional development, except to recognize that the standards do not address these important aspects of learning. It is interesting that much research has shown that graduating from college is more dependent on a student’s social and emotional skills than academic skills. If social and emotional learning, taught through play and targeted instruction, is crowded out of kindergarten by the Common Core standards we are likely to be unhappy with the results. We neglect social and emotional learning in schools at our children’s peril and at the risk of their “college readiness.”
What makes kindergarten ready for the child? A kindergarten that is ready for your child is one where play is central to learning. It is a place where your child develops the oral language facility and vocabulary that will support literacy learning. It is a place where children are read to every day. It is a place where instruction not only targets academic goals, but specifically and systematically targets social and emotional learning. It is a place where all children are welcomed for what they know and can do and where they all can develop their abilities with appropriate support over time. You can see more of my thoughts on the topic in this post.
As the organization Defending the Early Years has pointed out in its recent report," No research documents long term gains from learning to read in kindergarten." While some children will begin to read in kindergarten, the Common Core expectation that all children will be reading emergent reader texts by the end of kindergarten is precisely the kind of "standard" that forces teachers to abandon appropriate kindergarten learning environments for an academic emphasis. To the extent that education reform does not allow for a developmentally appropriate environment, the reform is misguided at best, and dangerous at worst.
By the way, granddaughter Schuyler is now 15 months old and at a recent family gathering showed off two teeth, one on the bottom and one on the top. As it is with learning benchmarks, sometimes kids just need a little time.
Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (2006). Tools of the Mind. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.