As a Kindergarten teacher, we are told to give our students a ‘purpose‘ for reading, or writing, or math. The feeling is that children need to learn not just the content, but ‘why’ a particular task is important to the topic and how it relates to the topic, or its purpose.
In the ‘olden days’ of Kindergarten, our purpose as teachers was to help children function on a social level. Kindergarten children had ample time to play and explore all kinds of materials and mediums for learning. Academic learning was secondary to social growth. Block play, dramatic play, thematic art projects, singing songs and participating in whole and small group activities were the hallmark of a strong educational program. If you were really lucky, your child’s teacher actually PLAYED A PIANO in class and sang along with the children! And Kindergarten was a half-day program.
Now, the purpose of Kindergarten is not social development, but rather academic prowess.
Even with tragic events like Columbine, Aurora, and most recently Newtown, social goals are not at the helm. Yes, we are instructed to collect data on our student’s behaviors if they are negatively impacted learning, but it is in addition to all the mounds of academic assessments that we complete on our youngest learners each week. And the social workers are working twice as hard to address so many social issues that impact a child’s classroom experience. They are presenting curriculum in classrooms, holding Lunch Bunch social groups, and assisting teachers in implementing behavior charts and collecting data points. They attend PPTs to help monitor and address student behaviors and work with children, teachers, and parents to address social issues and concerns.
Kindergarten is a pivotal year when it comes to social learning and development. Some of my students still come to Kindergarten as their first school experience. No preschool, no daycare, and no other ‘academic’ setting but my classroom. For these students, I worry. I worry that their sole memory of Kindergarten is going to reading, writing, and math, and not what friendships they made or how they learned fun songs or played with friends in the blocks or kitchen area.
I was hired at the turning point when the district I work for went from half day to full day. With those extra hours came more academic learning for the children, not more social learning. In the past 16 years, children as young as 4 years old are learning sight words, reading strategies, and how to write sentences and illustrate with corresponding pictures. Gone is rest time, gone is hours of creative play. I still put time in every day for recess and free choice centers, but an hour a day total is not enough for young children to thrive socially.
Mental health, or what I believe to be social health, is clearly on the back burner when it comes to education in the United States. We want our children to be top of the class academically at the expense of their social and emotional well-being. We see this over and over in the news. Children are in pain and act out against people with violence. It is only when these acts are displayed across the media that we stop, shake our heads, demand action, and then grow silent again. Dismantling a broken educational system is more difficult than making necessary positive social changes for students, I guess. And the changes I’m talking about aren’t major. We can still do reading, writing and math in Kindergarten. But not hours of it as the backbone of our youngest learners day. We need to infuse age appropriate concepts in these areas through play activities, literature rich experiences, and time outside exploring nature and the community. Mr. Rogers said it best, “Play is the work of children.” I truly believe that play and social growth should be the main purpose of Kindergarten. When children can handle social cues and experiences as second nature, academic learning is much easier, more fulfilling, and everlasting.
Think about when you tried to learn a new skill when you were a kid. Did you do it when someone told you to do it, or when you were interested in it? How lasting was the learning? What memories do you have of your teachers? And why do you have those particular memories, either good or bad?
We teachers have had to implement No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core over the years. Each of programs put forth by our national government profess to help students reach their full potential. But it’s not their social potential that is addressed in these laws, but their academic potential.
We set high academic standards for students to reach, but what about setting high social and emotional standards and letting academic teaching come at an age appropriate time across all grade levels? With the academic bar raised in Kindergarten, the trickle up effect forces children at all successive grade levels to perform well above their grade level as well. And think about what these goals do to the ESOL and Special Education population!
What is the purpose of a 4-year-old Kindergarten student being able to independently read and retell a book for an assessment if that child can’t sit engaged for a literature-rich story experience?
What is the purpose of completing a math activity if a young child doesn’t understand the basics of taking turns when working in groups?
What is the purpose of writing a story with letters and sounds if the child isn’t ready to understand how letters and sounds work?
What is the purpose of education if we are focusing on one area at the expense of another?
image from google images