Let’s Discuss: Crisis in Kindergarden, The Disappearance of Play

I recently read an excellent article by Peggy Ornstein in the NY Times about her search for a Kindergarten for her daughter. It is an eye-opening read that pretty much sums up everything that I think is wrong with education in the United States today.

In essence, she struggles find a Kindergarten that doesn’t assign homework to the children.  Even more disturbing was the study commissioned by the advocacy group Alliance for Childhood that showed that the average kindergartners spend 2-3 hours a day being instructed and tested in reading and math and played for less than 30 minutes a day!!

Are we ok with this as parents??

I come at this from a bit of a biased perspective as I was the product of Waldorf education which has an almost worshipful reverence of childhood and delays the onset of academic instruction until the second grade.

But I’m interested in your thoughts because clearly there must be parents who ARE ok with this sort of curriculum, otherwise the public outcry would have put an end to it a long time ago.

I should also mention that the study showed that the testing/instruction neither improved nor predicted children’s educational outcomes. In other words, completely wasted.

What do you all think? Have you dealt with this issue with your older children?  How do you feel about this emphasis on “academics” at such a young age to the detriment of play?

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ariana says:

Wanted to add just one more thing: This article written by a former teacher at my school is one of my favorites for demonstrating just a minute fraction of the thought that goes into EVERY aspect of the education: http://knol.google.com/k/eugene-schwartz/discover-waldorf-education-knitting-and/110mw7eus832b/7#

It discusses the intellectual benefits that “handwork” confers to a developing mind.

And that’s just ONE small aspect of the education! But it gives a nice window into the holistic nature of the curriculum and it’s emphasis on developing the brain not necessarily through “facts” but also through activities.

ariana says:

I’m just thinking about what I could possibly write about Waldorf that would sum up my feelings/experiences there that wouldn’t turn into a book! There is so much to the whole education & philosophy that I feel almost schizophrenic explaining it to people.

But, in regards to delaying reading etc., there is no research that I am aware of that shows that early reading improves academic outcome or that delaying reading causes harm. You could argue conversly that there is no research that shows that delaying reading improves outcome either, so it really just boils down to what feels intuitively more right for you. When I walk into a waldorf grade school I feel embraced in a world of warmth, imagination and wholeness, of children listening to their teacher tell them stories and then having the children retell those stories in books that they create with illustrations and their own words. That is the childhood memory/feeling that I have and that I am looking forward to Jasper having.

It boils down to that EARLY isn’t necessarily BETTER. Waldorf emphasizes teaching you how to think rather than facts so that when you do need to learn new facts/skills they are simple to acquire.

I credit my waldorf education for the fact that I am a self taught web designer. I also credit waldorf for the fact that 6 months after starting to learn guitar I was already writing my own songs and playing gigs.

My Waldorf classmates are amazingly accomplished – one is a professor at Berkley, another is an amazing writer, she’s had her short stories published and is a PR professional who writes every day for a living. Clearly they were not hindered in any way by their “delayed” reading/writing!

I think Sarah and I probably feel very similarly about the issue…I too wish there were a method that combined BOTH things. But I haven’t found it in my research, LOL! Can I get a part Montessori/part Waldorf/part otherwise academic education for my child?

Some of the criticisms I read about Waldorf have to do with the delaying of reading, etc.

Most of the criticisms I read about programs that emphasize reading and math are that they do NOT make time for play.

Where is the perfect system that will do both? This is probably why some parents homeschool.

Having said that, and I’m waiting for Ariana’s post on Waldorf desperately, LOL, I don’t think that they don’t encourage verbal skills. They just go about it differently, no? They don’t teach reading formally until later, but I’ve read that the oral tradition is VERY strong, etc.

Sarah says:

Ariana, I think you’re correct in stating that the standardized tests and associated pressures force an upset of the balance. I’m lucky because I teach 11th and 12th grade students — many of them high-level AP students — so I don’t contend with the same FCAT pressures most other teachers face here in Florida. I would rather teach skills through literature than workbooks. I think most English teachers feel that way. We don’t want the instruction to come — as you said — at the EXPENSE of play, enjoyment, and for us the direct experience with the literature.

However, I DON’T think I would want to DELAY instruction of reading and writing, either. Instead, I would like to see balanced exposure (as Kat just said) and, most importantly, a “PLAYFUL” approach to such instruction, especially for young students. I’m sorry to be repetitious, but I see the HOW as just as important as the WHAT.

katie h. says:

In the early years of a childs life is when they learn most in not all the skills they will need to become adults. In the preschool where my child attends the teachers focus on play but structured play. They have stations, one is a reading station, a computer station, a home living station and then a toy station. They learn through interaction with each other. I also know that their are structured learning times where they are to sit and learn.

What kids in preschool are learning now is what we learned when we were in kindergarden. Kindergardners are learning stuff first graders learned and so one.

Kat says:

I have a 4 month old, so definitely not thinking about schooling yet (yikes or maybe I should!!), but I do know that I would not like this approach of all academics. As I think back to my kindergarten class I mostly remember reading and computer time. And then of course play time, gym, and music class. I think some school, even through high school, focus too much on the core subjects. But I think it was important for me and it will be important for our children to have a nice balance between the core subjects, art, music, gym & physical activities and so much more.

ariana says:

Sarah, I was hoping you would comment!

One would think it’s possible to have both, but I guess the question is if the mandated tests are so difficult so as to require constant instruction at the expense of play.. and i’m sure you know better than most the pressure put on teachers to make sure that their students are prepared for these tests! Of course some teachers will do a better job of striking a balance than others, but it is concerning how many in the survey seemed to be erring completely on the side of instruction.

Sarah says:

As an English teacher of 16-18 year olds, I work very hard to keep my curriculum both challenging and fun. As a new parent, I want my son to learn AND play. I always attribute my love for reading and writing to the fact that my mother taught me how to read long before I entered school; I never saw it as “work.” I’ve had many bright students who have had difficulty expressing themselves through writing because reading and writing were never incorporated into their everyday lives. They were seen as forced tasks, not enjoyable activities. I want my son to develop an early appreciation for words — verbal AND written. But does that mean that I want him to spend hours each day doing boring handouts — either at school OR at home? NO WAY! As someone has already mentioned, if the “homework” is intended to involve the parents in something like reading together, then I think that’s beneficial. I don’t think that reading and “play” have to be mutually exclusive. Does a school that teaches reading or math necessarily have to sacrifice play? Isn’t it possible to have both?
I guess I’m concerned not only with WHAT will be taught, but HOW it’ll be delivered or assessed. I’m not a fan of busy work or, for that matter, standardized testing/assessment. I AM, however, a fan of keeping things challenging, stimulating, diverse, and fun for brains of all ages.
I’m going to check out those books Lou recommended. It sounds like I’ve got a lot of thinking to do…

ariana says:

Sayde, thank you for weighing in with your perspective. In my mind the question is not CAN they be learning this material but SHOULD they be, particularly at the expense of something that will can never be regained – a childhood full of play! (ed. to say DOH! I just read Lou’s reponse and she said pretty much the same thing :)

I think this is just one more mistep in our society’s insatiable desire for more FASTER. But at what cost and WHY? If there is no difference in academic performance down the road then why rob our children of the precious little time they have to be children? They have a whole lifetime ahead of them to do homework, then “real” work! Why the rush?

Meggan, I can see how the time you spend with your daughter doing homework is special to you, but wouldn’t it be the same even if she weren’t assigned homework? I.e. would you not spend some other sort of time together bonding with her? I guess I take issue with the fact that by assigning homework, particularly the type that requires an adult’s assistance, the state is mandating the type of time that I spend with my child outside of school.

I don’t mean to be contentious, but in regards to: “The parents who complained about homework for the kindergartners were the ones who had a general lack of enthusiasm about doing anything with their child.” Sadly, it’s probably true that a lot of parents are not interested in involving themselves in their children’s schooling, etc., but I also don’t think it’s necessarily true that being anti-homework equals being uninterested in one’s child’s education/growth. I hate that those parents to which you referred, acting as such are creating this belief.

I don’t think it’s a question of whether young children CAN complete homework, learn to read or complete other work at an early age, etc. It’s a question of whether they SHOULD be. Many lessons are learned without formal curricula, and the research seems to show that what is taught without context, without a connection to something practical, is lost over time anyway to children under 7.

I’m looking forward to carefully reviewing that study you posted Ariana. It seems like all parenting decisions are hard ones, ha? Great discussion.

Meggan says:

I do agree that there is a definite lack of physical activity in schools. My daughter just completed kindergarten and her teacher pushed for more play/learning time but they still spent a lot of time in the classroom. I don’t have any problem with homework at this age though. When my daughter brought home her homework it was a chance for us to work together on what she was learning and for it to be reinforced at home. The parents who complained about homework for the kindergartners were the ones who had a general lack of enthusiasm about doing anything with their child. I felt like the homework gave me an opportunity to do some “home-schooling” while still allowing my daughter the social aspect of a public education.

Sadye says:

I am a Kindergarten teacher and unfortunatly because of the mandates under “no child left behind” the teachers don’t have a choice (in public schools) ….the testing comes from the country and the state. It’s not all bad news though…I have 5-6 year old’s that are reading on a 2nd grade reading level by the time they get to June. The kids are way advanced in reading, writing and math. The old curriculum didn’t teach much of this (the new curriculum is more of a 1st grade level) because it was believed that 5-6 year old’s couldn’t learn the material, but they can!

jbhat says:

Hmm. I will definitely need to investigate what our kindergarten’s curriculum involves, since it will be upon us not this fall, but next. Homework for 5 year olds? Odd. But if it’s something that is meant to involve parents in the educational process of their child at home, then maybe I am okay with that. Maybe schools have found that parents are not as invested, in general, as they should/could be. Helicopter parents aside, that is.

Our kiddo is 4. He has been going to a Montessori child care center since late infancy, and the focus of Montessori, which I am totally on board with, is “works.” Children have a great capacity to learn about the natural world, practical life, sensory experiences and also language, math and science. Our kiddo seems to be thriving on the curriculum at his school, and they also have PLENTY of play time. He comes home every day with scrapes and scuffs and sand everywhere from all the running around they do during outside play, yet he can also already read and tell you about tidal zones and how an airplane flies, so I think he’s experiencing a good combination of everything thus far. I’m realizing that there is NO homework, as I type this. But we do get weekly reports about what went on in particular with our kiddo (what he focused on, who he played with) and what to expect the coming week. Anyway, I am worried that he might be sort of bored in kindergarten. But then, of course, every parent thinks her child is an advanced, gifted, genius, so maybe I am just one of those mommies and he’s just a regular kiddo.

This topic has definitely given me food for thought, though. Thanks!

I’m looking forward to that post Ariana! I guess saying that’s what you have in mind for Jasper speaks volumes on its own.

From what I read, there is some cross over between Montessori and Waldorf, but it seems Montessori stresses children playing at “real” activities, like cooking, etc. rather than “pretend” play, which the literature says is more emphasized in Waldorf. I think I also read that kids are left to play by themselves a lot more in Montessori and Waldorf stresses more group activities and community? Having never been to either, I don’t really know: just what I read.

We don’t even have a Waldorf school in Ft. Lauderdale, so that’s a problem right there…

This conversation reminds me of a book I just came across, “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.” It’s tough to not want your child to be ahead of “the learning curve,” but kids have grown and developed through play for centuries with no ill effects. Pushing early development through teaching reading, writing, math and more at younger and younger ages really bothers me. Yes, I want my babies to be smart, but I think that interaction and stimulation are the key to intelligence.
On a personal note, I learned to read (and I mean reading sentences with comprehension) when I was three years old. My mom fully admits that I, as the youngest of three kids born within a 2.5 year time span, did not get as much attention as my two older siblings. My mom simply read to the three of us a lot. She didn’t teach me letters or words, but the skill was learned without any special actions or attention on her part. I’m not saying that to boast, I’m just saying that we can push kids all we want, but learning will happen at its own pace, on its own time.

Lee Ann says:

You could not have posted this at a better time. My oldest is four and will not start kindergarten until 2010, but he is already being “assessed” in his PRE-preK class. In his current class the 3-4 year olds are expected to recognize and write all upper and lower case letters. What? I don’t remember doing this until kindergarten or first grade. I’ve been a little stressed and worried that he is falling behind but he is just the type of kid that is much more interested in playing than sitting at the table writing his name. After reading that article I realize that what really matters is that I know he is bright kid and hopefully that thirst for knowledge will kick in a little later…right now he should just get to be a kid and play.

ariana says:

Lou – well I could talk for eons about waldorf, so will have to be a whole other post topic for sure.. but do you have any specific questions? In a nutshell, I LOVED it and wouldn’t consider sending Jasper anywhere else (perhaps the highest praise?) but am well aware how strange it can seem :) I also have heard good things about that book, I believe from people in the Waldorf community.

Hami, CONGRATULATIONS!! I think that yes, many of us will be shocked at how much has changed in the education system since WE were children – and not in a good way.

Keri, Waldorf is sort of like Montessori in someways, though it was a precursor (some people call Montessori “waldorf lite” Lol). It’s based on the philoshopy of rudolf steiner and is really popular in europe but much more obscure here. It is such a huge topic – but basically the whole curriculum is designed to mimic the child’s natural development and is very arts, language, handwork centered. The goal of waldorf education is to develop the head, heart and hands (intellect, emotions and will) in a holistic way. There are no textbooks and TV is not allowed at home. Academics like reading writing are delayed until 7 or so when Steiner believed children to naturally be ready to want to engage in such intellectual activities..the age where they begin to be curious about such things rather than have them be imposed on them. That doesn’t even begin to cover it, but the link I posted has some other information!

Alicia, that sounds like very interesting book, please let me know what you think when you are done!

Alicia says:

Great post, Ari! I just ordered a book, which I haven’t read yet, called “The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development” by Richard Weissbourd, which is basically about how to raise a MORAL, happy child. American culture is so results- and achievement-focused that we, as parents, let the teaching of morality fall by the wayside…. I’m gonna get around to reading it soon – I just got a couple more things to achieve first ;-)

Keri says:

Wow, I had not even heard of the limited play curriculum until I read your post. I’ll have to look into that– maybe that hasn’t caught on here yet. Anyway, I do agree that children that young need more play than academics and hope I can find something that fits that mold. By the way, I had never heard of the Waldorf schools, either, until you mentioned them. Are they similar to Montessori schools? I’d love to hear more!

HamiHarri says:

Homework in Kindergarten?  Ew!  I thought kindergarten was all about play and developing social skills (with a little bit of colours/numbers/reading thrown in the mix)?  30 minutes of play a day?  How depressing.  I’m wondering if these are full days or half days.  I’m guessing more kindergarten classes are half days now?

Hehehe…I have even more time to think about these things (I’m only 9 weeks today!)…  I clearly remember my kindergarten class.  It was full of rotating through various stations.  The only time we were given formal instruction was when we had to follow directions for a  specific craft, or for our Christmas concert.  I also don’t remember formal testing either.  I remember being challenged at specific stations…learning how to write out numbers…and even the reading station – but no check marks or “x” for right or wrong answers.  That sounds mighty intimidating.

When I hear stories like this about traditional education, it really makes me want to consider alternative learning…like Montessori and such…but I think I’m too mainstream for that ;)

Too bad we couldn’t just trust the system to do what’s best for our little ones, hey?

I’ve been meaning to ask you about your Waldorf experience FOREVER! I want to hear ALL about it. The positive things sound amazing. But I’d be lying if I didn’t also say that I’ve read some not-so-great things about it, too, mainly about it being cultish and just, well, odd. But on paper, it really appeals to me. So it’d be great if you could go into detail either in a post or in a comment here. I know all of that is WAAAAYS away for us with just months-old babies, but I still think about it all the time.

But lol, to more directly address what you did ask, I’m more and more in the camp of play over academics, at a young age anyway. As someone who teaches older students, I do think that eventually students should realize that not everything in school needs to be “fun” — but high school and college are far far away from primary school.

I’ve just read two or three books that speak of this, and I’d recommend them to anyone who is interested in this topic, even if your babies are still that, babies, because it also addressed the current trend toward things like pushing babies to “read” and other educational pursuits achieved without play, etc. They are The Hurried Child by David Elkind (he’s got several on the topic), Einstein Never Used Flash Cards and Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society. I found them quite convincing.

To be honest, sometimes I think I’ll just homeschool! But we’re not planning on any more children, and I wouldn’t want Wes to miss out on making friends, being exposed to different types of people, etc. But I’d certainly not be sending him for the education, which as teacher myself, it hurts to say.

Anyway, great topic as usual Ariana!