Kinder-garten means “Children garden” in German. As we continue this metaphor, let us relate the children to plants. Last year when we planted our garden, we prepared the soil, planted the seeds, watered them and breathlessly waited for our seeds to sprout. Some plants came up earlier than others, and some looked rather small and weak compared to thier “brothers” when they first came up. Soon, though, they all grew and flourished in the sunlight (until they got eaten by raccoons, but we won’t go there).
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that most gardeners do not force the plants to come up early or crack open the seeds to see what is inside. It does, sadly seem like this is what is happening to our children in Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades. I don’t blame the teachers, of course! I used to be one myself. I think the problem has arisen from some really bad legislation (NCLB!) and in thinking that if we can somehow get an early start on teaching our children, that perhaps we can improve our ranking worldwide (US is ranked #15 in reading literacy).
What is being taught in Kindergarten now is what used to be taught in 1st grade 10 or so years ago. My first taste of this was during my student teaching. I was amazed at the amount of phonics the kids were learning! They knew the offical names of all the markings and were sounding out words and it was only Februrary! Well, not all of them were, the lowest reading group was FAR behind. I remember being impressed, but also sad that this was not the fun kindergarten I remember. There were no snacks, no rest time, and playtime looked much more structured. Then I got a job teaching kindergarten and found out we were supposed to spend a huge chunk of our time in class on reading instruction. SOOO much time that there wasn’t much time for anything else.
I had learned in College that play is the way young children learn. That their brains are what Piaget calls “pre-opperational”. This means that abstract things (like the printed word) are hard for them to grasp. The “opperational” stage comes into play at around 7. This doesn’t mean 5 year olds CAN’T be taught to read, even babies can be taught to read; but it is more of a stimulus-response thing. As Jane M. Healy says in her book Your Child’s Growing Mind “The human brain can be trained to do almost anything if the task is simplified enough and one is willing to devote the necessary time and energy. Reading becomes a low-level skill, and there is a danger it will remain at the level where it was learned and practiced.”
That is not the only danger of pushing reading on our children too early. There are so many students in school who have been frusterated in thier attempts to read. Made to try before they were develpmentally ready, reading become a huge mountain to scale, instead of an exciting journey. I relate it to potty training. If you try to push it too soon (and I know, because I have) it is so difficult and stressful for the child to not be able to do it when they are trying so hard. They get frusterated and resistant about the whole thing. However, if you back off and watch for when they seem to be interested or ready, it can happen really quickly and they have a wonderful sense of accomplishment!
So, what am I saying in all this? I think that we need to let our children play. Let them enjoy life and explore and build their sense of wonder and enjoyment of learning about the world around them. Let us focus on other things to get our children ready for school rather than sitting down with them and quizzing them on ABC’s and sight words. “Many bright, even gifted, children do not read early. Please give them lots of language and listening experinces and let them enjoy stories without an underlying aura of expectation that they cannot fulfill.” says Jane M. Healy. “The time you spend reading to your child is the best predictor of later reading success.”
My answer to the problem of the public schools being forced into a “reading and math frenzy” is to send my kids to a Waldorf school where reading is not taught until 2nd grade and the arts and sciences and history flourish. I wish I had a solution for the schools, but I don’t know what it will take to change the course.
So. Now you know what I think. What do you think?