Skip to main content

How We're Doing Kindergarten All Wrong in the U.S. and What We Can Learn From Countries Doing It Right

Ms. Meyers is a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early childhood education and advocates for play.

What US kindergartens can learn from other countries.

What US kindergartens can learn from other countries.

The Magical American Kindergarten Is Gone

If you're like me, you look back at kindergarten as the most magical year of your educational journey: a time of wonder, discovery, and joy. You may remember watching your lima bean sprout in its plastic cup on the windowsill. You may remember pretending to cook up spaghetti and meatballs with your friends in the play kitchen. You may remember painting at the easel and discovering that red combined with blue made purple.

Most significantly, you may remember feeling powerful, alive, and eager to learn more about the magnificent world around you. You may have a vague memory of your teacher, knowing she must have been there watching over you, guiding your learning, and keeping you safe. However, her presence was not overwhelming but more like a gentle breeze you could feel but not see.

Narrow Goals Limit Learning

If you were to enter a kindergarten classroom in the US today, though, the teacher would seem more like a hard-hitting cyclone than a gentle breeze. She would be front and center, a tough taskmaster with a rigid agenda. She'd be teaching her students how to recognize sight words, how to write a paragraph, how to complete mathematical equations, and how to recognize two and three-dimensional shapes. The dozens of other tasks enumerated in the Common Core standards would always be at the forefront of her mind.

Because of these standards, she'd be hell-bent on teaching all her students how to read by the end of the school year. Sadly, this would be her objective even though there's no data that suggests early instruction makes for better readers in the long-run. She does it because it's required of her, not because she believes it's beneficial for her students.

She would also be frantically assessing youngsters to determine if they were on track, feeling the immense pressure to prepare them academically for first grade. She would be results-oriented, attending to a lengthy checklist of skills that the students must acquire. As a result, she'd be forced to ignore their innate curiosity and unique interests. Tragically, she would be spending an inordinate amount of time trying to control children's natural impulses with a behavior chart and other classroom management techniques.

Creative Thinking Gets Stifled

Mark Cuban and other successful entrepreneurs submit that creative thinking will soon become the most sought after quality in potential employees. Kindergartens in the US today, though, do little now to promote children's imagination, initiative, and critical thought. Instead, they zero in on preparing kids academically for first grade with a narrow checklist of skills.

At a time when children's brains are wired to learn by doing, we have them sitting quietly at tables writing in workbooks. We have them listening passively to teacher-directed lessons and zoning out to a virtual world on screens. The most stimulating parts of kindergarten—the play kitchen, the blocks, the puppet theater, and the easels—have been removed from our classrooms across the nation.

With that being said, here are 30 ways American kindergartens should become more like those in Germany, Japan, and Finland. In those countries, little kids shape their own educational experiences. In the process, they become self-motivated, curious, and creative learners for life.

The teacher's task is first to nourish and assist, to watch, encourage, guide, induce, rather than to interfere, prescribe, or restrict.

— Maria Montessori

German Kindergarten: Child-Centered

The word kindergarten comes from German and means children's garden. As such, it conjures up idyllic images of youngsters watering flowers, playing in a sandbox, rolling on the grass, and examining ladybugs with magnifying glasses. While American kindergartens have moved far away from that original concept, German ones still emphasize free play and not academics.

Things the US Can Learn From German Kindergarten

  1. Reading and writing are not taught until first grade in Germany. While the aim of American kindergarten is to prepare students academically for the next school year, the aim of German kindergarten is to prepare kids for a well-rounded life.
  2. Because of the Common Core standards, kindergartners in the US get saddled with a long list of narrow academic skills in preparation for first grade. These include identifying sight words, reading a text, writing a paragraph, completing mathematical equations, recognizing two and three-dimensional shapes, and dozens more. Kindergartners in Germany, however, learn broad skills that will serve them in first grade and well beyond: understanding themselves, developing empathy, thinking critically, and being creative.
  3. While American kindergarten is teacher-directed, German kindergarten is child-centered. Youngsters learn from their curiosities and at their own rate rather than getting spoon-fed knowledge from adults that's of no relevance to them.
  4. While American kindergarten is a busy place packed with academics, German kindergarten is downright dull at times. This is viewed as a positive, though, as boredom propels youngsters to become self-motivated learners. They develop their own unique interests rather than follow a one-size-fits-all curriculum.
  5. Unlike American kindergarten that emphasizes academic learning, German kindergarten focuses on social learning: making friends, communicating, working together to solve problems, sharing, coping with frustration, and learning from one another.
  6. While kindergarten teachers in the US step in to handle disputes among students and issue time-outs, kindergarten teachers in Germany let kids handle their own problems with little or no intervention. The goal is for children to learn interpersonal skills: communication, conflict resolution, and compromise.
  7. While American kindergartners stay indoors if it's sprinkling, German kindergartners go outside to play in all types of weather. They get the healthy benefits of fresh air, exercise, and spending time in nature on a daily basis.
  8. Unlike kindergarten classrooms in the US that are full of workbooks, pencils, papers, and i-pads, some German kindergartens have no classroom at all but are conducted entirely in nature. These forest kindergartens allow kids to be outside all day: climbing trees, playing hide-and-seek, and building shelters with branches, mud, and leaves.
  9. Kindergartners in the US are more likely to have behavioral issues because they don't spend enough time playing outdoors. Richard Louv writes about this in his eye-opening book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. I highly recommend it to parents whose little ones are getting labelled at kindergarten as hyperactive, disruptive, immature, and impulsive. In reality, these youngsters are just normal kids who need to be playing, moving, exploring, and being outside.

Because our young students don't spend enough time in nature, they're more likely to suffer from major health problems in the future. These include obesity, depression, anxiety, and narcissism. Kindergarten-aged kids in Germany play outdoors and build healthy habits that will reduce stress, increase joy, and make them physically and emotionally stronger throughout their lifetimes.

This kindergarten in Japan was designed with play, risk-taking, and exploration in mind.

No use to shout at them to pay attention. If the situations, the materials, the problems before the child do not interest him, his attention will slip off to what does interest him, and no amount of exhortation of threats will bring it back.

— John Holt

Things We Can Learn From Japan's Kindergartens

  1. Corporate leaders today say employees who can work effectively in a team are in high demand. In American kindergarten, though, children do solitary academic activities such as reading, writing, and technology. Japanese kindergarten has a cooperative approach with children learning together through play, real world experiences, and exploration.
  2. Kindergarten teachers in the US are hog-tied with a lengthy checklist of Common Core standards to teach and assess. This reduces their autonomy and creativity in the classroom. Kindergarten teachers in Japan have fewer goals, giving them leeway to instruct as they see fit and meet the unique needs of each child.
  3. Because there are fewer academic goals in a Japanese kindergarten, the atmosphere is more relaxed, stimulating, and fun for both teachers and students.
  4. With so many academic skills to introduce and assess, kindergarten teachers in the US spend an exorbitant amount of time on classroom management (establishing rules, disciplining, setting up reward systems). Because academic instruction in Japan doesn't begin until children are older and developmentally ready, kindergarten teachers there aren't bogged down by by classroom management tasks.
  5. Kindergarten teachers in Japan have few classroom rules and encourage their students to explore the environment.
  6. In the US, we insist on teaching kindergarten in ways that aren't developmentally appropriate (workbooks, teacher-directed lessons, paper-pencil tasks). Because their young students aren't intrinsically motivated by these activities, their teachers must spend a lot of time on discipline. Discipline in Japan is not an issue because kindergartners are accepted for who they are: active and curious beings who need to move, wriggle, talk, and interact with one another.
  7. In Japanese kindergarten, teachers create a stimulating environment for their students who learn by exploring their surroundings. In American kindergarten, the teacher shapes the children's experiences with an academic curriculum, stifling their curiosity and creativity in the process.
  8. Education for older children in Japan is known for its academic rigor and excellence. The Japanese, however, recognize that kindergartners learn by doing and introducing academics too early is destructive to their initiative and imagination.
  9. Teaching in Japan is a noble profession and educators are shown immense respect from students, parents, and society at large. They are charged with turning children into contributing community members, not just future employees as is the case in the US.
  10. Japan is consistently among the top five educational systems in the world, ranking much higher than the US. Their country's belief that academic rigor is important but not appropriate in kindergarten gets validated in their students' outstanding test scores, especially in math and science.

Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.

— Dr. Marie Montessori

Things the US Can Learn From Finland's Play-Based Kindergarten

While American kindergarten becomes increasingly academic, Finnish kindergarten (called preschool) becomes increasingly centered on play.

  1. Based on the latest research in early childhood education, leaders in Finland have determined that young children learn best through play. Kindergartners develop math and literary skills through hands-on experiences and not paper-pencil tasks.
  2. American kindergarten is obsessed with having students learn to read. Finland, with an educational system that's the envy of the world, doesn't introduce formal reading instruction until students are older.
  3. If a Finnish child shows interest in learning how to read in kindergarten, their teacher encourages it but keeps instruction light and playful. In American kindergarten, every youngster is expected to read by the end of the school year despite individual differences.
  4. Finnish leaders respect research by Sebastian Suggate and others that shows there's no benefit to early reading. Children who were taught later (for example, at age 7 instead of 5) caught up to those who learned sooner.
  5. Unlike American kindergarten with its paper-pencil tasks, reading groups, and teacher-directed lessons, Finnish kindergarten aims to stimulate children's imaginations. Youngsters are given ample opportunity to do creative pursuits: making forts with blankets and sheets, pretending to run a restaurant, and building dams in a stream.
  6. The foundation of kindergarten education in Finland is learning with joy. Teachers want kids to become enthusiastic life-long seekers of knowledge. They don't want to turn them off to learning at a young age by burdening them with academics.
  7. At the beginning of the school year, kindergarten teachers in Finland meet with parents to establish learning goals that are unique to each child. Kindergarten teachers in the US have the same goals for everyone based on the Common Core standards.
  8. Children in American kindergarten are placed in reading groups based on ability. Those in the low group often feel inferior and inadequate. There are no reading groups in Finnish kindergarten.
  9. In American kindergarten, doing paper-pencil tasks and pages in workbooks is part of the daily routine. In Finnish kindergarten, handwriting is done just one day per week.

In this video, we learn that teachers in Finland are given a lot more freedom and autonomy than those in the US.

What do you think?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on August 12, 2018:

Drives me nutso as well! Moving away from just the education realm, I'm concerned about this whole anti-intellectual, anti-research, anti-experts, anti-science sentiment in our country (there's no global warming, the flat earth society, the majority of Republicans thinking college is bad for the United States). Very strange and scary times!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 12, 2018:

We are such a weird country. We seem incapable of learning from other nations, convinced that our way, even though it is failing, is the right way always. Drives me nutso!