How We Ruined Kindergarten in America and How We Can Re-Build It

Updated on July 26, 2019
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Ms. Meyers is a credentialed teacher with a master's degree in special education. She spent many years teaching preschool and kindergarten.

The Magical American Kindergarten Is Just a Memory

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 and blue made purple. 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. Her presence, though, didn't seem overwhelming but was like a gentle breeze you could feel but not see.

We lost something precious and powerful when we removed play kitchens from kindergartens in America and replaced them with standardized tests, on-going assessments, and Common Core standards.
We lost something precious and powerful when we removed play kitchens from kindergartens in America and replaced them with standardized tests, on-going assessments, and Common Core standards. | Source

American Kindergarten Has Become Results-Oriented and the Joy of Discovery Is Gone

If you were to enter an American kindergarten today, though, the teacher would be more like a hard-hitting cyclone than a gentle breeze. She would be front and center, a tough taskmaster with a rigid agenda: teaching her students how to recognize sight words, how to write a paragraph, how to read, how to complete mathematical equations, how to recognize two and three-dimensional shapes, and how to do dozens of other tasks listed in the Common Core standards. She would be frantically assessing students to determine if they were on track, feeling the immense pressure to prepare them for first grade. She would be results-oriented, attending to a lengthy checklist of skills the students must acquire while ignoring their innate curiosity and unique interests. 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.

American Kindergarten Stifles Creative Thinking at a Time When It Should Be Unleashed

Mark Cuban and other successful entrepreneurs submit that creative thinking will soon become the most sought after quality in potential employees. American kindergarten today, however, does little to promote children's imagination, initiative, and critical thought. Instead, it zeros in on preparing them academically for first grade. At a time when children's brains are wired to learn by doing, we have them sitting quietly at tables writing in workbooks, 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. With that being said, here are 30 ways American kindergartens should become more like those in Germany, Japan, and Finland that let kids shape their own educational experiences while becoming self-motivated, curious, and creative.

Unlike American kindergarten that's focused on getting children prepared academically for first grade, German kindergarten lets kids play, explore, and interact.
Unlike American kindergarten that's focused on getting children prepared academically for first grade, German kindergarten lets kids play, explore, and interact. | Source

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

— Maria Montessori


1. The word kindergarten comes from German and means children's garden, conjuring 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 unstructured play, not academics.

2. 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.

3. Children in American kindergarten have a long list of narrow academic skills to acquire in preparation for first grade: identifying sight words, reading a text, writing a paragraph, completing mathematical equations, recognizing two and three-dimensional shapes, and dozens of others. 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.

4. While American kindergarten is teacher-directed, German kindergarten is child-centered. Youngsters learn from their own curiosities and at their own rate rather than getting spoon-fed knowledge from adults that's of no relevance to them.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. While kindergarten teachers in the United States 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. This way children learn interpersonal skills: communication, conflict resolution, and compromise.

8. 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.

9. Unlike kindergarten classrooms in the United States 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.

10. Kindergarten-aged children in the United States suffer from nature deficit disorder caused by staying indoors glued to their screens. Because of this, they're more likely to suffer from major health problems in the future such as obesity, depression, anxiety, and narcissism. Kindergarten-aged kids in Germany play outdoors and build habits that will reduce stress, increase joy, and make them physically and emotionally stronger.

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


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 United States are saddled with an enormous checklist of Common Core standards to teach and assess. This reduces their autonomy in the classroom. Kindergarten teaches 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, creative, stimulating, and fun for both teachers and students.

4. With so many academic skills to introduce and assess, kindergarten teachers in the United States 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 aren't overwhelmed by classroom management tasks.

5. Kindergarten teachers in Japan have few classroom rules and encourage their students to explore the environment.

6. In the United States, we insist on teaching kindergarten in ways that aren't developmentally appropriate (workbooks, teacher-directed lessons, paper-pencil tasks). Because young children 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 United States.

10. Japan is consistently among the top five educational systems in the world, ranking much higher than the United States. 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.

Kids are allowed to be kids in Finland and their education system is the envy of the world.

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


1. While American kindergarten becomes increasingly academic, Finnish kindergarten (called preschool) becomes increasingly play-based.

2. 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, not paper-pencil tasks.

3. 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.

4. If a Finnish child shows interest in learning how to read in kindergarten, the 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.

5. Finnish leaders are aware of 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 earlier.

6. 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.

7. The foundation of kindergarten education in Finland is learning with joy. Teachers want kids to become enthusiastic life-long learners. They don't want to turn them off to learning at a young age by burdening them with academics.

8. 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 United States have the same goals for everyone.

9. Children in American kindergarten are placed in reading groups based on ability. Those in the low group are made to feel inferior and stupid. There are no reading groups in Finnish kindergarten.

10. 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.

What do you think?

Where do you think we've gone wrong with kindergarten in America?

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Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids
Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids

As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, I can't say enough wonderful things about this book. We need Nancy Carlsson-Paige as a voice of reason, advocating for our youngest learners. Too many experts in early childhood education have gotten silenced in our country's push for academic rigor. Nancy does a fantastic job of explaining why kids need more imaginative play and down-time and fewer teacher-directed lessons. If you're concerned about kindergarten being too academic, stressful, and sedentary for your child, you're absolutely right and should read this book.


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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 McKenna Meyers


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      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        13 months ago

        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!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        13 months ago from Olympia, WA

        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!


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