When I launched my teaching career over 25 years ago, my friend gave me the bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum.
It was a huge sensation at the time, resonating with so many people who fondly remembered their first year of formal schooling: painting at the easels, cooking meals in the play kitchen with their buddies, and looking at ladybugs through a magnifying lens.
In his essay, Fulghum beautifully explains how kindergarten taught us the big life lessons that shaped us into competent, creative, and caring grownups: “share everything...don't hit people...clean up your own mess...live a balanced life—learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some."
The Magic of Kindergarten Is Gone
Fulghum, though, would be disheartened today by how far we've drifted from that magical once-in-a-lifetime kindergarten experience we all cherished.
We've shifted from classrooms where the big lessons of life were learned into ones that are void of imaginative play, saturated with narrow skills to acquire, and are potentially destructive to the hearts, souls, and minds of young children.
We've allowed those with no background in early childhood education to seize control and turn kindergarten into just another year of schooling, not the grand introduction to a lifetime of learning it once was.
With that in mind, here are five ways kindergarten in the U.S has lost its way and is no longer what Fulghum lovingly described.
1. Imaginative Play Is a Thing of the Past
If you walk into an elementary school today after not visiting one for years, you'd find all the classrooms disturbingly similar in appearance.
When entering a kindergarten classroom, you'd immediately wonder: Where's the play kitchen? Where's the puppet theater? Where are the dinosaurs, the farm set, the blocks, and the doll house?
Where are all those things that meant the most to me when I was 5-years-old?
Your heart would ache for the little kids who show up with their imaginations wired to play but with no materials to do so. You'd wonder why their parents aren't pounding on the principal's office door to demand toys for their youngsters.
The sad truth, though, is most moms and dads have bought into the premise that earlier is better when it comes to learning and are clueless about its many drawbacks.
Our country's push for early academic rigor has resulted in the death of imaginative play and the corresponding increase in mental disorders among children, teens, and young adults.
Dr. Peter Gray has studied the evolutionary function of play in young mammals and how critically important it is for their emotional and social development.
As children's play decreased dramatically in the past 50-60 years, Gray saw the following problems emerge for youngsters:
- an increase in depression and anxiety
- an increase in suicide
- an increase in narcissism
- an increased sense they lack control over their lives
- a decline in creativity
- a decline in empathy
In the video below, Dr. Peter Gray discusses the decline of play and the corresponding increase in mental disorders among children, teens, and young adults.
2. Developmentally Appropriate Practices Have Been Erased
When I started teaching over 25 years ago, developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) were the cornerstone of all we did in kindergarten.
They were based on decades of research that showed young children learn best through hands-on exploration, play, social interaction, and real-world experiences.
David Elkind, the renown author on child development, wrote: “To develop the higher areas of the brain, children must be able to experience things for themselves and feel the sense of accomplishment that goes along with completing tasks independently.”
This learn by doing approach worked beautifully in kindergarten for decades.
Then, schools became politicized and the quest for academic rigor trickled down to our youngest learners. What early childhood scholars and kindergarten teachers knew to work with young children became less relevant and revered.
Those with no knowledge of early learning seized control with a central, misguided belief: the notion that whatever works with older kids will surely work with younger ones.
However, this is the very antithesis of developmentally appropriate practices.
Today, kindergartens have erased developmentally appropriate practices and the decades of research that support them. It's safe to say that most kindergarten teachers younger than 50 have no idea what developmentally appropriate practices even are.
Because of this, we now have youngsters sitting too much, listening too long, and doing too many activities they're not ready to do. We expect them to read, write paragraphs, and do mathematical operations by the end of the school year.
We eliminated the child-centered activities that were once the foundation of kindergarten and promoted the critical thinking skills that served kids well throughout their lives. When kids play and pretend, they develop curiosity, autonomy, creativity, empathy, and skills to get along with others.
3. Early Reading Makes Kids Feel Frustrated
In the United States, we've become oddly obsessed with getting children to read at younger and younger ages.
Parents have bragging rights when their youngster is an early reader, believing it signifies supreme intelligence (it doesn't). Parents of kids who learn to read later feel ashamed as if they've failed in some consequential way (they haven't).
This fixation with earlier is better has gone so far that there are even products pitched on TV that claim to teach babies how to read!
Sadly, many kindergarten teachers do nothing to ease parental anxiety even though there's a wide age range in which children acquire reading skills.
Some kids pick it up at 4 but others don't until 7 or 8. Research reveals there's no benefit to early reading, and late readers will catch up with the early ones around third grade.
In the report, Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose, the authors discuss the harmful effects of teaching reading too soon.
Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige is professor emerita at Lesley University, author of Taking Back Childhood, and co-author of the report. She argues early reading instruction can have a devastating psychological impact on kids who aren't ready for it. She says it makes them feel confused, anxious, and inadequate.
4. There Are Too Many Standards and Assessments
One of the biggest complaints kindergarten teachers have is they must spend far too much time on standards and assessments. They must constantly measure their students' progress and record the results instead of teaching the kids.
This is beyond frustrating to kindergarten teachers, not a good use of their talents, and not beneficial to their students. In fact, research shows that assessment results garnered from 5 and 6-year-old youngsters are highly unreliable and largely meaningless.
When a teacher must spend countless hours assessing each child, the fun and creativity of kindergarten is greatly diminished.
She's forced to give the other students tedious worksheets to complete so they stay busy and quiet while she evaluates each child individually.
The whole climate of the classroom changes from an invigorating place of hands-on discovery, in-depth exploration, and dynamic conversations to a library-style setting where students get hushed and real learning gets squelched.
5. Open-Ended Art Is Minimized
With dozens of standards to present and assess, teachers are forced to eliminate one of the best parts of kindergarten learning: open-ended art activities such as painting, coloring, drawing, printmaking, creating collages, and sculpting with clay.
Not only do these pursuits stimulate imagination, independence, and initiative, they help students relax, express themselves, and build fine motor skills.
Easels were once a staple in kindergarten classrooms but now are put away in storage closets, waiting for a more enlightened time. Their disappearance is a troubling sign that we no longer celebrate a child's individuality.
If youngsters produce any art at all in kindergarten these days, it's teacher-directed craft projects that all turn out the same and are designed to look impressive on bulletin boards.
David Elkind first published The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon in 1981.
It's a book every parent of a kindergartner should read and has been updated over the years to reflect our changing times. I can't recommend it enough for moms and dads who want to prevent their youngsters from falling into the trap of growing up too fast, succumbing to depression and anxiety, and escaping through drugs, alcohol, technology, or suicide.
Tragically, the things Elkind warned about decades ago have only gotten worse, including the reduction or outright elimination of open-ended art in kindergarten.
He writes, “As concerned citizens, we need to assert the value of the arts in the schools. The overemphasis on the basics in contemporary education without a corresponding emphasis on personal expression through the arts hurries children by destroying the necessary balance between work and play.”
With so many little kids now attending all-day kindergarten, the need for open-ended art is more critical than ever.
For their mental and emotional well-being, they need downtime during the day. Without it, they'll feel undue stress, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness. Open-ended art is a necessary part of kindergarten learning and should never be seen as optional or frivolous.
© 2018 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on August 02, 2019:
Denise, the story about your son illustrates perfectly what's wrong in education today. Whether it's creative writing, art, math, or science, we're imposing too much adult structure on young children and stripping away the magic that comes from learning things on their own. Your son needed to develop a love of playing with words and ideas before he was interested in the mechanics of writing. Kindergartners need to be excited about exploring the world before they care about letter sounds, counting to 100, and writing their names. Results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking show a huge decrease in creative thought among students in the United States since the 1990's. This has an enormous negative impact on individuals as well as society. Thanks for sharing your son's story!
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 02, 2019:
Oh, I'm so upset by this. I knew arts were declining but the rest is so distressing too. I used to be one of many artists who brought art lessons to the public schools in my area through an art's council program. I was amazed that some of the classes I went to only had a few handfull of art-related classes the whole year. When I got to the kindergarten the sweet 5-year-olds would crowd around welcoming me and the teacher told me not to hug any of them as that could be a violation of some misguided sexual assault rule. It's no wonder so many parents are opting for the homeschooling alternative. My kids were older when I took them out of public school to start homeschooling. My son was 13 when he began fighting me about English grammar. He didn't want to do it, sentence structure, subject, and predicate, sentence graphing, etc. He refused and we fought about it because I needed to have it done for record purposes. That night I remember thinking it was a state requirement for the year but that didn't mean we had to do it right then. We were homeschool so we could get to it later. The next day I told him I wanted to put something in the records for English but we would but the grammar to one side for now. He was so relieved that he began writing poetry every day for 6 weeks. He won awards on that poetry and today he is a young adult fantasy author of 5 published books. Naturally, he did get back to the grammar but he was so relieved that we could have flexibility, that he was allowed to create. They couldn't have done that in public school. Today, I'm really grateful I learned to ease up and let him grow at his pace and not some state structured program. Thanks for sharing this.
McKenna Meyers (author) on June 18, 2019:
RTalloni, you seem to have a good grasp of what's happening in kindergarten classrooms today. There's an insane amount of assessing and documenting even though most experts say the results are meaningless at this young age. Uninformed parents think more is the answer: all-day kindergarten, after-school tutoring, transitional kindergarten, technology in the classrooms. In reality, children need less structured instruction and time to play, explore, create, and socialize. I do see some hope, though, as forest preschools and kindergartens become more popular here.
RTalloni on June 18, 2019:
Thank you for speaking up on behalf of little hearts and minds. What has happened to the lives of kindergarten-aged children (as well as older students) is nothing short of insidious. When both parents work out of the home these little ones are left to the mercy of a system that is simply a big-government style of education based on socialistic ideas. More employees with more paperwork and more meetings and more assessments and more records to keep...all while little children are hurting from the inside out. Yes, it is heartbreaking, and it's past time for parents to make the changes their children need. Thank you for highlighting the issues here.
McKenna Meyers (author) on July 15, 2018:
Heartbreaking is the perfect word for it, Patricia. I think most of us know it's wrong, but that doesn't seem to matter. Kindergarten teachers and early childhood scholars have been left without a voice in the decision making. None of them had a say in writing the Common Core standards for kindergarten.
I know so many awesome kindergarten teachers who've left the profession, unwilling to force-feed academics and eliminate play. We are now reaping what we sowed with the increase in suicide, depression, and anxiety among children. Hopefully, we'll soon abandon this ridiculous quest for academic rigor in kindergarten and look at countries like Finland that have strong schools and don't start formal reading instruction until third grade. They let little kids play and use their imaginations.
Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience!
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 15, 2018:
It is heartbreaking what has happened in education in the last two decades really. My last three years I was the teacher of kinders and I simply adored it. I did NOT adore that they were given so many doggone tests and so much of the socialization skills left by the wayside. The Fulghum book has always been a favorite of mine...so much truth tucked within. well said.... Angels are headed your way this evening ps
Lori Colbo from United States on July 13, 2018:
Thanks for all you do for children.
McKenna Meyers (author) on July 13, 2018:
Lori, thanks so much for your insightful comments. If one doesn't have young children (or grandchildren), they may not appreciate how dire this situation has become. I truly believe the lack of play at all-day kindergarten is a form of child abuse. It saddens me that so many parents are just rolling over and letting it happen. It's so damaging to kids and for what...so they can count to 100 and read a paragraph by the end of the year? What they lose—creativity, discovery, social interaction, and a sense that real learning stems from their own curiosity—are far more important.
Your memories of reading groups are similar to my own. I strongly disagree with kindergartners getting formal reading instruction. If they must, however, they should be placed in heterogeneous groups so nobody gets stigmatized and the less experienced readers can benefit from hearing the more experienced ones. Why put them in a group where they only hear other readers who are struggling? It makes no sense.
Teachers are under the gun to present these developmentally inappropriate standards and, therefore, are resorting to practices they know aren't right. They're giving parents the impression that there's something wrong with their kids when there's not. When my two-year-old son and I attended a Mommy and Me class together years ago, the teacher pulled me aside and said with a concerned tone that my child was “immature” and “didn't follow directions.” Since I had years of experience as a preschool and kindergarten teacher, I just laughed and said she had to be kidding. Needless to say, we never went back to that class!
Lori Colbo from United States on July 13, 2018:
I remember reading group stress growing up. You had the good readers group, which we interpreted as the smart kids group. Then the average readers, who were of mediocre intelligence; then the low reading group with the dumb kids. What was worse, the groups had to read out loud. The groups met in the front of the classroom. Though they were in their own little circle, the whole class could hear them reading orally. It was really hard on the kids who couldn't read as well.
I agree with you about Kindergarten at this time. I have lots of grandkids and everything is academic. I played in kindergarten and we did learning activities but they weren't academically driven. It was fun. My grandkids from kindergarten and the rest of elementary are so burdened with homework it robs them of the much needed relaxation at home.
This trend of assessments has gone too far. I don't think at any age it is the only way to tell how well a child is doing. It's all a mess and I feel bad for them all.