Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Kindergarten is changing, according to a recent Education Week article called “The Case for the New Kindergarten: Challenging and Playful.” Not only are more children enrolled in kindergarten — nationally, 56 percent of children attended full-day kindergarten in 1998, compared to 80 percent today (and 88% in Massachusetts) — but kindergarten classrooms “are also far more academically oriented.”

“Our research shows that most kindergarten teachers now think academic instruction should begin in preschool and indicate that it’s important for incoming kindergartners to already know their letters and numbers. Today’s kindergarten teachers are spending much more time on literacy and expect their students to learn to read before first grade.”

The article was written by Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, Amy Claessens, an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago, and Mimi Engel, an assistant professor of public policy and education at the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. Faced with this shift, some teachers have resigned, the article says. And some parents report that their children are experiencing anxiety around testing. “In particular, we are troubled by the decline we have documented in the amount of time kindergartners spend on physical education, art, music, science, and social studies. We think these trends suggest that young children are being shortchanged with regard to what most of us believe are key aspects of learning.”

“However,” the authors continue, “the response to this concern should not center on eliminating literacy and math instruction from children’s first years of schooling. Rather, we need to identify strategies to foster engaging and rich environments for learning language and numeracy. We need to meet all young children where they are, help them build on their inherent curiosity and enthusiasm, and create opportunities for authentic learning.”

The article call for striking a balance, saying, “Rather than focusing on whether academic content has a place in early-childhood classrooms, let’s focus on how to teach it in a way that is tailored to young learners. Let’s focus on creating engaging, fun, developmentally appropriate learning experiences for all kindergartners, acknowledging the importance of embedding enriching language and numeracy experiences within those environments. It will certainly require effort, support, and flexibility, but it is an attainable goal with the potential for a powerful payoff.”

What does high-quality kindergarten entail? One answer comes from a three-part video series called “High-Quality Kindergarten Today” that “highlights best practices in kindergarten” based on New Jersey’s comprehensive Kindergarten Implementation Guidelines. The series offers teachers and administrators a view of what quality Kindergarten should look like. The series was funded by the Foundation for Child Development and co-produced by Advocates for Children of New Jersey and the New Jersey Department of Education.

Part 1 of the series provides background and focuses on developmentally appropriate teaching practices. Part 2 looks at the classroom environment and “the best materials and center-based set up to use.” Part 3 looks at classroom schedules and how a typical kindergarten day could be organized.

“Kindergarten is much like the middle child trying to find its place somewhere between pre-kindergarten and all the things that go on before children come to kindergarten and the primary grades,” Dorothy Strickland, a Rutgers University professor emerita of education says in Part 1. Kindergarten classes should offer balanced and diverse activities, the series explains, creating individual, small group, and large group learning experiences, as well as a structured day that allows children to make choices about their activities.

“My dream is that we will have kindergarten programs where all children have access and opportunity to thrive and learn to the best of their ability,” Strickland says in Part 3. “Does it mean that we have to skill-drill them? No. It means that we have to have high standards for them and obviously for ourselves. We have to do it in developmentally appropriate ways. But you are an extremely important individual to children’s well-being and their future success if you are a kindergarten teacher.”