Guest commentary: We must restore the magic to kindergarten classrooms

Remember kindergarten? It felt like a magical place filled with singing and dancing. Overflowing with letters and words and stories about wild things. You were the architect of your world, building houses, roads and castles with blocks. It sparkled with imagination when you dressed up pretending to be a fireman, a nurse, a teacher. Awash in fresh air and sunshine, the playground beckoned with swings and slides and playing tag.

Wistful nostalgia, memories today’s children will never have.

Gone, like milk and cookies, are the dress-up corner, blocks of all shapes and sizes, easels dotted with pots of paint and drying pictures. The swings on the playground sit empty, and laughter no longer rings from the voices of children during recess. Swept away, unnecessary, a waste of time.

In this day of No Child Left Behind, state mandates, benchmarks and standards, our kindergarten classrooms have been turned into mini-first grades. Play, the very essence of childhood, has become a dirty word. In an era when childhood obesity has become a problem, recess has been eliminated. Something has gone terribly wrong when moving around the classroom to designated literacy centers is considered exercise.

In order to get children ready to read, we have taken a step backward and forgotten all the tenets of a good early-childhood program. Academics seem to be the total focus in our kindergarten classrooms, thereby forgetting our duty to address the needs of the “whole child.”

At five years of age, children need to develop cognitively, but also socially, physically and emotionally. To miss any piece of this is developmentally inappropriate and harmful.

Friedrich Froebel, the father of kindergarten, would weep at what has happened to his “garden of children.” Today’s 5-year-olds and their teachers are held prisoner by politicians and school administrators who think play is a waste of time and recess interferes with time better put to use for academic pursuits. Nonsense!

But in all this insanity, there is hope. In March 2009, the Alliance for Childhood put out a report titled “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.’’ In this report, the benefits of play in kindergarten are discussed. Studies indicate that play does not take away from learning, it enriches it: “Children in play-based kindergartens have a double advantage over those who are denied play: they end up equally good or better at reading and other intellectual skills, and they are more likely to become well-adjusted healthy people.”

In its 2009 position statement, “Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8,” the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) addresses its concern over stress-filled early-childhood programs. This report states: “Standards overload is overwhelming to teachers and children alike and can lead to potentially problematic teaching practices. ... There is also concern that schools are curtailing valuable experiences such as problem solving, rich play, collaboration with peers, opportunities for emotional and social development, outdoor/physical activity, and the arts.

“In the high-pressure classroom, children are less likely to develop a love of learning and a sense of their own competence and ability to make choices, and they miss much of the joy and expansive learning of childhood.”

It is time for the state of Florida to take a good, hard look at its early-childhood programs. Do our politicians, our school administrators, our teachers have the courage to stop the inappropriate practices now in place in our kindergartens?

Some states have gotten it right. In their booklet “Have you Heard? The Truth About Kindergarten,” the New Jersey Department of Education includes the following information regarding a solid kindergarten program: “Young children learn in the following ways: ... Exploring their environment and the materials in it by sliding, running, jumping or building houses with blocks. ... Rehearsing what they see around them by playing house or pretending to go to the doctor, store or bank.”

They value recess with this statement taken from the NAEYC “Top 10 Signs of a Good Kindergarten Classroom”: “… Children have an opportunity to play outside every day that weather permits. This play is never sacrificed for more instructional time.”

In “The Power of K,” released in 2006, the North Carolina Board of Education states the following: “Play is a dynamic, active and constructive behavior. It is an essential and integral part of all children’s healthy growth, development and learning across all ages, domains and cultures. … The absence of play is an obstacle to the development of healthy and creative individuals. ... Through an interactive, play-based curriculum, children develop cognitive skills as they explore, imagine, imitate, construct, discuss, plan, manipulate, problem-solve, dramatize, create and experiment.”

It is of utmost importance that we restore balance to our early-childhood programs. Remember kindergarten? That magical place?

It’s time to give back childhood to our kindergartners so they will be able to say, “I remember kindergarten. It was a magical place.”

Westley has 20 years experience as a kindergarten teacher in Collier County. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University in child development and her master’s from the University of Miami in early childhood education. She is retired and remains active in volunteering in a preschool and kindergarten classrooms.

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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