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Austin’s preschool teaches physics. And geology, biology and chemistry. They also teach astronomy and astrophysics. Human psychology with a special focus on group dynamics. Geometry, measurement, civil engineering, thermal dynamics and heat transfer (melting crayons in an electric skillet) art therapy, art history and just plain art.
There are lots of other things they do, like listening to books, singing songs, rhyming words, counting by fives and tens, gross and fine motor skills, and so on and so forth.
But don’t tell Austin any of this. He thinks he’s there to play all day long.
And play he does. The focus is entirely child-centered, with the teacher’s plans taking a backseat to whatever the kids come up with. In fact, instead of handing out a weekly calendar letting us know what they’ll be doing each day, she sends out a Friday email, explaining what they did (often very different from what she may have expected them to do). They are exploring, creating and discovering. They work individually, in pairs or large groups, depending on the task. They must plan, lead and follow, confront problems and invent solutions. And there is a lot of trial and error.
In our results-oriented world, where “kindergarten is the new first grade” and everyone is worried about faster, better, higher, this school is an incredible gift to the children attending it. There are no worksheets, no direct instruction, no gentle correction of the backwards 15 a child writes on the board after counting the 14 students in the class. Our society places such pressure on parents, who in turn place such pressure on their kids, to learn more and to learn it earlier. Mozart in the womb, flashcards for babies, reading at age 4. But, in my humble opinion as both a mother and a former teacher, there is no benefit — and certainly no need — to structure the curriculum that way.
When Braedan started kindergarten, he could read just a handful of words: definitely mommy, daddy, Braedan, and Austin, and probably love, stop and grammy. There were many kids in his class who were far ahead of that and I will admit I had a few brief twinges of worry: Is he behind … before he’s even begun? He’s now halfway through second grade and reads at an almost sixth grade level. And every bit of that he learned in school. Granted, we read a ton in our house and we constantly discuss what we read and do, all of which builds vocabulary and understanding, which in turn lays the foundation for a strong reader. But I never taught him to read. That’s what school is for, and I don’t mean preschool. Heck, I would be okay if they didn’t teach reading until first grade and let kindergarten be all play and discovery too, especially for the kids who don’t have the advantage of a high quality preschool experience. But, at least in our public schools with their intense focus on meeting state standards, the curriculum has been pushed down to the point where Braedan learned the words rhombus and trapezoid at age 5. I will never forget his kindergarten homework assignment to play “I Spy” with shapes in our kitchen and I’m saying things like, “I spy a circle” (the clock on the wall), and Braedan says, “I spy a trapezoid.” There I was scanning the room, thinking trapezoid, trapezoid, you’ve got this, Krissy and finally my eyes settled on the perfectly trapezoidal backs of our island stools. “A ha!”
He no doubt benefited from the foundation of his preschool, where he gained independence and confidence in his abilities, without ever hearing the word “phonics.” I trust Austin is benefiting as well and I am so thankful that Mark and I chose to give him this extra year. He is learning the most important skills a five-year-old could learn. All through play.
Oh, and they do yoga too.
You know how once you start thinking hard about something, it seems to pop up everywhere?
Well, this kindergarten things seems to be popping up everywhere. Yesterday, I read this article from a recent Newsweek, which focuses on parents who hold their kids back from kindergarten (often upon the recommendation of the private schools to which they’re applying) in order to give them an advantage over their classmates, particularly when it comes to standardized test scores. Reading stories like that make me absolutely want to send Austin “early” (on time) because I find it so frustrating that parents constantly push their kids to be the best best best.
Then today I read this (worth your time, I promise), not specifically about kindergarten but just about how we’ve turned childhood into some kind of race, a massive competition between the super-successful and those lagging behind, and about how we should return to a time when kids were allowed to be kids for as long as possible. It made me second guess sending him for a completely new reason, one that only a few people have mentioned thus far. Everyone keeps talking about how holding him back will give him advantages later — in his schooling, in his social life, in his future. And so much of it smacks of having advantages over others — being the best, the brightest, the oldest.
But this little essay made me think about the advantage of just letting him be a kid, right now, less stress, less structure, fewer expectations, for an entire extra year. Like a freebie. Here, little Austin, you’ve had to do lots of grown-up things already (way too many way too grown-up things; you should hear my four-year-old talk about “bwood pwessure cuffs”), so here, take a break. Stay in preschool, build fantastic vehicles out of popsicle sticks, run on the playground, sing songs and do kiddie yoga, don’t fret your pretty little head about phonemic awareness and SmartBoards and Mandarin Chinese.
I’m not so concerned about my kids having advantages over other kids (although admittedly they do — parents who’ve read to them incessantly since birth being chief among them). But I am certainly all about them enjoying the advantages of well-rounded, old-fashioned childhood — freedom and exploration and creativity and self-expression.
Hmmmm, back to the drawing board.