Kindergarten, long considered to be an introduction to play, cooperation, and social skills, appears to be turning more academic, as a study published in Sage Journal asks, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?”
The report begins by stating that the pressures of academics and their expectations have trickled down into early education and that kindergarten today is characterized by a intense focus on academic skills. Thus, children’s opportunities for socialization and play have been reduced.
The researchers identify five trends to exemplify the changing nature of kindergarten: kindergarten teachers’ beliefs about school readiness, time spent on academic and nonacademic content, classroom organization, pedagogical approach, and use of standardized assessments. Today, kindergarten teachers hold far higher expectations for incoming kindergarten students and they devote more time to advance literacy and math content and substantially less on art, music, science, and child-related activities.
Kindergarten has dramatically changed over the past two decades and the activities centered on play, exploration, and social interactions have been replaced with more regimented curricula, test preparation, and an explicit focus on academic skill building. In many ways, kindergarten has become the de facto first grade.
The researchers note that there have been many anecdotal accounts and discretionary reports about the intensifying nature of kindergarten, but there has been little empirical study to chart the cultural and academic change of kindergarten classrooms over time. The new paper hopes to fill that gap and present an empirical evaluation of the changing dynamics of kindergarten.
Understanding the changes affecting kindergarten is critical if we wish to understand students later trajectories, the report argues. An increasingly large body of research demonstrates that there are meaningful and long-term implications to the way early childhood classrooms are structured and taught. Early childhood education exerts both short-term and long-term influences on students.
Furthermore, the report contributes to the ongoing debate among parents, educators, researchers, and policymakers about the benefits and risks of orienting early childhood education to more decidedly academic content. Some critics of kindergarten that is over-geared toward academics warn that a focus on heavily academic content is not developmentally appropriate for children. Others, however, suggest that exposure to rigorous academics at a young age can be beneficial later on.
A common concern raised about overly-academic kindergarten is that it sacrifices other meaningful learning experiences such as social and regulation skills that foster children’s physical, mental, and social health. These skills and experiences can benefit students both inside and outside of the classroom throughout their lives.
The report shows that there have been changes in kindergarten that veer towards a more squarely academic approach, but these changes tend to be over-exaggerated. Interestingly, the bulk of the changes that have occurred in kindergarten are the result of increased public and private funding for early childhood education. Socially, kindergarten has come to be perceived by parents and educators no longer as a kind daycare program but as an important academic stepping stone. In many ways, the report suggests the changing nature of kindergarten, while over-dramatized by the public, may not have consequences as deleterious as its critics fear.