The What, Why, When and How
With our daughter getting ready to go to Kindergarten this year, we have shared on the usual parents’ paranoia around “Kindergarten Readiness”. Some of the readers, who might be already on the same boat, would agree that there is not enough time to even read all there is to learn about Kindergarten Readiness – meanwhile there are diametrically opposing points of view in terms of its actual usefulness. Nonetheless, our kids will go to school and the “system” does indeed assess our kids’ readiness for Kindergarten. That’s a fact.
So what is Kindergarten readiness? There is no single or simple factor determining if a child is ready for kindergarten. The kid’s ability to think logically, speak clearly, and interact well with other children and adults are all crucial, as well as his/her level of physical development.1 Depending on where you live, around the age of five, your child may or may not be assessed via a standardized test. The guidance from the U.S. Department of Education is that such tests are to be used to "provide information to help close the school readiness gap at kindergarten entry, to inform instruction in the early elementary school grades, and to notify parents about their children's status and involve them in decisions about their children's education. [They] should not be used to prevent children's entry into kindergarten or as a single measure for high-stakes decisions."7 Let’s look at the application.
Take for example the State of California, where the assessment will have five focus domains: approaches to learning; social and emotional development; language and literacy development; cognition; and physical development-health.3 So, here’s the thing, if the assessment aims at showing a “gap” and parents don’t want to see any gap, then both parents and pre-K schools are very motivated to prepare the children, and Kindergarten schools are very motivated to close the gap – which is all good – but what this may mean for our kids, is more focus to learn “content” and less focus on play. More specifically, some argue that because preschool teachers have this pressure (of the assessment), “they tend not to use play-based learning activities and to use worksheets”, instead, and do them repeatedly: not a child-centered approach.3
The concern is that, following this direction at school and at home, children simply have less time for unstructured play. And they need play. Young children learn playing, and research consistently indicates that “imaginative play is the catalyst for social, physical, emotional, and moral development” in young children.2 With guidance, children can use imaginative play to lay groundwork for understanding words and numbers.2 Play also facilitates the growth of kids’ reasoning abilities and language development.2 We should ask ourselves: “Is it about making the child ready for school, or about making the school ready for the child?”2 Why would we be headed down the opposite path? The answer would likely point to “timing”.
Kids in the US likely grow up faster than anywhere else.2 In Finland, which consistently ranks #1 “in assessments of literacy, math, and science, children don’t start formal schooling until age 7—and then they only attend half days”.2 Compared to ours, the children in Finland spend less time overall in school. We expect our children to start kindergarten at five, and to have years of preschool before that – yet again, the Finnish seem to get it right. The answer to when a child is really ready to Kindergarten is clearly not a) five for everyone or b) the sooner the better. Intuitively, the sooner a child starts “school” the faster he/she will learn and hence, success will come faster, etc. – but research indicates otherwise.
While parents feel the ongoing pressure (and peer pressure) to “prepare” a baby’s brain to participate in traditional school-style learning from a very young age, a number of scholars have questioned the wisdom of doing this6, whereby this can even be counterproductive. The thinking is that young children’s brains may not be intellectually ready for the nature of the content. There is indeed disagreement on this, but it has been shown that children show “significantly higher entrance scores if they test when they’re older compared to those who’ve entered kindergarten at the usual age”.6 Does this mean we should wait one year? Maybe, but not necessarily.
Every child is different. In fact, few children are equally competent in all these areas assessed on these tests. Many kids who are further mentally may fall behind emotionally, others who are extremely fit physically may lag in language development.1 Bear in mind also, that social skills are just as important as “academic” skills (such as being able to share and get along with other children in a group, to sit still for a period of time, and to focus on an adult that is speaking to them).4 Sensible parents seeking a healthy balance may opt for pre-schools in the form of Montessori, Waldorf, or others that individualize their curricula to meet each kid’s developmental needs. Also many public school districts provide alternatives to a cookie-cutter educational approach, and there are always private options as well.6 Integrated early child development solutions, such as Kids’ Candor may well complement the development of all required skills in a balanced approach.
Again, there is a huge number of checklists, tests and resources on line, but below are six specific steps parents and caregivers can take to sensibly help prepare their young ones for Kindergarten:
1) Encourage socialization. Support your kid's social development by including him/her group activities, inviting friends to go on outings, play dates, etc. Encourage your child to share (or express) her feelings, practice taking turns, work together with others as part of a group1, and follow simple directions.5
2) Develop routines. Set regular times for your child to eat, play and sleep each day. This will help your little one know what to expect and what's expected from him or her.5 This will also help your child listen to instructions and follow them.1 Try to foster a degree of self-sufficiency while doing this: can she put on her coat, shoes, and go to the bathroom by herself?1
3) Read, rhyme and play games with your child. Make reading and playing a daily family activity.5 As you do this, encourage both, the development of basic skills (such as recognizing letters, numbers, colors and shapes)6, as well the development of fine motor skills (hold a pencil, scissors, etc.).1
4) Reading benefits your child most when it's a shared, interactive experience. Do it together. Don't rely on computer programs that teach kids how to read.5 Encourage him/her to try to "read" a book by telling you a story based on the pictures.1
5) Expose your child to learning opportunities. Look for experiences to broaden your child's horizons, such as the museum, library or community art or science programs.5 In short, stimulate his/her curiosity: “if a child's curiosity is stronger than his fear of the unfamiliar, he will do well in school”.1
6) Talk about kindergarten. Build excitement and reduce your kid’s anxiety by explaining what his/her routine would be like in kindergarten. Attend the school’s open house with your child and show your enthusiasm. If your child's school doesn't offer an open house, call the school to schedule a visit.5