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All work and no play makes kindergarten a grind, no matter when kids turn 5

Patti Ghezzi, a former AJC education reporter, works in university communications. She has a keen interest in education issues as this column on the changing nature of kindergarten demonstrates.

By Patti Ghezzi

A bill to change the date when Georgia children can enter kindergarten would not change the reality that modern kindergarten is not developmentally appropriate for 5-year-olds.

Now, children must turn 5 before Sept. 1 to enter kindergarten. With school starting in August in most districts, some kids are just 4 years old when they first take their seat in a kindergarten classroom. The bill would wind back the start date to Aug. 1 in 2017 and July 1 in 2018.

Unfortunately, even if this bill passes, too many kids will tumble into kindergarten classrooms that are not set up to meet their needs. They will find no play kitchen and no easels. They may only get one short recess period during the six-hour school day.

 Instead of free play, they will face pressure to read and write, ready or not. Many parents will be informed at their first parent-teacher conference that their child is not interested in reading, something the parents likely already know. Yet parents will be surprised to hear it’s a problem. After all, this is only kindergarten.

The teacher may suggest flashcards, online games and other things parents can do to get their child on the reading bandwagon. The teacher may remind parents of the daily reading log they’re supposed to keep, documenting the amount of time they spend reading with their child.

Some parents will hear their child cannot sit still. He talks too much. He doesn't pay attention. He is disrupting the other kids who are trying to learn. The teacher may ask if there is something going on at home the school should know about.

How about asking when it became normal to expect 5-year-olds to sit still for extended periods, write detailed journal entries, complete worksheets and read independently, all in a school day that includes just 15 minutes of free play?

This bill merely gives children with late summer birthdays a reprieve from the kindergarten grind, something many parents already do by waiting a year to enroll their child.

The focus on age is misguided, because not all kids develop at the same rate. Of three students in a classroom, all born on September 1, one may arrive on the verge of reading, knowing all the letters and sounds. One may show no interest in sounds, letters or reading. Another may already be reading independently.

Instead of trying to fix kindergarten by focusing on age, let’s bring back the children’s garden, a time of exploration and learning through play. Bring back play kitchens. Build in several recess periods. For rainy days, stock up on board games, blocks, play dough and Legos. Make time to sing and dance. Have children dress up and act out stories. Encourage children who are ready to read to forge ahead, but don’t pressure kids who aren’t ready to cross the bridge from nonreader to reader.

Some say you can’t bring back kindergarten, because it never went away. It was just renamed pre-k.

My daughter loved public pre-k, even though she only got one recess. Several of her classmates, mostly boys, were routinely denied recess because of misbehavior. She adored “choice time,” when she went from center to center building with blocks, cutting out pictures and playing dress-up with friends.

When Celia got to kindergarten, her teachers worked hard to straddle both worlds. They sang silly songs and read stories with animation and joy, while still teaching reading and math as dictated by the state. I marveled at their ability to strike this balance, but teachers shouldn't be torn between giving kids what they need and pushing them to advance at the same accelerated pace.

Today’s kindergarten seems built on the belief that squeezing out free play allows more time for academic instruction, resulting in kids who can read better at a younger age.

My review of research supports recess and learning through play and does not suggest test scores will decline if you let kids be kids. But those who dictate education policy have no problem ignoring research or common sense when it doesn't jibe with their strategy.

Instead, apparently, Georgia policymakers would rather debate the date when children gain entry to this dysfunctional system.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.