I spent last summer reading a lot about kindergarten readiness. A few books caught my eye at the library since I have a 4-year-old. She is my second child, but unlike her brother who attended daycare starting at age 2, she has never been home with me her entire life. She will remain home even next year when we have to start kindergarten at age 5 according to the state law. I just wanted to make sure I am not ruing her life by not drilling her on sight words over the next year.
The first book I read was The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten And The Future Of Our Children by Suzanne Bouffard. That book discusses the great variability on quality of preschools. It suggest best practices in preparing children for school and also points out the many obstacles (time, money, lack of administrative support, etc.) faced by preschool teachers in implementing these ideas. The book only vaguely touched on parents teaching children at home, mostly as a supplement to the institutional setting in which the children spend most of the day. The most important take-away I had was that children learn by pretending, so handing them worksheets to practice letters will never get the results that pretending to write a menu while playing restaurant will.
The second book I read was Is Everybody Ready For Kindergarten? : A Tool Kit For Preparing Children And Families by Angèle Sancho Passe. This book focused to the necessity for preschools, kindergartens, and families to collaborate to ensure that children transition easily from preschool to kindergarten. In particular, it pointed out the challenges faced by immigrant children and their families who may have cultural differences that result in misunderstood expectations between the school and the family. Again, it assumed that all children are cared for outside of their home prior to kindergarten. My take-away from this book was that there is quite a mismatch in what preschools call kindergarten readiness and what kindergartens actually expect, and there seems to be little being done to bridge this gap.
The third book I read was The Homegrown Preschooler by Kathy H. Lee and Lesli M. Richards. This book was written by homeschooling moms and discussed how to weave preschool into a family’s everyday life with a little focused attention. Many activities are suggested that help the child develop in age-appropriate skills. It gives tips for dealing with the difficult days that can arise because of preschool behavior, as well as longer periods of difficulty that could arise through illness or other circumstances. This book reassured me that if you have a general idea of what skills kindergartners should have, you can pretty easily incorporate them into real life.
In addition to these books, my newsfeed kept giving me articles about kindergarten readiness. (Is Google tracking my library check-outs?) The gist of most of those articles was that a majority of children entering kindergarten are lacking the necessary skills. Apparently, not only children from immigrant families and those living in poverty are lagging behind expectations, but also a large percentage of middle-class kids and those from cultural background usually associated with high academic achievements are not measuring up to the kindergarten expectations. I started to wonder if the bar of kindergarten readiness is set too high if as many as 50-75% of kids are not ready.
As I was contemplating the demands placed on young children and their parents and teachers, I considered whether this pressure exists outside of the United States. When my older child was preschool-age, I became aware that German parents were baffled by American early childhood education. German parents living in the U.S. could not understand the American obsession with teaching preschoolers letters and writing. Remembering that cultural difference ten years later, I sought out German articles about school readiness, thinking that maybe the early childhood education craze had reached the other side of the pond.
The German articles I found were all about the abilities 6-year-olds need to have to enter first grade, not about 5-year-olds, as Germany does not have compulsory education prior to age 6. I found that some expectations were similar, like counting to 10 and sorting objects and being able to hop on one foot, but again remember that Germans are looking at 6-year-olds and Americans are judging their 5-year-olds. However, most of the skills listed in German articles revolved around the emotional and social abilities of the child to interact within a group rather than the American focus on recognizing letters, forming rhymes, and knowing letter sounds. As a matter of fact, none of the German articles I found mentioned any pre-reading skills at all! Several German books and articles strongly cautioned parents against pushing their children to do any academic activities before they enter first grade.
Back in the United States and my local community, the November 2018 issue of Baltimore’s Child magazine includes an article titled “The Double Life of 4-Year-Olds.” The discussion focuses on the increasing independence and verbal abilities of children this age as well as the importance of unstructured play. In a stark contrast, however, the middle of the article recommends that 4-year-olds should be enrolled in preschool at least three days a week to give ” them independence, that time away from their caregiver to think on their own, have new experiences, navigate social interactions, learn how to sit for circle time, follow directions and interact with other adults.” I am a bit confused about how unstructured play and thinking on their own is going to be fostered by sitting in circle time and following directions. However, considering that a large portion of the magazine is filled with adds for preschools, it makes perfect sense.
So, how is my 4-year-old spending her days? We are reading a lot of books. My daughter has been able to sit and listen to books for several years now and she enjoys spotting the things we have read about later in the real world. We are also working slowly through a kindergarten math book. So, she is practicing counting and writing numbers. If she doesn’t want to do it one day, then we leave it alone and pick it up the next day. She also has plenty of independent time while I work with her brother or he and I are doing other things around the house. In that time, she is cutting and crafting paper things, sometimes writing letters on them, drawing and writing on the dry-erase board, playing with dress-up sticker books, and mixing all the Play-Dough colors together. In short, she seems to be doing all the “age-appropriate” stuff plus getting exposure to new ideas through reading and tagging along to her brother’s field trips. She is a bit clingy, but she goes off without any issues to her ballet class because I explained to her if she wants to learn ballet, I can’t teach her. We go to a couple of other weekly classes, but I am in the room and she can be as independent as she wants and is learning to sit and listen to another adult. So, I think we’re good!