Here's a press release from the Alliance for Childhood:
Kindergarten Boot Camp?
It’s Time for an About Face in Early Education
College Park, MD, August 31, 2010—In Murrieta Valley, California, parents are offered the option of enrolling their children in “kindergarten boot camp,” a summer program designed to help them survive the treacherous transition from home or child care to kindergarten. Children work on letter, number, and shape recognition, school routines, and other skills they are expected to know.
Similar programs are popping up all over the country, in response to parents’ anxiety about their youngsters’ ability to deal with the harsh realities of today’s kindergartens. One such boot camp in Nebraska lasts all year. “Boot Camp will help your child master important pre-reading and pre-writing skills,” says the web site of the children’s museum that sponsors it.
At the kindergarten boot camp of the Harlem Success Academy, a high-pressure charter school in New York City, young children are drilled on how to move through the “zero noise” corridors in straight lines with their mouths shut and their arms at their sides.
In many communities, children starting kindergarten are expected to know the alphabet, count accurately to 10 or higher, know the days of the week, recognize colors and shapes such as cones and spheres, and be able to complete worksheets on these and other concepts.
Many of the academic tasks kindergartners are now expected to master were previously reserved for first or second grade. As a result, today’s classrooms are often tightly structured. Some even require teachers to follow scripts designed to drill children on literacy and math skills, with frequent tests. At one Milwaukee school, kindergartners take nearly 160 required tests during the year, in reading, writing, spelling, math, social studies, science, and health.
Intense Academics in Kindergarten Have Not Produced Good Results
Has this massive change in the nature of kindergarten over the last generation produced positive results? Increasingly, researchers, educators, and children’s advocates say no.
“Evidence is mounting that intensive didactic approaches in kindergarten have not yielded long-term gains,” says Joan Almon, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Childhood. “The most reliable and valid tests, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show little or no progress. And for many children, these ramped-up expectations are actually causing harm.”
“That the image of ‘boot camp’ for young children has caught on in so many places is telling,” says Edward Miller of the Alliance. “Kindergarten was designed as a place to introduce children to the pleasures of learning and exploring the wider world, mainly through play and discovery. Now we talk in terms of preparing them for combat—as if school is a war zone, or a prison.”
Almon and Miller are co-authors of the 2009 report “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.” It documents the importance of free play in early education and the extent to which play has been pushed out of kindergarten. The authors argue that the push for early academics is based on unproved assumptions.
For example, they point to recent research in England and New Zealand that compared children who were taught to read at age five with those taught to read at seven. By age eleven there was no difference in reading ability between the two groups.
These findings complement earlier studies in the U.S. and Germany comparing children in play-based preschool and kindergarten classrooms with others in programs focused on academic skills. Within a few years the children in playful programs were significantly ahead of the others in academic achievement.
“Crisis in the Kindergarten” argues that a gross overemphasis on high-stakes tests of reading and math skills has contributed to the loss of play in early childhood education and created a false sense of progress. That argument was bolstered by this summer’s testing debacle in New York, which revealed that several years of increasing proficiency scores were illusory. Nevertheless, policymakers and commentators have responded to the latest news by calling for more academics and tougher tests. In other words, more boot camp for young children.
The Connection Between Play Deprivation and Behavior Problems
Almon and Miller of the Alliance point to evidence that inappropriate expectations and play deprivation contributes to behavioral problems, especially in young boys. In a 2005 study, Walter Gilliam of Yale University found that public preschools were expelling students at an alarmingly high rate, and that 4.5 times as many boys as girls were affected. Gilliam also noted a striking relationship between play and expulsion: preschools with the least amount of time for dramatic play had the highest rates of expulsion.
“Years of research on the role of play in early childhood shows that it contributes to self-control, problem solving, empathy, cooperation, and communication skills,” says Joan Almon. “By depriving children of play, we rob them of the chance to develop the tools they need to get along with others and succeed in school and in life.”
Kindergarten teachers who were surveyed in a study conducted by Jennifer Astuto of New York University expressed concerns about the lack of time for play and the pressures to do academic work.
“The school day is very structured and is run on a tight schedule,” wrote one teacher. “The students are not given snack, play, or nap time.”
“They move from mini lessons conducted on the carpet to follow up work at their desks,” said another. “Our day is very intense and provides very little free play, choice time, or any arts and crafts time.”
“Many kindergarten students are missing out on socializing with their peers,” wrote a third. “They need to learn about sharing, caring, and being a good friend and respect for people and things.”
This pressure-cooker atmosphere has led increasing numbers of parents to “redshirt” their five-year-olds, holding them back from starting kindergarten until they are six. The most recent census data, for 2008, shows that 17 percent of children entering kindergarten were six or older.
The loss of play, active learning, and discovery in kindergarten may well be related to a disturbing decline in measures of creativity in American children, says the Alliance for Childhood. “We know that play fosters creativity,” says Ed Miller. “And we have been hearing the same complaint from veteran teachers and others who work with young children: today’s children have very little imagination. That’s scary.”
“It’s high time for early childhood education to do an about-face,” says Joan Almon, “and reject the boot-camp mentality. Young children don’t need to be coerced into learning. They love hands-on exploration and play. Teachers need to work with the grain and support that way of learning, while setting age-appropriate goals for achievement.”