Impending Kindergarten Angst

My daughter Lillian is four years old; her birthday is in February, so she’ll be starting kindergarten a bit over a year from now. So the big decision is almost upon us. Public, charter, or private?

She currently goes to a fantastic preschool that is often regarded in the community as the “Lord of the Flies” preschool, in a not entirely complimentary way. Her day generally consists of running around, screaming, painting, getting wet, stripping off most of her clothes, painting her body (or her friends), eating lunch and taking a nap, and starting all over again until we pick her up. It’s fantastic. She’s made great friends and is socially fearless. While it looks like chaos, the teachers work really hard to nurture social skills, conflict management, creativity, and inquisitiveness. It spans 18 months to when they start elementary school, and most of the time the kids are all together on a massive playground filled with books, toys, sand, paint, bikes, carts, and all sorts of other fun stuff. The best part is the “potions” area, where kids get to mix up colored bubbly water with other substances. When Lillian started, she’d spend most of her time making potions and then dumping them on her head:
rainbowgirl

As she’s developed, she’s become more interested in her social interactions, stories, and imagination, and a little less prone towards body art, but she still has her moments. We luuuuuuuuve her school. She can do rudimentary addition and subtraction, and write her name. We spend a little time with her on letters, but we don’t push.

I think we forget that reading is an immensely complex process. It’s not just a matter of knowing the letter and seeing it in a word. “What begins with A? Apple!” No, it’s more a matter of, “What is the name of this shape? What sound does it make? What word do you hear that sound in? What other sounds do you hear in that word? What are the shapes for those sounds? How do they fit together to make a word? What sound does that word make? What does that word mean?” And probably a ton of other steps I can’t think of now.

In my human development class, I learned about the work of Piaget, a scientist who developed a system of stages to describe how children acquire the ability to learn new skills. If you have ever had a baby, you’ve probably heard the term “object permanence,” when babies learn to recognize objects still exist when they can’t see them anymore. It’s the first stage of abstraction. According to Piaget, kids stay in that stage until starting around 5, when they begin to transition to the intuitive substage. Kids become capable of learning different skills at different points–anyone with multiple kids knows that they are all different–but by about age 7, they’ve generally reached this stage.

Why is this important? Because the this stage is when they can start to learn the complex skills that allow for reading and mathematics. This leads me to my main thrust. MOST KIDS CAN’T READ WHEN THEY ARE FIVE. Maybe we should move Finland.

This research is decades old, and has undergone decades of validation. Yet our school system starts testing children for reading skills in the first grade, which means children are expected to learn to read in kindergarten. This is folly. Some children learn to read early; they develop early. This does not mean they are more intelligent, or have had better parenting, or been to a better school. It just means that a particular type of development is happening early. My husband learned to read before kindergarten. I learned in the first grade. We both write professionally.

The ability to read cannot be forced; the kind of learning my daughter is doing in her unconventional preschool is entirely appropriate for her level of development. Children before the age of 5 learn through play and absorption, not traditional teaching and rote learning. If I were following the prescribed route, she would be in Pre-K now to learn the building blocks for reading, so she would be ready to read in kindergarten. Sounds good on paper; doesn’t work in real life. You can’t fight biology.

Instead, our schools are creating stressed out kids, often misdiagnosed with learning disabilities because they are being forced to attempt skills their bodies are not capable of producing yet. Some kids will always buck the trends; but many bright, intelligent kids are getting the message that they are stupid, are being held back grades, and are forced to prep for national tests that allow their schools to keep funding. I can’t find anything in this scenario that is good for our kids, or our country.

As you may have guessed, I’m leaning away from public school for my daughter, at least for the first couple of years. There are a few good charter schools, though most of them choose enrollment by lottery. There are some Montessori based private schools, but I’m leery of Montessori based on my experience as a child. I’ll have to investigate those further. There are also religious schools, which might work depending on the teaching philosophy. While I am not christian, I teach at a Catholic college and I love the teaching philosophy which stresses critical thinking, ethics, and self-reflection.

My husband and I have some big decisions before us, and the seeming obliviousness of the current system to the developmental needs of our children makes is much more complicated (and expensive). I would love it if our public system based the curriculum on appropriate developmental science, but the evidence seems to prove otherwise. I feel somewhat helpless in the face of these issues; I can’t work to change the public system in time for my daughter’s entrance into it, so I have to look elsewhere for the kind of educational experience I want for her. It’s frustrating and sad.

My own pre-college education was mixed, but I placed into Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) in my district, which kept me engaged when my other classes were boring or frustrating. They didn’t start testing in the first grade then, however. When I became a college student, I discovered I loved learning. Public school had been tolerable, but never as engaging and energizing as I found my college classes. I would so love for my daughter to love learning before she’s 18.

I wish my daughter’s preschool extended through high school; they have the strongest grasp on how to nurture a child’s talents of any school I’ve encountered. I hope I can find something just as wonderful for her as she grows into adulthood.

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