Kindergarten.  Think about the word:  a garden of children.  It evokes an image of children placed in an environment that allows them to bloom.  But is that what it is like these days?
Chances are the kindergarten you remember bears little resemblance to the one kids attend today.  Clara Cassidy’s We Like Kindergarten  (ilustrated by my favorite, Eloise Wilkin, and published in 1969) depicts a little girl enjoying painting time, story time, and singing time before going home to eat lunch with Mommy and baby sister.  A story about kindergarten today would have to tell about sit-at-the-desk-and-do-worksheet time, about learning to read time, maybe even about test-taking time!  And no one would be going home for lunch either–most kids attend into the afternoon, even though I recall one teacher telling me that the kids were so tired that it was impossible to teach them anything after lunch anyway!
Studies have shown that the benefits gained through early instruction are transient, with any initial advantages over kids who start school later diminishing as children age.  This article, by David Elkind, author of Miseducation:  Preschoolers at Risk, provides an excellent overview of different theories of early childhood learning, why children are being pushed to achieve at younger and younger ages, and what other countries are doing.  This morning I read a Newsweek article on the perils of pushing children to learn too much too soon.
This situation is only getting worse.  When my oldest started kindergarten in 1996, she learned letter sounds, but no one was expected to be reading by the end of the year.  Fast forward ten years: my youngest son could not write his name or recognize letters and his command of math consisted of counting to five when I took him to kindergarten testing day.  I wasn’t concerned; I’ve never been one to consciously attempt to teach my preschoolers (all of whom were home with me until kindergarten) such concepts.  They picked things up from being read to, or watching Sesame Street, and the first three had no problems in school.  But suddenly this appeared to be a Big Deal.  I had thought Willie would learn those things in kindergarten, but instead, without ever having darkened the doors of a school, he was already behind!
Why is this topic on my mind right now?  My littlest one goes on Friday for kindergarten testing. [edit: this was in 2010]  And as ridiculous as I think all this is, I found myself yesterday setting up Starfall on the computer and having Willie go over letter sounds with her.  She got bored halfway through the alphabet–she wanted to go play.  Of course she did.  She’s five years old.

Lorelei with her cousin Ella


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