Articles and Topics
Kindergarten Then and Now
A few years ago a man named Robert Fulghum wrote a little book of charming essays entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. To the author’s—and just about everyone else’s—surprise, the book became a run-away best-seller. A few of the accomplishments he cited were: share; play fair; don’t hit people; put things back; clean up your own mess; don’t take things that aren’t yours; wash your hands before you eat; flush; warm cookies and cold milk are good for you; take a nap every afternoon; when you go out, hold hands and stick together. I especially loved one of the “learnings”:

“Live a balanced life—learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some” (pp. 6-7).

He went on to say: “Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living” (p. 7).

Because I so applaud the wisdom in those little homilies, I have often quoted them appreciatively when talking or writing about an appropriate kindergarten curriculum, adding them to whatever recommendations I might have made about acquiring academic skills. It is my conviction that every parent and every early childhood professional wants children to learn those things in kindergarten—and demonstrate the learning by their behavior for the remainder of their lives—as fervently as they want them to acquire literacy and math skills.

So why do about a third of the questions I get from parents on this web site say things like:
  • “My daughter will be starting kindergarten this fall and doesn’t know all her ABC’s. I’m told that if she doesn’t know them when she starts, they will put her in a class for slow learners. Help!”
  • “Why won’t my son read? He knows his ABC’s and can count to a hundred, but we can’t get him to go ahead and read. I’m afraid he will be behind the other children when he goes to kindergarten this fall.”
  • “I’m paying a lot of money for good day care for my daughter, but they just play all day and don’t do any academics. How can I get her teacher to spend more time teaching them their letters and numbers?”
We’ve come a long way from cookies and milk and holding hands when we cross the street, haven’t we? And perhaps we should have. I belong to a generation of educational pioneers who helped increase awareness in America that not all children were coming to school (kindergarten or first grade) truly ready to learn. We stressed the importance of seeing to it that those children—mainly those of poor and under-educated parents—received during their early years the kinds of experiences that would help them get the most from formal education a few years down the road. Those early efforts led to worldwide creation of many programs intended to help ensure a solid foundation for learning by enhancing and supplementing parents’ efforts. The best-known of those programs is Head Start. At the time of its establishment, some of us commented privately that “Even Start” or “Equal Start” would have been a more appropriate label, as that is what the program was designed to do—ensure more equal footing at the start of school for those children who did not grow up in a rich language environment or have opportunities for developing their imaginations and creativity.

In the years between the launching of programs such as Head Start and today, there has been a groundswell of belief in what can be accomplished in a good early childhood program. Essentially every national commission that has examined social problems (from poverty to drug abuse to welfare reform) and proposed solutions to them has endorsed the idea of increasing the availability of early childhood education. These commissions have recognized that the achievement gap between subgroups in this country will never be reduced until all our children come to school truly prepared to continue their learning. Achieving literacy—a national goal—cannot be accomplished without strong kindergartens. As a consequence, kindergarten (5-year-olds) is now a regular part of public education all over the country, as is pre-kindergarten (4-year-olds) in many cities. Undoubtedly, before long we will have pre-pre-kindergarten—which I happen to think we should.

As this increase in acceptance and availability of early childhood education is something I have worked for all my professional life, why am I so agitated about all these parental expressions of anxiety about their children’s early learning? Perhaps it is because I think the pendulum has swung too far, over-stressing the academic goals of early education and ignoring the social and emotional learning. We need the cookies and milk and holding hands as much as we need letter and word recognition. But I think these parental concerns reflect the fact that in America—maybe everywhere—we like head starts better than even starts. So, we begin to reason unconsciously, if children need to learn their letters and numbers in kindergarten, wouldn’t it be better if they knew them before they start kindergarten. My answer is a resounding No. We don’t expect our medical students to know everything they need to learn about anatomy and physiology and pharmacology; rather we expect them to have a foundation that will enable them to learn these things during their years in medical school.

Let’s not try to take away all the things our children need to learn in kindergarten so that we can send them off with the announcement, “He can already write his name and count to 100.” Let’s send them off feeling loved and appreciated, possessing good oral language, having been read to many, many times, and with the feeling that they are worthwhile and competent. Under those conditions, the ABC’s and the numbers will flow from them like water rushing over Niagara Falls.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education