Articles and Topics
What is a Good Kindergarten?
In a recent article entitled “Kindergarten Then and Now,” I lamented what appears to me to have become a national obsession with parents today—namely, having their children already achieve before beginning kindergarten the skills we traditionally want them to develop during kindergarten. Also in that article I deplored pressure from parents and society for children to acquire academic skills to the exclusion of social and emotional development. I specified things that should not characterize a kindergarten curriculum, things that would largely convert it to a pushed-down first grade. While identifying pitfalls can be helpful, it isn’t enough; it doesn’t say anything about what should be found in a high-quality kindergarten curriculum. That is what I want to deal with in this article.

In order for the kindergarten year to provide a supportive environment for your children, it should feature the following 10 attributes. I’m going to put a place for a check mark in front of each so you can print this up and fill it out when you select a kindergarten. If your children are already enrolled, evaluate the one they are attending by noting how many of the following features you observe in it.

_____1. A secure environment that meets children’s needs for health and safety. In today’s world of unexpected and seemingly random tragedy, this might be difficult to evaluate. Even so, check for things like fenced playgrounds, soft material under climbing equipment, etc. Make certain that high standards of hygiene (clean materials, hand-washing of children and adults, immunization requirements) are maintained.

_____2. A place with a lot going on where, at most times, not all the children are doing the same thing. If you walk into a totally quiet classroom (except at rest or nap time), one without a lot of noise from happy children, this is not a program geared to the developmental level of 5-year-olds.

_____3. A daily program featuring a balance between teacher-initiated and child-initiated activities. Many parents worry that kindergarten children are simply “allowed to do what they want to do” instead of what the teacher tells them to do. Children have a way of choosing to do things that they consider a challenge and also things they do very well. When given some choice, they may well be immersing themselves in an activity requiring a skill they want to master, or they might be “rehearsing” a recently acquired skill. Or they might be just having fun! Don’t knock it!

_____4. A place where you will see children working on early literacy and math activities. This does not mean just sitting at the table doing work sheets. It also means listening to stories, telling stories, dictating stories, looking at books independently, singing, relating events that happened outside school, and talking, talking, talking. It also means using computers interactively with appropriate games and tasks, solving puzzles, counting napkins put on the table to match the number of children, measuring heights and weights.

_____5. A place where, to the untrained eye, the children seem to spend a lot of time “just playing.” Play is the major vehicle through which children learn both social and academic skills. Don’t think that “just playing” means “not learning.”

_____6. A place that puts as much emphasis on social and emotional development as on academic achievement. Children typically come to kindergarten immature emotionally and more than a little self-centered. We want a curriculum that helps them feel good about themselves but that also helps them become aware that other children also have needs and rights. In a good kindergarten environment they will learn to wait, to share, to take turns, to help one another as they gain confidence in their own abilities and self-worth.

_____7. A place where children interact with and learn from each other as well as from adults. A kindergarten classroom with one teacher, 20 children, and no aide actually has 20 assistant teachers—the children. Children love to introduce new children to a given routine and explain how things should be done. “No, you can’t come in the housekeeping corner now because there can be only four of us at once.” (Note how the social rule also carries a math lesson.) “You’ve had the bike a long time and it’s my turn now.” Beware of a teacher who thinks she is the only one in the classroom from whom the children will learn.

_____8. A place with sufficient learning materials and equipment for the size of the group. Kindergarten children learn to share and take turns, but scarce toys and teaching materials paradoxically make this harder. There doesn’t have to be one easel for every child, but there should be enough so that no child has to wait beyond reasonable limits for a turn. Likewise for all other attractive items in the classroom and on the playground.

_____9. A place that values each and every child, allowing individual differences to manifest themselves. In most cities, age is the only criterion that determines whether a child may enroll in kindergarten. But, in any group of 5-year-olds, there will be children who function more like 4-year-olds and others who are like 6-year-olds. And overall development isn’t the only type of difference that will exist. Some children are veritable diplomats, and others get along poorly with their classmates. Some are daredevils, while others are timid and fearful. Such variability will be found in every area of development that can be identified. If all the children are forced into the same mold—one which corresponds to be preconceptions of the teachers and program planners—the children will not have a good experience during their kindergarten year (or any other school year for that matter). This is not to suggest that it is bad to try to have all the children achieve certain goals. It is merely a reminder not to expect that all children will achieve them at the same rate and time.

_____10. A place with a well-trained teacher in charge. Actually I could have listed this as the first characteristic, for, if a given program gets credit on this item, the chances are it will receive credit on most of the others. With the new recognition of the importance of the early years of life, training for kindergarten teachers has steadily become more rigorous over the past few decades. Teachers in public schools must be certified—which means they have been trained reasonably well—but this is not always the case in private or church-run programs. So be sure to check on this when you check out your child’s school.

Final Thoughts

If you have the opportunity to visit different programs and choose a kindergarten for your child, look for a “perfect 10” on this little rating form. If your child will attend public school and you have no choice of school or teacher, be an advocate for improving quality along the lines I have sketched here. The beneficiaries of your efforts will be our children—and our nation.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education