The Role of Rigor in Kindergarten

It seems every week, there’s another story about the benefits of early education or how investing in high-quality early childhood programs pays off. And President Obama’s recent 2016 budget proposal included a 10-year, $75 billion universal preschool request.

But as a recent story in Education Week explained, there’s no real consensus on what a regular day in a kindergarten classroom should look like. Teachers face increasing pressure to focus on academic content in the early elementary grades, often at the expense of art, music, and time for free play. At the same time, researchers continue to find the brains of children of this age are wired to learn through the very types of activities being pushed further to the side.

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, told Education Week that in the last 15 years, there’s been a revolution in how we understand young children’s minds. Research, she said, continues to find kids are “playing in ways that help them find information” and learning very sophisticatedly.

But the time kids have in school for free or unstructured play, as well as for areas like art and music, has been decreasing for at least the last decade. A 2014 working paper by Daphna Bassok and Anna Rorem, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” found that 51 percent of kindergarten teachers said they had art three or more times a week in 1998. In 2010, that figure had fallen to 26 percent of teachers.

What’s taking the place of art and creative play in these classrooms? The kinds of activities you’d more typically see in classrooms for older students: worksheets and teacher-directed, whole-group activities.

But Bassok said teachers can being doing both cognitive skill building and the more developmentally appropriate activities.

“People assume my narrative is that it’s a really sad story,” she told Education Week. “Having kids be moving, engaging, touching things, exploring—that doesn’t seem at odds with learning literacy concepts and math concepts.”

Fred Rogers knew this all along. He worked to help the children in his viewing audience build a base of cognitive skills in developmentally appropriate ways.

For example, Fred made numbers and counting come to life by noting how many fruits he took from his grocery bag. And Hedda Sharapan of the Fred Rogers Company explained how Fred’s factory videos (which show how everyday objects are made) lay the groundwork for curiosity about the things around us—an interest that’s key for engagement in science.

“Children are like little scientists trying to figure out how the world works,” Sharapan wrote, adding that their ideas may be way off base or even distracting for educators who are focused on an entirely different idea or lesson plan. “But remember that your interest in their ideas nurtures their curiosity—and children who are curious will be eager learners.”

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