This digest reviews factors influencing kindergarten curriculum, and contrasts characteristics of skill-based and developmentally oriented programs.
Critics of the trend toward skill-based kindergartens are not advocating a return to outmoded educational practices of the past. However, much new research about children's learning confirms some historical beliefs about effective educational practices. Unfortunately, this well-known and respected body of research information is often ignored in the formulation of curriculum for today's kindergarten (Spodek, 1986).
Most children entering kindergarten today have much wider experience outside the home than children of the past. As a result, many teachers, administrators, and parents believe than more advanced content is necessary. Others are concerned that younger five-year-olds may find it difficult to be successful if the kindergarten curriculum is too advanced. Some parents delay their child's entrance to kindergarten for a year to give the child the advantage of being the oldest in the class.
Many preschools and child care centers try to teach content identified by kindergarten teachers as prerequisite to kindergarten success. It is not uncommon now to find child care and preschool settings in which children spend prolonged periods sitting at tables trying to complete pencil and paper tasks which would be inappropriate even for substantially older children. Parents often shop for the program that promises the most in terms of promoting kindergarten readiness.
These practices have led to the widespread use of screening and readiness tests prior to kindergarten entrance to determine whether children are likely to be successful in school (Egertson, 1987). There is wide agreement, however, that such measures are often poorly constructed, inappropriately used, and likely to screen out those children most likely to benefit (NAECS/SDE, 1987).
A rigid lock-step curriculum is less responsive than others to the new wider age- and ability-ranged groups. Hence, schools have increasingly resorted to retention and extra-year programs for children who have difficulty with the expectations of regular kindergarten. Transition placements usually occur either the year before or the year after kindergarten. However well-intentioned those who organize these classes may be, "transition class" is simply a more palatable term for "retention."
Since teachers tend to direct instruction to older and more able children, more of the younger children tend to be held out or placed in extra-year classes. As a result, curricular expectations tend to be raised. Research provides little evidence that children placed in transition classes achieve any more than their nonretained or nontransitioned counterparts in either cognitive or social-emotional domains (Smith and Shepard, 1987).
An "academic" kindergarten is usually characterized by the direct teaching of specific discrete skills, particularly in reading and math, which children are expected to master before going to first grade. The daily schedule is usually broken into many small segments, often because it is believed that children do not have a sufficient attention span to enable them to work longer at a task. The majority of the instructional materials used in these classes are the kindergarten level of major series in reading and math. Often teachers use additional workbooks for phonics.
If interest centers are used, they are designed primarily to teach specific skills. Time for active exploration in the arts, science, or social studies is limited. Other common characteristics of skill-based programs include: (1) limited availability of, or independent use of, concrete materials; (2) much pencil-and-paper-oriented independent work; (3) little opportunity for conversation among children and between children and adults.
Kindergarten programs derived from a child development orientation may exhibit some of the characteristics of skill-based kindergartens. They are, however, driven by an entirely different philosophical viewpoint. The child-centered kindergarten does not base activities on the learning of discrete skills, but rather follows the mission of moving each child as far forward in his or her development as possible. Goals emphasize maintenance and development of dispositions to go on learning (Katz and others, 1987).
The child-centered kindergarten offers experiences to children in a physical setting which has been carefully designed to increase the likelihood that these experiences will occur. Linguistic competence is a primary goal, and language experiences appropriate for each child's stage of literacy development underlie the entire curriculum. Conversations among children and between children and adults are viewed as important to the development of linguistic competence. Independence and responsibility are promoted by child-initiated activities and expanded blocks of time which allow children to finish projects. Materials are logically organized, usually into several interest areas containing many options from which children self-select activities. The complexity of the material ranges from easy to difficult, so that a wide range of abilities is accommodated.
Egertson, H.A. "Recapturing Kindergarten for 5-Year Olds." EDUCATION WEEK. 6:34 (May, 1987): 28, 19.
Elkind, D. "Formal Education and Early Childhood Education: An Essential Difference." PHI DELTA KAPPAN. 67:9 (May, 1986): 631:636.
Katz, L., J.D. Raths, and R.T. Torres. A PLACE CALLED KINDERGARTEN. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1987.
Moyer, J., H. Egertson, and J. Eisenberg. "The Child-Centered Kindergarten." CHILDHOOD EDUCATION. 4:63 (April, 1987): 235-242.
National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. UNACCEPTABLE TRENDS IN KINDERGARTEN ENTRY AND PLACEMENT. 1987.
Smith, M.L., and L. A. Shepard. "What Doesn't Work: Explaining Policies of Retention in the Early Grades." PHI DELTA KAPPAN. 69 (1987): 129-134.
Spodek, B. "Using the Knowledge Base." In TODAY'S KINDERGARTEN: EXPLORING THE KNOWLEDGE BASE, EXPANDING THE CURRICULUM. Edited by B. Spodek, New York: Teachers College Press, 1986.