Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reflections of a new Kindergarten Parent

Tomorrow my baby will be starting Kindergarten. I've known this day would come since he was an infant and his older brother went off to school for the first time. I suppose that is what comes to mind when I think of Kindergarten and the first day, since I don't really remember my own first day of Kindergarten. I was only 4 when I went away to school for the first time, since the state I lived in required children were 5 by the end of the year to start. But I was ready for the playing, the singing, the coloring, the stories... I remember my teacher, Ms. Hart. How could you go wrong with a Kindergarten teacher with that name?

Fast forward to when my older son went to school. I had been planning to homeschool him. After retiring as an elementary school teacher forever even before my oldest was thought of, I really didn't plan to send him. But my husband, who had staying in education, had different ideas. When my son Zack started asking to go to school, I felt I needed to give him the opportunity to try it out. We enrolled him and I chose his teacher because he had connected with her during the "testing" process to see what he already knew going into school. Before school even started, he had changed his mind and decided that he didn't want to go anymore. But we were committed now and it felt like there was no going back.

That first day was so hard... for ME! My husband went with me to drop him off, our 9 month old in tow in his sling. After our tearful goodbye at the door, my husband and I walked away hand in hand and cried some more before my husband went off to work and I went home to our quiet house with only my baby. I missed Zack terribly! We had been connected since the day he was born- before really- and we had never really been away from each other. Especially not for so many hours.

As the days and weeks passed and we went through many painful goodbyes at the door to his classroom, I began to wonder why I was doing this. I stayed true to my commitment to not throw him into the classroom crying as I had seen other parents do. I would stay until he was ready for me to leave. When he was ready, he would give me a nod and the baby and I would head home. Some days were easier than others. Some were painful from the moment his eyes opened. But his teacher was caring and always did her best to reach out to us, supporting us when she could.

So we stayed. He learned how to write and he was reading before the end of the year. His math was way ahead. But he wasn't really happy. Finally the year came to a close and summer arrived. It took a long time before he really relaxed into summer and back into the rhythm of our family's life. I started to really feel connected to him again as it drew nearer to the time that school was to begin again. That was when I felt it: a strong urge to keep him home with me. I brought it up, but it wasn't really an option. It was suggested that we just give it a try. He'll be fine.

School started again and with it came chaos. He was fine at school- a model student. But at home, it was a nightmare. He would have temper tantrums for 2-3 hours most nights. I couldn't figure it out, so I went in to observe. I was horrified to see only about 5 minutes of direct instruction during a 3 hour time block! Clearly I could do better myself.

I took my case back home to my husband and we explored our options. We finally decided that the best choice was to bring him home to homeschool, so that's what we did. Once he was home, he started to relax more and to begin to enjoy life again. But I found it curious that he was refusing to read and refusing to write. I knew it wasn't important and that eventually he would be willing to read and write again. And I was right- now he is writing very well and reading way above grade level. So what did his Kindergarten experience really do to him? He was "ready" to read and write according to the experts at the school, but was he really ready for all of that pressure? Was he ready to abandon his need to play and to be close to me or did we push him too hard, too fast? It took a lot of time and patience to undo the damage.

Now Zack willingly goes to school. Actually, he loves it. He couldn't wait to get back to it. Would he have felt that way without the break? I don't think so. He is ready for that sort of pressure now and actually enjoys it in a way that I don't think I ever really did. I'm just glad to see that he's happy after all that we went through.

So tomorrow, I start this school journey with my youngest son, Josh. I must admit, I am reluctant after my experience with his older brother. I am also very concerned about the lack of unstructured playtime in Kindergarten. After an exhaustive search, I've found the majority of schools near me are similar: early academics are the rule, rather than the exception. What happened to play? What happened to the play house and the dress up station? Painting and circle time? They seem to be casualties of this push to make our children do better on state testing.

But we're missing the point. We're missing the point that children's work is play and that there is no more powerful way to teach a child than to respect the way children learn best at the age of 5 and 6. Children who are pushed too hard, too fast, too early are more likely to diagnosed with learning problems that wouldn't exist if we simply gave them time to develop at their own pace. Teachers have also told me that they are seeing many more discipline problems than in the past, probably because Kindergarten children are facing 5 hours of academics per day with no time to play out the stress in unstructured playtime. Yes, that's right. Kindergarteners. Can you pay attention for 5 hours without a good long break to de-stress? I can't.

Teachers aren't to blame. They're all upset about it, too. When I spoke with another long-time Kindergarten teacher last year, she told me that she had finally decided to get rid of the play house in her classroom. She said with pain in her own eyes that it was just too difficult for them to look at it and not be able to play in it every day. Another Pre-K teacher said that Kindergarten teachers are giving away huge sets of very expensive wooden blocks because they don't have time to use them anymore. Something is wrong with this picture. Since when have children lost the need to play?

With all the stress in our society today, children's need for play is greater than ever. Yet, there is less and less time for this critically important activity. School days are planned down to the minute of every day and then most children are involved in other outside structured activities once they leave school. Homework and dinner round out the evening, then bedtime before we do it all over again.

I'll keep writing on this topic and share how things unfold for us this time around, along with my own attempts to make some changes within the system. I'll also work to provide the time and space for that much needed playtime for my own children and share what works for me this time. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic as well.


tumbleintodreams said...

I remember kindergarten as brutal. I was terrified of getting in trouble and when I did, my little world collapsed. I missed my mom everyday. It was not a good experience.

I thought school was different today. And I chose a nice Montessorri school for my oldest two children. They made it to 2nd grade. The other three children have and will stay at home. Their choice and their contentment.

However, I still carry a small fantasy of remembering how my mother used to say goodbye to us in her gown with dishes all around. And when we returned home, she was dressed with makeup on and house clean, and often evidence of a shopping trip during the day. There are days I want that life too. But that's my problem. My children don't seem to have any school fantasies unfulfilled.

Annie said...

You are SO right. I coped by holding my son back until he was six. That actually worked well all through.... AND, I homeschooled both of my bio-kids during middle school. Those were a wonderful few years when we became closer rather than years when they were torn between being children or teens. I highly recommend it - and we had such FUN, too!

I also recommend Montessori, where children's play is considered their appropriate work. I discovered Montessori only after my oldest had had the kindergarten experience but he and his younger sister had a few tremendous years of Montessori education.

Homeschooling can't be beat for "connection", but Montessori also respects the family. They did not send homework home to ruin the few hours we had together every night, instead believing that children also learn from life in the family. So true!

kidraz said...

I remember choosing a Kindergarten for my son when he was 5. I selected our local Catholic school. And once they got started, I was actually DISAPPOINTED and a little WORRIED that they played SO MUCH. I was hearing from other parents how their children were reading by Christmas. He came home telling me stories of other kids reading books to the class. In February I setup a meeting with the teacher to express my concerns--what was WRONG with my son, why couldn't he READ? She laughed and reassured me that he was just fine. That many of the "readers" were in fact memorizers. And at our school the teacher was happy that they knew all their letters and just starting to read by the end of the year. She told me that they had first grade to learn to read. The purpose of Kindergarten was for them to learn to socialize with other children, play together, listen to stories, etc. I'm so glad now that we had such a great experience. What did I know??