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Putting the Garden Back in Kindergarten

Governor Polis’ efforts to bring free, full-day kindergarten to Colorado’s public schools have been in the news quite often the last several weeks. Currently, Colorado only pays for half-day kindergarten. Those districts that do offer full-day kindergarten pay for it with funds designated for other programs, with local property taxes, or by charging families. Polis recently stated, “It’s time to make the state a full partner with our (school) districts. We simply need to ensure that kindergarten is treated as the critical part of our public education infrastructure that it is.”

As a parent, grandparent, and educator, I understand the reasoning behind this push for full-day kindergarten. We all want the very best education for our children, and we often assume that getting kids started with their formal academic education earlier is better than later.

This assumption has contributed to the trend in our nation’s kindergartens to push academics – like getting kids to read early – at the expense of the free play, self-directed learning and exploration that used to make up the bulk of a kindergartener’s day. As Christopher Brown, University of Texas professor of Early Childhood Education framed it, “Across the country, kindergartners are being told what to do and how to do it, every single step along the way, all day long. They play less and study more than they did 20 years ago. This is what kindergarten has become, and it’s not a good thing.”

There is much research to support Professor Brown’s view. Yes, studies indicate that this academic redirection of the kindergarten focus does produce initial successes in academic performance. But the successes are temporary, and studies also clearly indicate that by mid-elementary grades, these academic advances disappear. For example, a large-scale German study compared the graduates of 50 play-based kindergartens with the graduates of 50 academic-based kindergartens. After initial academic gains of the academic-based kindergarteners, by grade four the children from the academic-based kindergartens performed significantly worse on every measure that was used in comparison to those from the play-based kindergartens.

This study, and many others, indicate that, along with lower performance in academics, those who attended academic-based kindergartens also had more social and emotional challenges through the rest of their academic careers, and even into adulthood. Boston College research professor Peter Gray put it this way, “Perhaps more tragic than the lack of long-term academic advantage of early academic instruction is evidence that such instruction can produce long-term harm, especially in the realms of social and emotional development.”

The skills and qualities that so many educators, parents, and research say are the foundation of academic success – initiative, problem-solving, invention, persistence, resilience, grit – the very skills that are developed in play-based kindergartens, are what is being lost in our academic-based kindergartens.

There are those in early childhood education who recognize the above trends. In response, they are actively working to provide an alternative kind of kindergarten that puts the “garden” back in kindergarten. Called Nature or Forest Kindergartens, with roots in Europe and now found in many locations in the US, advocates of these Nature- and play-based kindergartens (and preschools) recognize that, along with the loss of play and self-directed learning, academic-based early childhood programs tend to alienate children from the natural world.

These Nature Kindergarten advocates believe that the original image of the kindergarten, the “children’s garden,” has been replaced by academic-based programs that only deepen what is sometimes called the “indoor-ification” of early childhood. A preoccupation with academics and testing; an over-fascination with and over-use of technology; less, or no time for play, recess, art and music; the increased use of worksheets – is why many parents, early childhood educators and pediatric health practitioners believe that there truly is a kindergarten crisis in America. Children aren’t playing in the garden; instead, they are ardently filling in bubbles on worksheets.

So, as full-day kindergarten is being debated and considered, I urge Governor Polis, our elected representatives, as well as those who work in early childhood education, to incorporate early childhood education research findings and Nature Kindergarten philosophy into what the kindergartens in Colorado – whether they be full-day or half-day – will look like. Play, self-directed learning, exploration, Nature – these need to be the focus of Colorado’s young children’s kindergarten experience. Please, put the garden back in Colorado’s kindergartens.