Guest Column

Kindergarten Boot Camp? About Face!

by EDWARD MILLER AND JOAN ALMON

We admit it. Young children are a hand-ful. Their sheer energy is amazing.

They can be attentive and helpful one minute, and the next they are bouncing around or completely distracted by that bug crawling up the wall. Sometimes you wish they could just be whipped into shape.

Maybe that’s the reason for the popularity of “kindergarten boot camps” that are popping up all over the country, often under the auspices of school districts. At one boot camp in North Carolina, the teacher actually dresses in full combat fatigues and shouts commands to preschoolers as she teaches the ABCs and 123s. She says she learned her teaching method in the prison system, where she used to work. “It is the same thing,” she told an interviewer with a Charlotte TV station.

Kindergarten is serious business these days, and parents worry their children won’t survive the transition to 1st grade. In many schools, children starting kindergarten are expected to know the alphabet, count accurately to 10 or higher, know the days of the week, and recognize colors and shapes like cones and spheres. They’re supposed to be able to sit quietly for long periods, follow multistep directions, do worksheets and take multiple-choice tests.

Dubious Assumptions
Early education is being radically transformed in the United States. That the boot camp idea is catching on in so many places is just one indicator. Kindergarten was always a place to introduce children to the pleasures of learning and exploring the world through play and discovery. Now we talk in terms of preparing them for combat, as if school is a war zone — or a prison.

We are alarmed by this change because of its likely long-term effects. These intensively didactic methods may seem at first to produce results, but the most reliable and valid tests, such as NAEP, show little or no progress in reading, despite increased instruction time in the early years.

The tough new approaches are largely based on questionable assumptions. Foremost among them is the idea that the earlier children learn to read the better. In fact, recent research shows that children who were taught to read at age 5 have no long-term advantage over those who learned at 7 years old. So why do we label kindergartners who haven’t caught on to reading yet as failures?

We need to find the right path to reading success for disadvantaged children by building up their exposure to books and written language skills without punishing those whose development as emergent readers takes more time. More research is needed, but the evidence suggests that heavy doses of phonics drills do not in the long term produce students who love reading and understand what they have read.

Unrealistic expectations actually can hold some children back by denying them opportunities for play. Studies comparing children in play-based preschool and kindergarten classrooms with those emphasizing academic skills found that by age 10, the children in playful programs were significantly ahead in academic achievement.

Even more striking was the effect on the life chances of children at risk. The HighScope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study followed preschool students into their 20s. Those from a highly didactic program were more likely to drop out of high school, committed more felonies and had more problems at work and in family life than those from play-based programs.

Play deprivation also contributes to behavioral problems, especially in young boys. Walter Gilliam, director of the Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale, found that public preschools were expelling students at an alarmingly high rate — and that 4.5 times as many boys as girls were removed. The preschools with the least time for dramatic play had the highest rates of expulsion.

Play-Based Programs
Our report “Crisis in the Kindergarten” documents the importance of free play in early education and its near disappearance from public kindergartens. We found that full-day kindergartens in New York and Los Angeles were spending two to three hours per day on literacy and math instruction and testing. Only 20 to 30 minutes per day were devoted to play or “choice time.”

We’re not advocating a chaotic, anything-goes approach. “Crisis in the Kindergarten” describes effective play-based programs, which combine content-rich, teacher-led, playful activities — hands-on projects, storytelling, songs and movement — with child-initiated exploration and play that are enriched by teachers who know how to support children’s imagination and inventiveness.

Years of research on early-childhood play shows that it contributes to self-control, problem solving, empathy, cooperation and communication skills. By depriving children of play, we rob them of the chance to develop the tools they need to get along with others and succeed in school and in life.

We also harm children’s physical development. Ohio State University researchers recently found that 86 percent of disadvantaged preschoolers in two cities lacked essential basic motor skills, like running, jumping and balancing.

The loss of play and active learning in preschool and kindergarten also may be related to a disturbing decline in measures of creativity in American children. We know play fosters creativity. Veteran teachers tell us that today’s children have very little imagination. That’s scary for the children and for our nation’s future.

It’s time for early childhood education to do an about-face and reject the boot-camp mentality. Young children don’t need to be coerced into learning. They love hands-on exploration and play. Teachers need to work with the grain and let children be children, while setting age-appropriate goals for achievement.

Edward Miller is senior researcher with the Alliance for Childhood based in College Park, Md. E-mail: ed@allianceforchildhood.org. Joan Almon is executive director of the Alliance for Childhood.