By now, you’ve probably heard the scary rumor: Kindergarten is nothing like the good old days. Back then, you probably went to school for just half a day. You learned to sit at rug-time, take turns at playtime, and handle blocks. In fact, you probably had a lot of fun.
Now, newspapers and magazines across the country are reporting that kindergarten is the new first grade—full of pressure and short on play. Is your five-year-old headed for some kind of academic lockup?
Not at all, say educators. In fact, the main goal of kindergarten is the same as ever: to build lifelong good feelings about learning and school. Chances are, you can expect to see familiar craft projects, painting, and little seeds in cups—and most likely, you will see your child bloom, too, with new friends and self-confidence.
But it's also true that with the arrival of NCLB and standards-based education, kindergarten classrooms across the country now include new challenges that probably go beyond what you remember from your own school years. Specific curriculum varies somewhat, of course, so be sure you check your state’s academic standards on its Department of Education website. But the general trend is that kindergarten now includes some basics of early literacy and math which used to be covered in first grade. In some districts, kinders may even, like first graders, attend for a full day.
So what will your child do in school? In kindergarten, students begin very basic curriculum in all subjects, including science, social studies, and the arts; but the most important academic topics will be literacy (reading and writing) and math, which underly everything else to come.
This doesn't mean you should expect your child to recite Chekhov and solve multiplication problems by the end of the year! At this stage, teachers want kids to explore all the building blocks that, in first grade, will make them versatile, fluent readers and mathematical problem-solvers.
What to Expect in Reading and Writing: Kindergarten curriculum starts by building familiarity with a wide number of aspects of the written and spoken word. Does your child understand "concepts of print," for example--the look and feel of books and text? Can your child identify virtually every letter and make its correct sound, then identify the sound in the beginning or end of a word? Look for alphabet letters and letter-sound activities throughout the year, along with early-leveled readers and simple reading groups. Plan to support your child in learning to write the full alphabet, often with both capital and lower case letters. Your child will also begin writing full words using correct pencil grip, though expect that spelling will be largely phonetic and “invented.”
Another beloved feature of kindergarten classrooms is full-class "story time." Although this may look like a simple "cozy" activity, look again: increasingly over the year, teachers will ask students to predict what comes next; evaluate character's thoughts; and retell the story afterward in sequence. These are all critical skills for reading comprehension, and great ones to reinforce at home.
What to Expect in Math: Many preschoolers have already learned to chant the numbers from 1-10 and often much higher. But in kindergarten math teachers work on key early concepts of mathematical reasoning. In the very beginning of the year, expect to see lots of objects for counting; this is because teachers want to make sure that students deeply understand that numbers aren't just singsongs, but symbols that represent real things whether it's cubes or blocks or shoes. They'll also work with pattern blocks and shapes, learning to create and recognize repetitive patterns that they'll translate into abstract skills in upper grades. As kindergarteners work with these patterns, they'll also compare sizes, discovering concepts like more, less, and same. When they have fully grasped early counting, they may also go on to break up numbers: odd and even, counting by twos; and doing early addition, especially with hands-on discovery activities.
What to Expect in Science: Kindergarten science is frequently embedded in math and literacy work. A common core science skill in kindergarten, for example, is sorting objects and categorizing them by a variety of criteria, such as "dead" and "alive," or "plant" and "animal." Don't expect those skills to be taught with lab coats and beakers. Instead, teachers will often use books, or hands-on activities, or create mathematical representations such as bar graphs. You can help your child learn to fall in love with science, by introducing fun, hands-on activities at home.
What to Expect in Social Studies: Virtually every kindergarten curriculum includes work on understanding that kids live in a town or community beyond the boundaries of their home. It also covers key American holidays, and examines rules that everyone must follow so that home, school, and community are all safe places.
With so many preschools offering challenging material, some kids may enter kindergarten already reading, or perhaps messing around with math problems that could belong in higher grades. This does not mean that the "simple" topics of kindergarten are a waste of time; what's important is that your child have a deep, automatic understanding of key concepts. And no matter what the topic, teachers expect to adjust lessons to the many learning styles in the room.
A fundamental goal of every kindergarten classroom is to help kids understand not just the "what" of school curriculum, but the "how." Just as important as mastering phonics will be learning to sit still for story time; handle playground time; make new friends; follow the teacher's directions, and manage school routines. Just as with reading or math, teachers will not expect little adults. But they will ask children to work in groups, do structured, age-appropriate activities, and listen to adults in charge. Watch a neat line of kindergarteners following a teacher to lunch or the library and it all looks easy. But step inside a classroom, especially in September, and it can look like rocket science. If your child still struggles heavily with these behaviors in June, you can expect the school to be quite concerned. But at the beginning of the year, it's not a worry.
What does this mean for your child? Especially in the beginning of the year, you can expect frustrations from time to time, but overall your child should enjoy kindergarten, and should find its challenges manageable. Talk about school with your kinder. Fill your home with letters, numbers, and books. And if you have concerns, don’t hesitate to talk to your teacher. Kindergarten is a frontier year, and with support from loving adults, just about every child can settle in just fine.