Kindergarten is a brave new world for your child, one that could have him home for lunch, or after the 3:00 bell. Every state and school approaches kindergarten differently, and the majority are trending towards full-day programs.

According to the Foundation for Child Development, enrollment in full-day kindergarten programs increased nine-times between 1985 and 2005. There’s still discussion over how much time kindergarteners should spend in school, but today’s debate is also about what kindergarten means for today’s kids and families.

The full- versus half-day debate is too simplified, says John Nimmo, EdD, associate professor in the Department of Family Studies and executive director of the Child Study and Development Center at the University of New Hampshire. Nimmo says that it’s not about kids spending twice as much time in school and ending up twice as smart; it’s about the purpose of kindergarten. The more time kids have in school, the more opportunity for play, socializing, and learning. A half-day program, with only three hours for circle time, lessons, and the many managerial tasks of the school day, such as attendance and transitions from one activity to another, doesn’t leave much time to reinforce concepts or for free play. And then there’s scheduling. With more working families, the half-day model often doesn’t cut it, and full-day programs can reduce the transitions that a child makes in a day. So what happens in those extra hours?

The after lunch hours are about more than nap time. In that extra half day, teachers will spend more time on reading, writing, and math, and they’ll branch out into social studies and science. “Typically teachers teach more structured in the morning, and less structured in the afternoon,” says Bob Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. That means that after-lunch periods will be more about reinforcing skills than learning new ones, plus children get more time to play and socialize. Research supports the full-day model. “There is compelling evidence that full-day kindergarten is a benefit to kids,” says Pianta. Here’s how:

  • Academics. According to an Indiana Department of Education study, students in full-day kindergarten demonstrated greater progress in reading and math.
  • Social Skills. Full-day program students showed gains in independent learning, originality, productivity, and a positive approach to the teacher compared to their peers.
  • Fewer transitions. Attending a full-day program can minimize the number of transitions that a child has to manage in a day, and during the school day, with more classroom time compared to transition-time, which reduces student’s stress.
  • Time to Move Ahead or Catch Up. According to the Early Education for All initiative in Boston, MA, full-day students received 40 to 50 percent more instruction than half-day students. In class, students who are advanced have more time to work on challenging projects, while students who needed extra help have more time to get help from the teacher.
  • Addressing the Achievement Gap. In Lowell Elementary School in Albuquerque, NM, full-day kindergarten students who started the year 22 months behind grade level gained 16 months in a school year, while their half-day peers only gained 5.4 months. Students in Minneapolis full-day kindergarten programs gained literacy skills faster than half-day students.

Ready to register? Here’s what to look for in a kindergarten program:

  • Balance. You’ll want to see a variety of activity areas and activities, including both structured and informal ways for kids to learn, time to exercise and get outside, and activities that focus on science, language, and knowledge of the world. Plus, learning should be active—kids should spend more time engaging with materials and working in groups than they do sitting still and listening to the teacher.
  • Well-Rounded Curriculum. A program should include reading and math, along with science, social studies, music, art, and more.
  • Play! A full-day program shouldn’t be the same basic curriculum doubled in the afternoon; there should be time for free play and exploration. Nimmo suggests at least an hour block of time for play and only play.
  • Assessment. In early childhood, rather than district-wide tests, teachers should be assessing individual kids and changing the curriculum accordingly. Larger, more standard assessments are too broad to be helpful for kindergarten programs.