What is Kindergarten All About?
By James L. Hymes, Jr. Ed.D
There is a lot of misunderstanding today about kindergartens. I'd like to pass on a few ideas for you mull over about what a kindergarten looks like, and why; and what it is supposed to do. I hope you find the ideas interesting and perhaps they may set to rest some questions you have.
One of the troubles in understanding kindergartens is that we all remember best what school was like in the years not too far behind us - our high school days, 5th and 6th grades: sitting, themselves answering the teacher's questions, getting a grade, doing homework...
That is school, upper grade school. But kindergarten isn't like that. Kindergarten is a school for five-year-olds-- that is the important point. And I don't need to tell you that your Five is very different from your upper-grade youngsters. So:
Kindergarten looks different.
It sounds different.
Kindergarten has a whole different style. It is for Fives. It is geared to Fives. It is custom-made to fit children of this particular age.
The key question, then, is: What are Fives like? For one thing, although they talk big and brave, inside of themselves Fives are very soft. They are essentially shy. They put on a show of big, but they know that the world is pretty overwhelming, They are timid, even the toughest of them.
A school for these children - a school for beginners - has to be a gentle school. It has to be a warm and friendly school. Kindergarten can't and must not be a place that overpowers youngsters and pushes them back.
This means that the size of a kindergarten is important. A kindergarten shouldn't have the feel of an auditorium or a stadium. It means that children should be able to spend a lot of their time in little groups - two or three children together, or even working alone - so they can be and at ease. And of course, the soft tone and good spirit of the teacher are exceedingly significant.
What else about Fives? A note that always strikes me is that they are doers. They are forever on the go. They are into everything. Their nature will change as they grow older but right now,Fives are not good sitters; they are not youngsters who can keep for very quiet long; and they are not good listeners either. Instead, they have another quite wonderful quality: They want to see and do for themselves.
What does this mean for a kindergarten? It means that the emphasis has to be on reality and on action: on animals, on jobs the children do, on activities they carry out on trips they take, on workers of all kinds who come into the classroom.
The emphasis has to be on chances for children to use their hands and to work tools: magnets, magnifying glasses, saws hammers...to work even with what look like with playthings: clay, blocks, paint, puzzles, sand...Kindergarten is not a place for teaching children by talking at them, not a place for grownups' lectures. It is a place where active children are involved in the goings-on. Fives learn best that way.
James L. Hymes Jr. Is a Past President of the National Association for the Education of young Children and author of many publications for parents and children.