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All I Really Need to Know [About Education], I Learned In Kindergarten

All I Really Need to Know [About Education], I Learned In Kindergarten

Back in the 1990s, few essays were as prominently framed on office and home walls alike as Robert Fulghum’s 1986 essay, “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.” By turns touching and trite, the essay suggests that, like kindergartners, we should all learn to lead a balanced life, enjoy cookies, milk and naps in the afternoon, and to “hold hands and stick together.” Always a bit idyllic, the kind of kindergarten this essay portrays is now almost unrecognizable.

I thought that, as someone entrenched in education, I had a decent level of readiness to be a twenty-first-century kindergarten parent. Pulling out all the stops and leaning on my teaching experience, I worked with my son’s preschool to make sure he was being exposed to a healthy balance of kindergarten readiness skills and old-fashioned child-led play. My husband and I emphasized the importance of rest and maintained my son’s long rest periods, even on weekends, long after he outgrew naps. We exposed my son to a wide variety of other children and supported his development of social-emotional skills and even an early sense of social justice. When the end of August approached, I felt like we were ready.

But kindergarten has changed a great deal, in a way that seems to be a microcosm of American public education. High stakes tests and Common Core, waiting around the corner in elementary school, urge educators to push test prep – or at least preparation for these kinds of activities – to younger and younger students, with a trickle-down effect on kindergarten classrooms. Despite reports debunking the idea that kindergartners must learn to read, it’s increasingly an expectation that students enter school well on their way. And in our district, like in many others, those comforting afternoon naps have gone the way of milk and cookies, with (at best) a brief rest after recess and lunch.

As educators, we expect a great deal of trust from our parents, something of which I was not nearly so conscious before I was that parent, expected to place that trust in my son’s school. My family is fortunate: we are privileged to attend a well-reputed school in a district that’s considered successful. Yet even so, I know that my son will have a very different elementary school experience than the one my educational experience has taught me to uphold as an ideal. With the MCAS looming around the corner in third grade, I know that my son’s teachers will face serious pressure to ensure that their students are test-ready, likely even at the expense of some of the more authentic, creative, child-centered activities that could benefit their students for the rest of their lives.

But I’ve come to believe that the answers are not in the past —racial and socioeconomic inequities, for example, have existed in schools since time immemorial. Instead, I’ve got a renewed commitment to looking forward at the potential of what kindergarten could be. By recreating an educational system that authentically represents our values, we might find that our kindergartens do as well.

What would schools look like if we began with a vision of the ideal kindergarten and built our schools from that starting place? I’m not sure I want my son eating cookies every afternoon, and he probably appreciates that he doesn’t have to pretend to nap, but I wouldn’t mind hearing about the elaborate imaginary world he conceived with his classmates. Perhaps if his future school experiences included more inventions and creativity, his kindergarten class might afford him more time for free play. If instead of preparing for big tests in third grade, he had to build early critical thinking and executive functioning skills for a complex group project, his kindergarten teacher could justify more open-ended games in the classroom. And if the district’s schools valued culturally-sustaining social-emotional learning, the kindergartners could lead the charge in learning how to “hold hands and stick together” in a society that often pulls us apart.

In short, I wish we could start back at the beginning to determine what really matters to us the most and build our schools toward these goals, weaving in the academics, technologies, and accountability where they support our larger goals about raising humans, rather than the other way around. Kindergarten today isn’t usually, and perhaps never was, as ideal as the collective myth.

But it could be.


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