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Kindergarten today not just play

April 09, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

After Washington County Commissioner John Munson described kindergarten as "a full-time babysitting service," I got an e-mail from someone I'll call "Anna" who said she found out the hard way that kindergarten is a lot tougher than it used to be.

Anna is a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom whose only son is now in kindergarten and doing well. But two weeks into the school year, Anna and her husband were shocked when the teacher called and asked if they were going to pull the boy out of school.

Anna said her son didn't know many of the things kindergartners were expected to know coming in - and the teacher felt the child might be too far behind to catch up with the rest of the class.

For Anna this was a shock, because "I still had the notion that kindergarten was still the same thing we went through - singing songs, drawing, having a snack and taking a nap."

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Not so today, Anna said. Her son was expected to know his full name, all the letters of the alphabet (capitals and small letters) and how to write his numbers from 0 to 10. And he was also supposed to know how to cut with scissors, something he'd never done before.

"I'll admit I'm an overprotective parent. I'd never let him cut with scissors or get anywhere near a knife," she said.

She's since learned to guide him in that task when he uses child-safe scissors, but says that nobody told her it was a skill a 5-year-old needed.

"When you give birth to a child, nobody gives you a book and tells you what he has to do," she said.

One of the things her son is now expected to do is to color inside the lines and know the "concepts of print," which is a prelude of reading.

Anna said she was told her child needed to be able to tell the front of a book from the back and the beginning of a sentence from its end and what punctuation marks mean.

Anna's son seems to doing well with this last task. During a telephone interview, she asked him what an exclamation point means and he says "When your voice gets loud."

A question mark is for "when you're asking a question," he says.

And so after a rocky start, Anna's boy is doing much better, but she wishes she'd known more of what was expected before kindergarten began.

She advises parents to seek advice from someone they know in the teaching profession, or talk to officials at the elementary school long before the child is ready to start.

Anna has done those things and volunteers twice a week so she can help out and see firsthand what's going on. Even through she was a National Honor Society student in high school, she worries that the children are expected to know so much that "by the time he's in high school, I won't be able to help him at all."

What she hasn't been able to find out is why kindergartners are expected to know so much more now than they did when she was 5.

To find out, I spoke to JoEtta Palkovitz-Brown, director of elementary education for the Washington County school system.

It may seem like a lot to ask of a child that early, Palkovitz-Brown said, but research shows that "if the methods are developmentally appropriate, children can learn all types of concepts early on."

It's important that they do so, she said, because progress in kindergarten makes it more likely they'll succeed in first grade and beyond.

In the past some people argued that it was too much to expect that a child in kindergarten would be able to write a story, Palkovitz-Brown said,

"But when you look at the brain research, it's incredible what children are ripe for very early on," she said.

Reading and arithmetic are just like music and foreign languages, she said, in that the earlier children are introduced to them, the better they'll do.

As to who mandates these things, Palkovitz-Brown said it's the Maryland State Board of Education which provides the curriculum. Schools follow that curriculum because they know the Maryland State Assessment tests will be drawn from it, she said.

One of the most important things parents can do for their children is read to them at an early age, she said, because the "sooner a child is able to read, the sooner they're able to do well in math and social studies."

That leaves Anna's last question: How do new parents know what's expected?

Our family got a lot of advice, and read the child-care books of Dr. Benjamin Spock, who died in 1998. A group of physicians is carrying on his work at drSpock.com, which also allows parents to sign up for a free age-appropriate newsletter delivered to your e-mail address each week.

None of this means fun isn't important. Forty years later I still remember finger-painting and snacking on graham crackers and orange juice while the teacher read a story. Children who know how to read early are certainly blessed, but so are those who know how to have fun doing things that aren't measured, tested or scrutinized.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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