All I Really Need to Know I Don’t Learn in Kindergarten Anymore

Guest post by Kristy Roos-Taylor (Director, Menlo-Atherton Cooperative Nursery School)

Many of you may be familiar with Robert Fulghum’s, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. For those who aren’t, I’m sharing it below to illustrate how our children’s school experience today differs from the kinder, simpler and saner days of the not too distant past.

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.

These are the things I learned:

  • Share everything.

  • Play fair.

  • Don’t hit people.

  • Put things back where you found them.

  • Clean up your own mess.

  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

  • Wash your hands before you eat.

  • Flush.

  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

  • Live a balanced life — learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

  • Take a nap every afternoon.

  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we.

  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned — the biggest word of all — LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all — the whole world — had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

Those were the days...

Today kindergarten classrooms are like the first grade classrooms of about 10 years ago. What is even sadder to me is that most preschools have jumped on the academic bandwagon in order to “prepare” the children for the rigors of kindergarten. I want to shout from the rooftops, “Stop the madness!” but unfortunately, few are listening and the children are paying the price.

There are countless studies showing the wrongheadedness of this push down of academics. Children are having more sensory, attention, and behavioral problems because their basic needs are not being met. They are not learning how to socialize, how to solve problems, and they are missing out on opportunities to run and jump and climb. And if schools teach academics too early, these reading, writing, and math skills take so much longer for kids to learn than if educators wait until their brains and motor skills are developmentally ready. The kids in these academic programs are having to sit for large portions of the day with mostly adult directed instruction, the consequences of which can have long lasting negative effects socially, emotionally, physically, and even academically.

Here’s an analogy. Most children learn to walk between 9 and 14 months. What if parents and politicians started a movement (without consulting experts in the field) citing a misguided study showing that babies would turn out to be better athletes if they learned to walk at say, 6 months. The study states that in order to get the best results, parents and daycare providers need to spend hours everyday teaching babies to walk starting at 4 months. The adults should make sure that babies are held in a standing position for at least an hour a day as well as moving their little legs to mimic walking as much as possible. The result may be that some children may walk earlier. Others will still walk between the ages of 9 and 14 months. And many of these babies will have missed out on very important developmental stages because of all the attention paid to learning to walk at an earlier age. They may skip crawling altogether.  That coordination one gets from learning the complicated right hand, left leg, left hand, right leg crawl is a very important stage that helps brain development. There is actually a correlation between not learning to crawl as an infant, and dyslexia.

Most importantly, the risk of injury increases when the body tries to do something for which it is not ready. In the same way, we harm our children when we force them into rigorous academics too early. Read Fulghum’s essay again. Most of those things are not taught in kindergarten anymore because there’s just no time. All the time is taken up with learning to read which the experts agree is too soon. And kindergarten is now a full day! Why? Because they pack so much more academics in now than in the days of the developmentally appropriate half-day kindergarten.

Just like learning to walk, there’s a window when the brain is most ready to learn to read and when it takes the least amount of time. That magic developmental window is usually at about 7 years old. And young kids need to move — run, play, climb, etc. They should not be stuck at their desks for long periods of time. Many are just unable to do it and then get labeled with behavior problems or are diagnosed with attention or learning issues where there might be none.  My own son does have learning disabilities and ADHD so I know first hand that these issues are real. But they are also being misdiagnosed at an alarming rate because the early grades are not developmentally appropriate for many children, especially boys. Texas recently did a study at four Fort Worth elementary schools giving kindergarteners and 1st graders additional recesses throughout the day. They found that letting kids play for 15 minutes out of every hour increased their ability to focus during academic instruction. Most young elementary school kids get about a quarter of that time to play which we are now seeing actually hinders their ability to learn. As I often say, the needs of young children haven’t changed over the decades, but the expectations of the adults around them have.

How did we arrive at this sad state of affairs where there are no more naps and finger-paint and time to run and engage in the deep play we know our kids need? The U.S. was falling behind other countries in academics according to... yep, you guessed it: test scores. Don’t get me started on testing, but there’s a lot of research that says that the whole standardized testing system is flawed.

We could have looked to countries like Finland for a very successful academic model. Finland’s students don’t even start school or begin learning to read until age 7. They also have a hands-on learning approach, very little homework, lots of play time, and less hours of instruction. Their academic achievement is high and they do almost no standardized testing so there’s no teaching to the test.

Instead, we looked to countries like South Korea. South Korea has high test scores with many standardized tests thus a lot of teaching to the test. Their students spend most hours of the day in either school or doing homework, and there is so much academic pressure put on these students that there are high depression and suicide rates in the high school population.

We need not even look as far as Finland for examples of schools with less pressure, more play time, no homework policies, and “learn by doing” philosophies that teach kids how to think not what to think. Here in Menlo Park, California we have Peninsula School and Palo Alto has Ohlone (a public alternative elementary school). Both of these educational institutions churn out very high achieving students. Some of my former students attended these schools and now are in college at UC Santa Barbara, University of Wisconsin, Tufts, and Brown.

It may be surprising to learn that it is not the experts in education or the administrators leading the push towards early academics, but parents themselves. For example, the principal of one of our local public elementary schools (an expert in education who happened to be my son’s phenomenal first grade teacher) has tried to abolish homework over the years.

The experts in the field (Madeline Levine, Alfie Kohn, David Elkind, Denise Pope, etc.) agree that homework not only disrupts family life and takes away from important play and down time for children, but also hasn’t been shown to help children academically until high school. Many parents get fearful that their child will not succeed and get into that Ivy League school if they don’t have homework starting early. So there has been tons of pushback from parents at this school, and as a result, many teachers disregard the no homework policy and assign it anyway, much to the detriment of children and families. I just heard that one of the teachers at this school assigns 2-3 hours of homework a night to her third grade class (these are 8 and 9 year olds!) and she’s the teacher most parents request for their incoming third graders. This is just heartbreaking and so wrong.

Why aren’t the parents and teachers looking to the research and the experts in the field on this issue? Instead, most are sacrificing the wellbeing of their children due to fear that is not based in fact. A very few brave parents actually are going against the grain and standing up to the teachers and administrators. One of my former board members has a third grader at this Menlo Park school and went through my co-op with him as a preschooler. She listened to me when I talked about the misguided practice of assigning homework in elementary school. She doesn’t want to be the “Homework Enforcer” taking away important play and family time from her son, and always fighting that homework battle. So every year, she has a talk with her son’s teacher about how she will decide how much homework he does. And that amount is very little.

Her son loves to read and spends a couple of hours a day voraciously reading above his grade level. The mom also has him do 15 minutes of math homework a day, but if it’s not finished after that, she has him stop. She sometimes gets pushback from the teachers but does get supported by this progressive principal. This mom knows that children spend most of their daytime hours in school and shouldn’t have to come home to do more schoolwork. Especially since most of it is just busy work that doesn’t help them academically.

By the way, this mom and her husband are both Stanford graduates themselves. It is so refreshing for me to see how they’re not pushing their children academically and are actually fighting to make sure their children have good early school experiences instead of stressful ones.

I just finished reading the book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free from the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims and highly recommend it to all of you. She not only broaches the misguided philosophy of the early push down of academics, but also explores how much of this way of thinking comes from parent’s fears of their children not being accepted to an elite university when the time comes. Ms. Lythcott-Haims lives in Palo Alto, was the freshman dean at Stanford for many years, and her own teenagers go to Gunn — you know, the high school known for the many kids who have thrown themselves in front of the train, many times because of how much academic pressure they’re under.

We should all be saddened and outraged as well as motivated to change the current system that actually puts our kids lives at risk. There are hundreds and hundreds of good colleges across our country where our kids can get a great education. My daughter went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo (a state school, gasp!) and not only got a superb college education, but loved it and thrived there socially, emotionally, and intellectually. Which finally brings me back to nursery school.

Here at our preschool, we foster the whole child, which includes their social, emotional, physical, and intellectual development. Once these children head off to kindergarten, the focus is primarily on the intellectual and academic areas. Unless we all start shouting from the rooftops, this is going to be the way it is until it becomes apparent later that this approach backfired and was not the way to improve academic success after all. I don’t have a say in how the local elementary schools choose to teach, but I do have a say in how our little school chooses to teach — I will not be a part of the push down mentality. The madness stops here.

Play is the way young children learn. Play is their work and it’s how they learn what’s important as Robert Fulghum writes above. If he were to write that piece today, it would have to be titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Don’t Learn in Kindergarten Anymore”. And that’s just sad.

- By Kristy Roos-Taylor (Director, Menlo-Atherton Cooperative Nursery School)