President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002
President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002

Why has kindergarten become what first grade used to be?

In a few weeks, my son’s kindergarten class will have a “step-up” ceremony to recognize the students’ completion of the school year and ascension to first grade.

I can’t remember whether the end of my kindergarten career was acknowledged with any ceremony, but the idea seems odd to me. A college graduation celebrates a momentous achievement, a high school graduation acknowledges one’s coming of age, and even an elementary school graduation marks a transition from childhood to adolescence. But I spent my kindergarten year playing dress-up and building blocks with friends. What would I have been graduating from?

I had hoped that my son Nate’s kindergarten experience would be defined by play and free expression, as mine was. We carefully chose preschools for him that valued play-based and self-directed learning, and that environment seemed to suit him: At his Montessori preschool, he taught himself how to add, subtract and multiply by playing with strings of beads. Even though I knew that kindergarten had changed dramatically in the 30 years since I had attended, I held out hope that his kindergarten experience would be creative and carefree.

Nate has enjoyed kindergarten, and he has a great teacher who understands young children and notices the talents and challenges of each student. But the unavoidable truth is that kindergarten is no longer the slow, low-pressure environment it was a generation ago. In the 17 years since the No Child Left Behind Act ushered in a standards-bound, test-driven school culture in public schools, kindergarten has become what first grade used to be: a year when children are expected to begin to read and write and develop measurable literacy skills at a set pace.

I finished kindergarten blithely illiterate, so navigating Nate’s kindergarten year has been as much a challenge and adjustment for me as it has been for him. Nate’s kindergarten doesn’t assign homework, but it does send out suggestions for how to practice recognizing letter sounds, writing letters and memorizing a list of dozens of short “sight words” at home with your child. At the beginning of the year, I threw most of this material in the recycling bin and focused on giving Nate outdoor, unstructured play time after school so that he could decompress from a day spent keeping up with a group and following directions. Though his teacher makes time in class for the kids to play with blocks and draw with shaving cream, and special enrichment teachers visit daily to teach music, theater and dance, the students get only one outdoor recess a day. Meanwhile, they are constantly expected to focus, sit quietly and keep on task. That alone is taxing for a 5-year-old child.

It is to my great surprise that by the end of the school year, I found myself helping Nate practice letter sounds after school and pick out sight words in the books we read at bedtime. I’ve made flash cards, and I’ve coached him through writing letters and words we’re practicing. After getting some pointed feedback from his teacher, I capitulated, or perhaps became resigned to the demands of public kindergarten in 2018. Though I don’t agree with many aspects of the curriculum, at the end of the day, it’s the curriculum my child has to navigate, and I want him to feel successful at it. And precisely because it’s so hard and, arguably, beyond the scope of what many children this age are developmentally capable of, many of the kids in Nate’s class need that extra one-on-one practice at home to keep up.

So when Nate “steps up” to first grade, maybe that is a milestone to celebrate. My generation of kindergarten lightweights played in sand and had a three-hour school day; what had we accomplished? But today’s 5-year-olds are spending their days doing hard work and pushing the boundaries of age-appropriate learning activities. Let them toss their caps and cheer a job well done.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.