Kindergarten: The Changes from Play to Work

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Kindergarten: The Changes from Play to Work

From building houses out of blocks to being expected to know how to read, kindergarten has transformed in the last century. Kindergarten today is a “world away from the play-centered programs many adults remember” and a more academically rigorous place (Hardy 2009, 8). Friedrich Froebel, a German pedagogue, created kindergarten in 1837 and the concept arrived in the United States in the 1850s (Dombkowski 2001). Since kindergarten’s founding here in the U.S., it has developed into something Froebel did not intend. How do the purposes, learning goals and curriculum of kindergarten classrooms differ from the early 1900s to today, and why have they changed?

I argue that kindergarten has changed from encouraging play in the classrooms, to instead, encouraging work. When the kindergarten model was adopted in the United States, kindergarten’s purpose was to prepare children for their academic future and to promote their natural development. Today, the kindergarten model has shifted and promotes academic learning, as a result of our economy and the emphasis of education. Because of the state of our economy, education is seen as the key to success. Preschools are becoming a popular solution for childcare for families, and a helpful way to force academics into kindergarten. In addition to this, the federal government and parents are pressuring schools to start children’s academic future sooner. By pushing work into kindergarten, schools are gaining an extra year in instruction to pass the state tests, while the parents are getting their children ahead for their educational career.

Before kindergarten transformed to being academic-focused, kindergarten’s curriculum was based on the teacher’s discretion. The classrooms were play-focused because children learn the most through playing with their peers; in Froebel’s opinion, what children learn when they are playing is vital for their natural development and success later in school (Jeynes 2006). One important thing children learn through playing is self-discipline, such as learning to not hit one another if something doesn’t go their way (Curwood 2007). In addition to self-discipline, kindergarteners learn how to socialize when they play. Through their interactions, kindergarteners learn how to make friends, solve conflicts, empathize and rely on others for help (Jeynes 2006). Children also expand their knowledge and vocabulary by using their own language, asking questions, and using words that they’ve heard other people use (Hardy 2009). In games such as hide and go seek, children learn about following rules and respecting each other, and in games such as house, children learn how to take on different roles (Curwood 2007). In addition, kindergarteners learn how to “make sense of the world around them- and lay the critical groundwork for understanding words and numbers (Curwood 2007, 30). In play, children as well learn self-reliance, problem solving and spatial thinking (Curwood 2007, 30). One of the most important places play takes place is during recess. Through this break in their day, they can let their mind be free and be creative in the games they play. Running around for children is important for them to stay healthy and those “children who are physically active are more likely to do well academically” (Jeynes 2006, 1940).  Play, to scholars and to Froebel, is necessary for children at this age so they can develop naturally and be able to succeed in school.

Although what kindergarteners learn through play is most important, what they learn in the classroom is also crucial. While children are taught how to write, color within the lines, paint, and cut with scissors, they additionally learn how to interact with people older than them (Hatch 1988). In their interactions with their teachers, children learn the “importance of positive social reinforcement, emotional support, modeling, identification and expectations” (Jeynes 2006, 1943). They also learn how to be patient, respect authority, follow directions and obey classroom rules (Jeynes 2006). Through classroom instruction and interactions with their teachers, children are learning lessons that will help them later on in their schooling.

The reason why Froebel emphasized play in kindergarten was because children would then develop naturally and build self-confidence for their academic futures. Kindergarten, to him, is viewed as a year to prepare children, especially since children at this age are quite immature to deal with the stress of academics (Jeynes 2006, 1940). Since many children come knowing different things, if kindergarten is work-focused, children who are not ready for academics could be “damaged all through their education” (Hatch 1988, 146). According to Froebel, the reason for this is because children this age need to develop self-confidence before they really start learning. In a work-focused kindergarten, children will not be gaining self-confidence like they would be in a play-focused kindergarten (Hatch 1988).  If academics are pressured too much, and too early, frustration in these children could end up leading to academic failure throughout schooling (Dombkowski 2001). Other than Froebel, scholars and researchers also support a play-like kindergarten; in their opinions, the standards of academic kindergarten may be “developmentally inappropriate” for children this age (Hardy 2009, 8).  For children to have academic success, “they must be physiologically, psychologically and intellectually ‘ready’”, which many of these children are not (Dombkowski 2001, 533). Additionally, experts are skeptical of an academic kindergarten because, in their eyes, the earlier academics are pressured, the earlier these children lose their childhoods (Dombkowski 2001, 542).  Specialists believe children at this age “should explore, play, experience the joys of learning, and understand the basics of cognitive skills” (Jeynes 2006, 1945). While the purpose of the traditional model of kindergarten was to encourage children’s “natural desire to learn and explore” it nevertheless has become academically focused (Jeynes 2006, 1946).

From having a simple curriculum, kindergarten has changed to a complex curriculum with standards that need to be met. While only 15 percent of kindergarteners were reading a decade ago, today “90 percent of kindergarteners passed an end-of-year reading test” in Maryland’s Montgomery County (Curwood 2007, 30). The measures have dramatically changed; kindergarteners must be able to do things such as count to 100, predict, estimate, “match all consonant and short-vowel sounds to appropriate letters” and “use concrete objects to determine the answers to addition and subtraction problems” (Russell 2011, 253-6).  In places like California, kindergarteners are expected to master 195 skills before first grade, and other states are following the same trends (Russell 2011, 253). Kindergarten is seen as the new first grade because many of the standards have moved from first grade into kindergarten (Curwood 2007). But how is this beneficial for children this age?

In some people’s opinions, having kindergarten be work-focused helps them get ahead later on. Kindergarteners will be able to read, know how to take tests, and know crucial math and literacy skills for the testing that counts in fourth grade. Whereas some argue that kindergartners aren’t ready for these pressures of academics, others argue that they are; studies have been done that say early learning is beneficial and that starting at this age is the right time to learn how to read (Curwood 2007, 30).

While people argue between a play-focused and work-focused kindergarten, it nevertheless has changed as a result to the emphasis of education and the state of the economy in our society. More families have both parents work, which has caused preschools to become more common and a chosen choice of childcare. As the number of children in preschool, and the number of preschools increase, children are being exposed to skills that they would have typically learned in the traditional model of kindergarten, such as learning how to use scissors or write (Hatch 1988, 147). Preschoolers are even learning how to write their alphabet and how to read, therefore, making it unnecessary for kindergarten to remain play-focused and forced to be academically focused (Hardy 2009, 8). By putting their children in preschools, parents are helping their children’s academic future; it has been reported that “children who attend quality preschools score higher on kindergarten readiness screening tests” and “school performance continues to remain higher for those students who attended preschool” (Plevyak, 2002, 25). School is the way to success in our economy; therefore, by starting academics earlier, children are getting ahead. Preschool has created this push for academics to start in kindergarten, which will help them later on when it comes to competition for admission into colleges and getting jobs.

As kindergarten is feeling pressure from preschools to be academic, it is also feeling pressure from standardize testing. With an emphasis of education in our society, testing has become increasingly common. Between 1963 and 1980, SAT scores declined, which pushed the government to create the “back to basics” movement in 1981. This movement emphasized the importance of reading and mathematics so the SAT scores would be raised (Jeynes 2006, 1950).  In 1993, testing began in the elementary schools after Clinton“called for voluntary nationwide standardized reading tests for fourth graders and math tests in eighth grade” (Jeynes 2006, 1951). In 2001, George W. Bush continued Clinton’s work by creating the No Child Left Behind” act, “which warns schools that incessant failure to give adequate instruction will result in the loss of federal funding” (Jeynes 2006, 1951). Therefore, if schools did not meet the state standards, they would lose money.

Because of No Child Left Behind, testing is starting earlier to keep up with the state standards and therefore pushing academics into kindergarten. Although official testing begins in fourth grades, students start to take practice tests in third grade. With starting a year younger, there’s more pressure in the younger grades for the students to be ready. The federal government is stressing “that schools be accountable and guarantee that they offer quality education.” Since schools are scared that they will lose money, they are pushing children to be more knowledgeable at younger ages (Jeynes 2006, 1939). According to Jen Scott Curwood, “by beginning the first grade reading curriculum in kindergarten, schools have effectively gained an extra year of instruction (Curwood 2007, 30). Because there’s such an emphasis on schools preforming well on tests, there is more competition between schools to see who is better, and between students to see who is better (Jeynes 2006, 1946).

By the federal government pressuring schools to be accountable, they are emphasizing the importance of education in our society. The main reason why the federal government is pushing for schools to be held responsible is because education is the key to success. In our economy, to be successful you must have an education, and the more education you have, the better you will do. Thus, by starting academic learning in kindergarten, children are becoming more knowledgeable earlier and thus getting ahead. However, schools are not only feeling pressure from the federal government to start school earlier; they are feeling pressure from the parents too.

With the stance of our economy, parents want to do anything and everything for their children to be smarter and better than everyone else. There is competition to be the best because being successful in school will help with admissions into colleges and jobs after college. Parents worry about their children’s future, especially since it is so difficult today to find jobs. Because education is seen as the way to a promising future, mother’s of kindergartners are “”demanding that their five-year-olds be taught to read”” (Russell 2011, 250). Other parents are delaying kindergarteners by keeping them in preschool a year longer; these parents do not feel that their children are ready for academics and by holding them back, they hope it will increase “future scholastic competitiveness” (Russell 2011, 250). In addition to this, upper class parents believe that by starting their children at younger ages, their children will have more of an advantage ““in a race to Harvard,” a reference to starting early in preparation for elite university admissions” (Russell 2011, 250). While parents find it important for their children to be children, they much rather “see results from educational expenditures” and therefore “a rise in test scores” (Dombkowski 2001, 545). Parents will do whatever it takes for their children to be ahead, especially so they’ll have an easier time in their futures.

Kindergarten in the last century has transformed and this is because of our economy and the emphasis of education. Kindergarten was developed to help children get ready for their futures in school, but has progressed into being the start of their academic future. There are expectations and standards to meet so kindergarteners can go onto the first grade. Because many families have two parents working today, preschool has become more common and the chosen childcare option. By putting children in preschool, parents are emphasizing the importance of education, and forcing kindergarten to shift to a work-like curriculum since much of preschool is play-like. In addition to this, standardize testing and pressures from parents have pushed kindergarten to become work-like. In conclusion, because of the pressures from the economy and the emphasis of education in our society, kindergarten has transformed from encouraging children’s natural development, to encouraging academic learning.


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