This month I wanted to dive a little deeper into some of the aspects of not only my Charlotte Mason-Inspired Kindergarten but also the idea of the kindergarten year as a whole. What is the purpose of a kindergarten year, especially if you’re coming from a Charlotte Mason background? I won’t be discussing arguments that Charlotte Mason did not approve of any kind of kindergarten (which is not true) as I think Leah Martin has already done a wonderful job covering that. Today I’ll mainly be talking about why we decided to start our kindergarten year later than when my son’s peers were entering kindergarten and why we chose to make it a very simple format as well.
Starting Kindergarten Later
I was not lax in the “structured” day department when my oldest child was born. I remember very clearly, just after his first birthday, finding a toddler “curriculum” that I felt would be a good addition to our days. This was mainly because I was a new mom and had no idea what to actually do with a child every day. I also use the word curriculum here lightly as it was essentially a few suggestions for nursery rhymes, songs, Bible verses, classical music, games, and board books to sing/read/do with my barely-toddler-aged son each day. I remember printing the nursery rhyme out each week and taping it to the bathroom mirror above his changing pad so I could recite them to him every time he had a wet diaper. I still have very fond memories of those little “lesson plans.”
When he was a little older, I started diving into the Montessori Method and printed out Montessori activities for him to do during the day….like matching things or grouping colors. It was never anything strenuous and we didn’t sit and do the activities for long periods of time. I also purchased a few child-sized household items like pitchers and bowls so he could practice pouring and sorting. If you know anything about early childhood development using the Montessori Method, you’ll also know that we ended up with a LOT of trays and baskets.
I say all of this to emphasize the fact that I was very open to early childhood education and in fact tried to implement some of those practices in my home, though most likely to a much lesser degree than a daycare or preschool might do.
When we opted (for various reasons) not to send him to preschool at the same time that his friends were being enrolled in these programs, I decided to do some research on my own to see what kind of “preschool” I could do with him at home. The book that was the most helpful in this process was The Heart of Learning which gave me a better view of what early childhood development really ought to be (and when more formal education should begin). I was also introduced to Charlotte Mason during this time and read this in her first volume:
…perhaps a mothers first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air. And this, not for the gain in bodily health alone––body and soul, heart and mind, are nourished with food convenient for them when the children are let alone, let to live without friction and without stimulus amongst happy influences which incline them to be good.vol 1 pg 43
These ideas coupled together resonated so deeply with me that I knew this was what I wanted for my kids. So we decided to just take everything very slowly and we read books and did crafts and had playdates and went to the park for a few years more. Later on, when his friends were being enrolled in kindergarten right around his fifth birthday, we were confident that waiting another year really was the right decision for him. In hindsight, I am so thankful that we took this path as there would’ve been no way he was developmentally ready for kindergarten just after he turned five OR ready for first grade just after he turned six.
It does seem, though, that the consensus these days is that the earlier kids start more formal education, the better, especially with programs like No Child Left Behind. I’ve read and heard claims that go so far as to say that if you don’t start your kids’ education (especially learning to read) as early as possible, you’re actually putting them at a disadvantage. However, a study from 2015 came to a different conclusion:
“We find that a one-year delay in the start of school dramatically reduces inattention/hyperactivity at age 7, a measure of self regulation with strong negative links to student achievement. We also find that this large and targeted effect persists at age 11.”
“Our results indicate that a one-year increase in the school starting age leads to significantly improved mental health….Consistent with a literature that emphasizes the importance of self-regulation for student outcomes, we find that this construct is most strongly correlated with the in-school performance of Danish children. This targeted effect is also consistent with theoretical explanations from developmental psychology that stress the salience of extended play for the development of self regulation. We are also able to examine whether these short-term effects persist using the most recently available data which tracks students to age 11. We find that the large and concentrated effects largely persist to later childhood.Thomas S. Dee, Hans Henrik Sievertsen, “The Gift of Time? School Starting Age and Mental Health”
One study even suggests that the earlier a child is enrolled in kindergarten, the more likely they are to be incorrectly diagnosed with ADHD, which makes sense. 4-year-olds, many 5-year-olds, and even some 6-year-olds just aren’t ready for a school environment where they have to sit, be attentive, and do “busy” work for long periods of time.
So if you can, take that extra time. Spend that extra year with your child, reading with them, playing with them, taking them on nature walks, and getting to know them better. Not only will this strengthen your relationship, but when you really know your child, which is a side benefit of spending all day, every day with them, you will be able to be a much more effective teacher for them when it does come time to start those formal lessons.
Using Gentle Lessons
I’ve read in a few places that kindergarten is now considered the new first grade. Whereas in the past kindergarten was more play than academics, in more recent years it has simply become a precursor “grade” to first grade. In their report on “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten,” several educators noted:
The 1980s saw the beginnings of a shift in kindergarten education from play-based experiential approaches to more academic approaches, from hands-on exploration to worksheets and teacher-led instruction.Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, Joan Wolfsheimer Almon, “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose”
And with the advent of programs like No Child Left Behind and Common Core State Standards, this also makes sense. When teachers have to meet certain governmental standards that have been written across the board for every.single.child of a certain age living in this country, it makes sense that they would want to get a jump start on meeting those goals. However, the race to meet these standards has come at a cost to children:
When children have educational experiences that are not geared to their developmental level or in tune with their learning needs and cultures, it can cause them great harm, including feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and confusion.Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, Joan Wolfsheimer Almon, “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose”
You’ve probably heard the saying that childhood is not a race, and this is especially true for kindergarten. Children at this age don’t need worksheets and standardized tests, they need unstructured time, open-ended toys, art supplies, and good books read to them. They need to be allowed to take in the world in their own ways. They need to be allowed to be little kids for a little while longer.
And really, there is no benefit to rushing children into academia:
Dr. Arnold Gesell found that all children go on the same path of development; however, some go faster, some go slower, and all have spurts and set-backs along the way. The obvious example is the age that children learn to walk. Some children learn to walk as early as nine months, some as late as 15 months. But that is all normal and we all agree that the early walker is not a better walker than the later walker. A similar example is the age that children learn to read. Some children learn to read at age three or four years, others not until seven years or later. That range is quite normal. The most compelling part of the reading research is that by the end of third grade, early readers have no advantage over later readers. Some later readers even go on to become the top in their class. Reading early is not an indicator of higher intelligence. In fact, children at the top of their class in kindergarten only have a 40 percent chance of being at the top of their class at the end of third grade.Dr. Marcy Guddemi, quote from “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose”
Given these observations by experts (and I’ve observed them anecdotally in my own life as well) and taking into consideration the harm that developmentally inappropriate education might do to young children, it seems best to err on the side of going slowly rather than beginning more structured education too soon.
A Simple Kindergarten Year
So given everything said above, how should you plan the kindergarten year if you’ve chosen to homeschool? Don’t overthink it! Instead of trying to approach a 5- or 6-year-old child expecting them to respond positively to academic rigor, meet them on their own terms at the place where they are for their age. I love an example from an 1895 Parents Review article from the life of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a 19th-century education reformer:
[Pestalozzi] had vainly been endeavoring to explain to [his] child the nature of running water. Why it ran, where it ran to, and the laws attending it sending it on its course. It was like burdening the child with words and expressions, the meaning of which, in spite of the greatest perseverance, persistence and even punishment, it failed to grasp. In the course of a walk father and child passed by a running brook. “Ah!” said the child, “the water flows from the mountain into the valley,” and in this brief space of a few seconds the child grasped the meaning of a natural law by actual impression, which the most painstaking explanation failed to give to him.Gunsberg, “The Kindergarten System,” Parents’ Review Vol. 06, No. 09 p.669
In this little episode, Pestalozzi realized that the best way to teach children was not through lecturing or offering facts or memorization, but rather through impressions, especially children of kindergarten age.
We don’t burden the child’s brain with matter it does not understand. We don’t ask the child to commit anything to memory. We don’t torture the delicate sprig of humanity by discipline, yet we teach the child a great deal, we enrich his memory to a marvelous extent and we give him the best training by means of impressions only, impressions of the most pleasant kind, conveyed to the child by actual experience, by play, and in a joyful way.Gunsberg, “The Kindergarten System,” Parents’ Review Vol. 06, No. 09 p.670
How do we offer these “impressions” to our young children, then? Firsthand observation and play are good options, but the easiest and most effective way is to read rich, well-written (or living) books to our children that convey these impressions in the best manner possible. There is no better way to get an idea across to a young child than to tell them a story.
…supposing a teacher of philosophy were to lecture you with all the ability or eloquence at his disposal on some point of morality, try and convince you that it is wrong to think too harshly of your fellow men, he might go on talking for many hours or writing volumes and still he would not convince you to the same extent as a couple of hours’ attendance at a theatre, where the plot of the play may be the very field which the lecturer endeavored to bring home to your understanding. Those of us who have often shed tears over a good play or seen others do it, will at once appreciate the difference which I am trying to establish between teachings and impressions. The reasons why we are so affected by the plot of a play is because it is conveyed to us by impression.Gunsberg, “The Kindergarten System,” Parents’ Review Vol. 06, No. 09 p.670
The kindergarten year is also about how to make good impressions about schooling itself. Using that year to sing songs together, recite poetry, read good books, do crafts, and play simple math games is a way to not only ease your child into a more structured day but also a lovely way to give them a good first impression of what being taught more formally is like.
Finally, it also allows you to help them establish essential habits that they will need during their school years. Things like paying attention, listening, sitting for longer periods of time, and waiting for their turn to speak. By easing them into these things slowly, while they’re definitely still learning on their own terms and at their own pace, you are setting them up for success in their academic career.
The kindergarten year doesn’t need to be complicated and, in reality, it shouldn’t be! Enjoy this precious time you have with your still-very-young child to ease into homeschooling gently and enjoyably!