Before the academic police put the U.S. education system in its grip, Kindergarten was run like a glorified play center. Not so anymore, with grave consequences. It turns out, as the great modern observers of childhood development have been telling us–i.e. Piaget, Maria Montessori, and company–children need to play. They need to play with a vengeance.

Lately I’ve been hearing about truly sad, chaotic kindergartens. My students who teach kindergarten report that now there are academic standards that loom over kids aged 5, just as they do for much more mature students. Children under the age of, let’s say 5-6, still are very very young, neurologically, emotionally, socially. Their attention spans for sitting in a circle while Teacher directs their attention to the board is short. Probably no more than 7 minutes at best. They do not learn in rigid, controlled atmospheres. They do not learn from lectures.

They learn from play. My husband Fran is fond of saying that he was allowed to skip kindergarten because he already knew how to take naps. I always laugh at this. I, on the other hand, reveled in my first half-days at school, the lovely, gentle Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina.

We had a very tall teacher. Hers is the only name I remember from all my years of secondary education: Miss McClure. She was tall, raw-boned, and not at all soft and cuddly. But she had a lovely sweeping manner of almost singing her suggestions that we come sit in a circle at her feet. I remember those feet: clad in tie-up black pumps, with columnar legs growing out of them, measured in back by long black lines.–the seams in her stockings.

Her hair was drawn back in a bun and she wore glasses. I didn’t get my own glasses until third grade when it turned out I couldn’t see the board. But my father wore glasses–wire-rimmed like hers. And he too was a teacher, hurrying off every morning with a huge briefcase stuffed with student papers. Our student papers were large sheets of what I’d call foolscap (is that really a word?) on which we colored with huge crayons. 
Unfortunately, my sheets often tore, since I bore down so hard with the crayons.

We probably learned our ABCs though I suspect I already knew mine. We sang a lot. What songs exactly, I don’t remember. We sat cross-legged at Miss McClure’s feet like busy little flowers under a tall swaying tree. And we ran outside to the glorious playground across the hot playing fields, where we bumped each other on small seesaws, climbed jungle gyms, dug in sandboxes, and generally made a lot of noise.

It’s possible that we also began to learn a little French from “M’amselle,” because now it’s coming to me  from my early years at Ashley Hall, voices singing “Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dormez vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez-le matina, sonnez-le matina, ding, ding dong, etc.”

“Je m’appelle Margot,” I also hear myself saying. I am called Margot.

Nobody talked to us about standards, other than not biting or scratching, other than sitting quietly for short times as Miss McClure spoke to us from her height. We didn’t have “play stations,” such as little kitchens or baby basinettes (we were all girls at Ashley Hall), but we all had such things at home. We grew up in an era of extended play, inside, outside almost all year long, with the Old Citadel being my first kindergarten.

Living there, in the block-long former barracks of the military college called The Citadel, we had (now I hear my mother’s voice) 150 children in one block. It’s hard to believe, but there were lots of us, swarming up and down the irregular blocks of the slate sidewalk, playing “school” in a huge refrigerator packing
case, set on its long side. I was always the teacher, our little Mexican chairs brought out for students to sit in.

We collected the persimmon blossoms with their rubbery orange cups for doll tea parties–the Mexican chairs again. We drew hopscotch under the hackberry tree, and probably a bit later than kindergarten age, we swung our jump ropes–sometimes the individual ones that made an arc over our heads, and sometimes a huge communal one that required two of us to swing. And much later, probably fourth grade, we swung “double Dutch” ropes, two that twined around and made it tough for the jumper to enter.

Inside we were surrounded by books–our father’s school books, books from the Charleston County Free Library, and the volumes of the Book House. Every night before my sister and I went to bed, we snuggled on either side of our mother while she read to us. I do not remember ever not being able to read.

BUT I was one of those youngsters for whom the printed page is a goldmine, the sound of words being read aloud little short of heaven, and school, eventually full day school, largely an inevitable and welcome place. No one pushed me in kindergarten to sit longer than I was capable of doing. No one tested my knowledge, forced me to read or write, spell or compute to a test. I don’t remember tests until third grade when I’d been out sick for at least a week, and missed learning pronouns. The shame of not knowing along with my classmates still comes back to me–a dark, unfortunate shame.

Kindergarten is for play, for exploring lightly among the opportunities of school. Full days are very hard on most five-year-olds. They need to be closely tethered to home. It is best if they can walk to school, accompanied by a much older high-school girl, as I was. Forcing them to sit still for long periods leads to boredom, outbursts, fighting–disaster.

No Child Left Behind often leaves kindergarten children so scarred by excessive rigor that they become demons. So, I’m hearing from masters students who are trying to find a way out of this trap for their kindergarten classes.

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