It’s a 21st-century truism that in order for the United States to get ahead in the global economy, we need to upgrade our public schools. Ideally, that should mean ensuring that every child receives an education of the best possible quality. Too often, however, in our culture of fast food, media sound bites, and instant downloads, we mistake faster for better. That assumption has led countless school districts—perhaps even your own—to promote “academic kindergartens” where 5-year-olds are more likely to encounter skill-and-drill exercises and nightly homework than unstructured, imaginative playtime. With so much pressure to teach essential literacy and math skills, many kindergarten teachers. and even prekindergarten teachers say that time for free play and exploration is increasingly limited.

“Kindergarten is now first grade, and first grade is now second grade,” says Anne Stoudt, a kindergarten teacher in suburban New Jersey for 19 years. “It used to be normal for first graders to still be learning to read. Now, the handful of kindergartners who aren’t reading by the end of the year are considered behind.

”Indeed, just a decade ago, only 15 percent of kindergartners were readers. If we go back 30 years, the number shrinks to only 5 percent. This year, in Maryland’s Montgomery County—which, like many districts, has mandatedfull-day attendance for fives—nearly 90 percent of kindergartners passed an end-of-year reading test.


Part of the reason kindergarten is becoming more and more academic is a growing understanding of the importance of early learning and the capabilities of young children. “Five-year-olds aren’t seen as babies anymore,” says Liz Stevens, a kindergarten teacher in suburban San Diego. “What we know about brain-based learning tells us this is the right time for reading.

”It may be, but there is little doubt that No Child Left Behind also plays a role in determining the “right time.” The pressures on schools to prepare children for testing in third grade has helped to eradicate the block area and dress-up center from the kindergarten classroom. By beginning the first-grade reading curriculum in kindergarten, schools have effectively gained an extra year of instruction.


Proponents of ramping up standards in early elementary education tend to focus on the numbers. More children learning to read or do math sooner must be good. But these achievements may come at the expense of other skills kids need to learn, such as self-reliance, problem-solving, and spatial thinking. “When we replace the block center with a math center, what do we gain?” says Stoudt. “Blocks are all about math, except they are more fun.

”While young students’ reading and math scores are soaring, there is little assessment of the effect of the intensified academic focus on kids’ motivation to learn, creativity, motor skills, social skills, or self-esteem. “The risk is children who are already burned out on school by the time they reach third grade,” says Stoudt. “Play is how children learn. There should be more of it in the upper grades, not less in the lower.”


Research consistently backs what early elementary teachers know: Imaginative play is the catalyst for social, physical, emotional, and moral development in young children. With guidance from an observant teacher, kindergartners can use imaginative play to make sense of the world around them—and lay the critical groundwork for understanding words and numbers.

“Play facilitates the growth of children’s reasoning abilities,” says David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Power of Play. Through classifying objects (cars, shells, beads) and through experimentation (water play, clay), children learn to make inferences and draw conclusions. “Children’s questions are a form of mastery play,” says Elkind. “In asking questions, children are creating their own learning experiences.”


Perhaps nowhere else do children grow up as fast as in the United States. Joan Almon, coordinator for the Alliance for Childhood in the United States, relates a well-known anecdote about Jean Piaget, the famous cognitive psychologist. “He didn’t particularly like speaking to American audiences. After he would finish his lecture on the natural progression of child development, someone would invariably ask, ‘But how can we get them to do it faster?’” says Almon.

In Finland, which routinely leads the world in assessments of literacy, math, and science, children don’t start formal schooling until age 7—and then they only attend half days. Compared to countries like the U.S. or the United Kingdom, children in Finland spend less time overall in school, too.But here, it’s expected that kids start kindergarten at age 5, and many have years of preschool experiences under their belts before walking through the kindergarten door. Vivian Gussin Paley, author of A Child’s Work, The Importance of Fantasy Play, writes that this has led some to question, “Since children enter preschool at a younger age, wouldn’t they have enough playtime there before going to kindergarten?”According to most child-development experts, the answer is no. Play is the necessary work of children. According to psychologist Erik Erikson, the development of initiative through imaginative play is one of the primary challenges in the growth of young children. If children miss out on the work of play, their later learning can be adversely affected.


Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., is a professor of education at the University of Delaware and the author of numerous books, including Play = Learning and Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. She argues that play is the primary vehicle that children use to explore their world, learn critical social skills, and grow emotionally.

“But playtime also allows children the opportunity to rough-and-tumble with other children,” Golinkoff adds. A 2003 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children under 6 spend as much time with television, computers, and video games as playing outside. Clearly, the opportunity for physical play is crucial.

At school and at home, children have less time for unstructured play. “Children are used to being entertained by media,” says Cindy Middendorf, a noted national speaker and author of Differentiating Instruction in Kindergarten. “But relying on television, movies, and video games, children are pulled away from real imaginative play.”

Middendorf spent three decades as a teacher before her recent retirement, and the last 22 years of her career were in a kindergarten classroom. She adds that play is a vital part of language development in children—and it also establishes a foundation for reading and comprehension.

“Play has been phased out of so many kindergarten classes,” Middendorf says. “But since we’re not getting the academic results we expected, educators are now realizing that they can teach academic standards within the context of play.”


So how can a kindergarten teacher successfully integrate play into his or her classroom? By embedding math, science, and literacy skills in a fun, meaningful context, says Golinkoff. “Learning has to be enjoyable,” she says. “If a child grows to dislike school, there will be repercussions for years to come.

”Almon adds that the drive to play is strong in every healthy child. However, children need the time and permission to do so. But what about those kids who don’t know what to do—or, really, how to play?

“If a child can’t play independently, his teacher can play with him. The key is to know when to pull back so the child doesn’t become dependent on that external structure,” Almon explains. Teachers can facilitate play in all children by asking questions, using new vocabulary, and encouraging social cooperation with peers.

To encourage fantasy play, open-ended play materials work the best. Wooden blocks, pieces of cloth, and other basic construction materials allow children to imagine countless scenarios—and cost little to add to your classroom. Art and music don’t have to exist solely as separate classes, either. Middendorf suggests reading a story aloud, then having children paint their literary responses. Alternatively, the class can help act out a story—and learn important lessons about plot, characters, and sequencing—or play a game that involves math skills.

“Teachers can also use children’s imaginative play as a springboard for a lesson plan,” Middendorf says. “In the end, you don’t have to choose between an academic-based or a play-based kindergarten. It needs to be balanced.”



It was a classic case: a five-year-old boy with a summer birthday. Born just eight weeks before his state’s kindergarten cutoff date, his academic skills and physical abilities were on par with those of his peers. But was he socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten?

As a teacher—and, I confess, as that little boy’s mom—I understand both sides of the issue. Across the United States, many parents of “young fives” have opted to delay their child’s kindergarten start, even if the child is age-eligible. To address the needs of these children, some districts are offering transitional kindergarten (TK) classes, which promote positive socialization, hands-on learning, and emergent literacy. But there’s also an ample amount of play time. After a year of TK, children either go on to a year of regular kindergarten or on to first grade, depending on their readiness.

While the popularity of TK waned in the 1990s, educators are again seeing an increase in such classes—a rise likely due to both increased academic pressures in kindergarten and an effort to meet children’s developmental needs.

CutOff Dates

Across the U.S., September 1 is the most common date by which children need to turn five in order to start kindergarten. However, this can vary significantly by state; in Indiana the cutoff is July 1, but in California it’s December 2.

This means that some children may start kindergarten before their fifth birthday. The challenges these kids face may not be just with their reading readiness and math skills. As any kindergarten teacher can tell you, kids may struggle with fine or gross motor movement, adequate social skills, or making it through a full day of school.

For these reasons, about 10 percent of U.S. parents delay their child’s kindergarten start by a year, and boys are delayed nearly twice as much.

The Gift of Time

Elizabeth Lunday agonized about whether to enroll her son in a transitional kindergarten near their home in Fort Worth, Texas. “He had some language delays when he was younger,” she says. “As a result, he really withdrew socially from other children.” While that had been corrected through speech therapy, Lunday was concerned that her son’s introverted nature would make kindergarten difficult for him. In the end, she opted to enroll him in a TK program at University Christian Church Weekday School. “In talking to other parents,” she says, “I heard several say ‘I wish I had held my child back,’ but no one ever said ‘I wish I hadn’t done it.’”

From a teacher’s perspective, Amy Weisberg couldn’t agree more. Two years ago, she instituted the first developmental kindergarten program at her school, Topanga Elementary, in California. As a teacher in the state with the second latest cutoff date for kindergarten, she asserts that “those youngest kids just need a place to go.”

Referring to research from the Gesell Institute of Human Development, Weisberg says that it is crucial to recognize the difference between a child’s chronological age and his or her developmental stage. Weisberg also adds, “This can be especially true for boys, who may lag up to six months behind girls at that point.”

In Wisconsin’s McFarland School District, parents can choose between regular kindergarten, transitional kindergarten, and Just Five classes. Now in its seventh year of operation, Just Five is a half-day class for children who aren’t quite ready for a full-day kindergarten class, says teacher Sara Everson.

Both Everson and Weisberg estimate that about half of their students go on to first grade the following year, while the rest opt for another year of kindergarten. By then, many of the children are developmentally ready to tackle the increased academic demands placed on them, and they’ve got the social skills and confidence to be successful.

What the Research Shows

“Many parents and teachers believe that holding kids back will result in higher achievement scores, but any advantage typically disappears by third grade,” says Deborah Stipek, dean and professor of education at Stanford University. “Moreover, there’s variability in children’s skills no matter what the age.”

Stipek authored a 2002 report entitled “At What Age Should Children Enter Kindergarten? A Question for Policy Makers and Parents,” published by the Society for Research in Child Development. In analyzing the research that has been done on the topic, it’s evident that delayed school entry can have a negative impact on low-income and minority children, for whom in-school experiences are critical in closing the achievement gap.

As teachers, we might ask: Is it about making the child ready for school, or about making the school ready for the child?“ In a lot of ways, transitional kindergarten has a more developmental approach that emphasizes the social and emotional needs of children,” says Beth Graue, the author of Ready for What? and a professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin. "But, ultimately, the main program should provide that."

A Balancing Act

Remember that little boy I mentioned earlier? Here’s what happened: After poring over the research and talking with his preschool teachers, I made the decision to send him to school when he was age-eligible. Cole was one of the youngest in his class; physically, he was tall and coordinated, but socially, it was a different story. I won’t lie—it was a challenge for both me and his teacher. But you know what? This month, he’s starting third grade and he’s absolutely thriving.

Did I make the right choice? I don’t know—but I made the best decision I could have at the time. As parents and teachers, that’s the best we can do.