Kindergarten: The Misunderstood Milestone
What is it about life’s milestones that they always propel us to want to reach the next one, rather than enjoying what we are currently experiencing? I can remember the excitement of kindergarten as a child — anticipating going to school with neighborhood kids, riding the bus, excited to learn to write my long name and get all the “L’s” in the proper order. I remember having thoughts of reading books and learning how to tie my own shoes.
Going off to kindergarten was one of life’s many markers that my parents looked forward to as well. They seemed to put it in the same category as crawling, walking, talking, and losing my first tooth. I would definitely become a “big kid” after I moved out of preschool and into the kindergarten scene. This wasn’t because I did anything special to achieve the “kindergartner” title; it was simply because I reached that juncture and that’s what came next. No effort required; it just happened.
As parents, we almost certainly feel like we would be going against the grain of society if we bypassed traditional kindergarten altogether and opted to keep our child in Montessori for another year. Perhaps we should consider whether there’s a false sense of parenting confidence that comes from adhering to this particular landmark in our child’s journey through life, just because that’s what “everyone else does.”
Did you know that the traditional kindergarten year falls smack in the middle of a natural cycle of development? In fact, it falls in the midst of that final period of the 3 to 6 year old stage of learning, which is such a crucial time for brain development! This seemingly short, last year of “Primary Montessori” is the time when a child’s brain becomes ready to sort through the experiences she has accumulated up to this point interacting with the world. All those subconscious impressions her brain made have been stored up until now, and at this amazing crossroad it begins to try to make sense of them.
In our classrooms, we capitalize on this scientific process…
We spend the first years intentionally enticing a child toward experiences that we know will become meaningful for learning later on. Without realizing it, she handles and manipulates her favorite materials in the classroom in an orderly and organized way, until she forms a catalog of information. In that final year of the cycle she can apply her evolving cognitive capability to grasp the details of it all.
Lessons during the five-going-on-six year old year are not about randomly naming unrelated objects or repeating the same thing the child has been doing already for two years before. Instead, a new view of things is presented. Words come together to represent ideas (such as descriptors like long, longer, longest) and routine processes become formalized in the child’s mind (like the fact that we can exchange quantities for the higher category when we reach 10, for example). The ability to logically categorize objects starts to mature; these children recognize the natural order of everything around them and begin to group leaves by their shapes, animals by the foods they eat, and so on. Their brains work overtime to sort and manage all of the information they have been gathering — like a computer filing and sorting data — so that they can retrieve it again. The many “ideas” these older children have been learning about for so long will now be compared, contrasted, discussed, analyzed, and built up until they hold a much deeper meaning than if they just heard a teacher’s presentation about them or memorized definitions.
In addition to academic achievement, social self-confidence also increases dramatically during this final stage of five year old learning in Montessori. Children become the leaders in their mixed-age classrooms and they solidify their own understanding of concepts by “teaching” younger counterparts. There’s a huge maturity that comes with knowing and being able “to do.” By the end of that milestone final year in primary, these children love learning and are passionate about continuing their educational voyage.
Sometimes the excitement of “newness” can be the thing that drives us away from the “sameness” that is good for us.
Why simply promote a child for reaching an arbitrary age, rather than for having climbed toward a higher level of experience or learning? The typical kindergarten signpost simply marks the point where some children start to go to “real school.” In the traditional model, children of all different experience levels and capabilities gather together during that first year to transition to some structure. In our Montessori classrooms, though, the children have already been participating in a structured environment or “real school” for two or more years! Reaching their fifth birthdays doesn’t mark a beginning for them; it marks a time when they’re approaching the end of a cycle, and they are excited for the privileges that come with their new roles and responsibility as the oldest and most knowledgeable in the class.
Contrary to popular belief, the more natural point to make a change in program is actually at the end of any developmental cycle — perhaps between age 6 and 7 during which time the child’s body is becoming tall and slender, the baby fat is disappearing, and teeth are starting to fall out. These physical changes are markers for a simultaneous change in the way a child learns and interacts with the world around her, and they are indicators for Montessori teachers that a child might be ready for an elementary environment. Just as conscious awareness of self and control of bodily functions at age 2 ½ or 3 helps us recognize when a child is ready to transition to a primary classroom from toddler, so can we identify when older students are approaching the natural end of one plane of development and the beginning of the next (usually about a year later than kindergarten).
The expectation of going off to kindergarten is driven by society, not science. Parents worry, “How will we explain this to her grandparents?” or “Shouldn’t we let her be able to ride the neighborhood school bus?” The greater concern about missing the five year old year of Primary Montessori should be, “How will my child make up for all of the missed opportunities to firm up the concepts she has been exploring since she was born?” She has been building a subconscious awareness of everything around her in the world through sensory exploration — touching, feeling, naming, discriminating, and so on. If she moves on to kindergarten now, rather than finishing this cycle of development consistently, we have to wonder whether she will be able to solidify those concepts to the same degree — so that she can access and use them effectively in all of her later learning.