The best homeschooling advice I ever received was, “Skip kindergarten!”
~Maureen Wittmann, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Homeschool Connections.
In the public school milieux, formal education begins at kindergarten, if not sooner. Kindergarten is generally a preparatory phase of schooling where children build their basic academic knowledge as well as their social skills to get ready for 1st grade, and institutional schooling in general. In the U.S., kindergarten programs are generally meant for 5-year olds, but it is common to see 4- to 6-year-old children in kindergarten, depending on their level of development.
What role does kindergarten fill in a homeschool setting, and how should we approach education at home with our 4- to 6-year olds? To begin, let’s explore the history of kindergarten and it’s original purpose.
Friedrich Froebel’s Garden
Before the mid-19th century, it was not common for children under age 7 to attend school. There was a general consensus that children under 7 lacked the cognitive and social skills for formal academics.
This changed with the thought of Friedrich Froebel. Froebel was a German educator who believed in the capacity of very young children to learn in social settings. Froebel coined the phrase “kindergarten,” which means “garden of children.” This reflected his philosophy of early childhood education as a garden of varied plants, all diverse in their characteristics but growing together in a single nursery. “Children are like tiny flowers,” he said. “They are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers.” (source)
Contrary to the prevailing ideas, Froebel believed young children could learn if it was presented a certain way. He stressed free self-expression, creativity, social participation, and motor expression (source). As an outdoorsman and naturalist, Froebel’s approach was very hands-on, involving group play and outdoor exploration. It was a very creative vision, in which children developed freely through self-directed play under the supervision (but not direction) of a teacher. The Wikipedia entry for Froebel makes what I think is an excellent observation about Froebel’s real contribution to education:
“Friedrich Fröbel’s great insight was to recognize the importance of the activity of the child in learning. He introduced the concept of “free work” into pedagogy and established the “game” as the typical form that life took in childhood, and also the game’s educational worth. Activities in the first kindergarten included singing, dancing, gardening, and self-directed play.”
By playing and exploring together, children can nurture their own curiosity; they can learn to appreciate the patterns in nature and be introduced to basic educational concepts.
Reading about Froebel’s vision, I cannot help but be struck by the charm and beauty of it. Many of Froebel’s original concepts are still found today in the unschooling movement, where a child’s own capacity for learning and discovery are given pride of place. His conceptualization of children as individual flowers with unique developmental needs is a tenet shared by most homeschoolers.
If all this sounds so great, they why would anyone recommend that you skip kindergarten? To answer this, let us continue the story of Froebel…
Believe it or not, Froebel’s kindergartens were extremely controversial. In an age when most institutions in government and business were tending toward greater centralization and uniformity, Froebel’s approach appeared downright anarchistic. The Prussian ministry of education issued an edict in 1851 banning kindergarten as “atheistic and demagogic.” The condemnation was bound up with many issues that did not have to do strictly with education. Froebel’s support of women as educators and his insistence on educating lower class children, for example, were condemned as “socialistic.” (source) The mass closure of his beloved kindergartens was a considerable blow to Froebel, who died the year after the ban in 1852.
The ban resulted in a diaspora of kindergarten teachers throughout the western world. They returned to Germany after 1867 when the ban was lifted in Prussia. With Froebel dead, his successors built upon his philosophy, turning his ideals into an educational movement. However, as often happens when an idea gains popular momentum, Froebel’s original concepts became increasingly institutionalized, standardized, and systematized. This trend only accelerated after kindergarten began being incorporated into public education systems. In other words, kindergarten morphed into just another school class. This is why today, over 150 years since its inception, the name kindergarten strikes us as an anachronism. Most modern kindergartens no longer resemble Froebel’s “garden of children,” where an ensemble of children play together outside, discovering the world under adult supervision. Today, Kindergarten is simply another academic class—a class scaled to the abilities of five-years olds—but a class nonetheless.
Kindergarten as an Idea
Looking at Froebel’s ideas, we homeschoolers should recognize that the best parts of his vision are all attainable within the homeschool family structure. You can fulfill everything kindergarten was meant to be by simply using your child’s early years to build a foundation of discovery, joy, and love of learning.
When your young child plays with his older siblings or church friends and learns to socialize with them, that is the social blossoming that Froebel envisioned. When they spend the afternoon out in the sandbox while you homeschool the older kids, that is the motor expression. When you color with them, or let them work with Play-Do while you help your older daughter with math, that is fostering their creativity and self-expression.
Your five-year old doesn’t need to spend hours sitting still at a table with a pencil. If you want to introduce a young child to reading or mathematics, do this in fun ways that utilize play. Building up their creativity, expressiveness, and social skills in natural settings will help them prepare for grade school much more successfully and with greater joy than trying to structure any sort of kindergarten “class.”
Froebel was spot on with his ideas. It was a mistake to think a formal classroom was the best way to realize them.
Skip kindergarten as a grade level. Embrace kindergarten as an idea.