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Choosing a Kindergarten, Plus 11 Ways to Make a Good School Great

Find the right school for your family and ideas for getting involved

The open house at our son Jack's prospective kindergarten left us . . . "underwhelmed" might be the kindest way to put it. Lord knows teachers have it hard enough, and administrators do the best they can on hacked budgets, but as the parents of a fledgling grade schooler you want to walk away from that first visit thinking, "I love this place!" We couldn't pretend. When we bought our house we were told that the reason property values were so low had much to do with the uneven quality of the town's schools. Now we knew just how much.

At the time, we rationalized. "It's only kindergarten, let's try it for a year." But are there really any throwaway years where education is concerned? And kindergarten, a child's initiation into the world of formal learning, seemed crucial to helping our son get off to a good start, rather than stumble out of the gate.

The search for the perfect kindergarten

By then it was early August, and we really had to scramble. We crammed in as much research as we could, and in the end decided our perfect school would combine elements of several early childhood philosophies. We liked the way Waldorf schools, based on the educational theories of Rudolf Steiner, emphasized immersion in the physical world, teaching about nature and using nature to teach about everything else. We knew that Jack, our little worm-whisperer, would thrive in such a setting.

We also admired the Reggio Emilia approach, which pays close attention to a kid's natural affinities and energetically plays off them with songs, games, creative play, and so on; Jack's preschool had a Reggio Emilia bent and it really worked for him. His fascination with bugs, for example, led to a series of lessons on insects and the creation of pipe-cleaner spiders.

Then there's our local Montessori school, which allows children to develop at their own speed, letting kids of mixed ages study and learn together. This seemed particularly right for our son, who both looks up to older boys and shows a great natural compassion for younger kids. We'd heard of schools where administrators boast, "We teach our kids in kindergarten what other schools teach in third grade," and thought that absurd. We didn't want to rush the academics. In contrast, we liked the didactic materials that the Montessori schools use, the simple blocks and beads and wooden forms, and how children use the materials to cultivate critical thinking. (Maria Montessori was an Italian psychologist whose methods were originally designed to foster the cognitive development of mentally handicapped children.)

The beauty and simplicity of the Reggio Emilia and Montessori classrooms also drew us in. The public school classroom we'd visited, the one that left us underwhelmed, was cluttered, all four walls papered baseboard to crown molding with flash cards, letters both block and cursive, numbers, shapes, colors, names, dates, maps, and posters of animals and presidents and flags, distractions everywhere you looked.

I went online, looking for our dream school. I expected it would be beyond the Boolean capacities of my search engine. To my surprise, I found the perfect kindergarten, one that combines all of the elements we were looking for. That was the good news. The bad news was, if Jack was to attend this ideal kindergarten, we were going to need a time machine, seeing as it existed in 1837.

It turns out all the best parts of the well-known pedagogies now in use in private and public elementary schools share a common ancestor: a forgotten German educator named Friedrich Froebel (pronounced FRUR-bull), the man who invented kindergarten and, with it, the concept of early childhood education nearly 175 years ago.

Can you say "Kleinkinderbeschäftigungsanstalt?"

Born in Germany in 1782, little Friedrich came from an era in which children received meager formal education, beyond religious instruction, until age 7. At that point they were deemed ready to be taught, usually by men and often in the same style as students at the higher levels, seated on hard wooden benches, listening to lectures. For children under 7 there were only two types of schools, and I use the term loosely. "Dame schools," so-called since they were run by women, basically functioned as home day care centers. The other "schools" were what amounted to detention centers created to take in kids whose moms had gone to work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.

Then along came Friedrich, a child of the Romantic Era, with its emphasis on imagination over reason, on individualism and the worship of nature. Froebel was influenced by the writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose book Emile, ou de l'Education discussed the then-novel idea that children go through different developmental stages and should not be treated as adults until they actually are adults (duh), and that they learn best through direct experience and observation.

At age 23 Froebel took a job teaching at the Frankfurt Model School, which was based on the pedagogy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the education reformer whose school in Yverdon, Switzerland, broke all the rules. Another follower of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and his approach to "natural education" were radical. No more lectures. No more recitation. No more punishment, no shaming students, no discouraging words, and no books. Instead, older students would teach younger students (the age range was 7 to 15) and everyone would experience hands-on learning. ("Our first teachers in natural philosophy are our feet, hands, and eyes," Rousseau wrote.) They'd use tools, saws, hammers, and planes, and manipulate objects, and observe nature on hikes that sometimes lasted several weeks. First form the mind, Pestalozzi believed, then furnish it.

Froebel took to Pestalozzi's ideas with missionary zeal, but with a variation — Pestalozzi considered children seeds, but he did not teach them until they were 7. If children were truly to be cultivated as seeds in a garden, then why, Froebel asked, wait until they're 7 to begin the nurturing process? He wanted to start them at 3 or 4. In 1831 Froebel opened his first school in Switzerland, only to be accused of heresy by the priests at the Lucerne canton. Six years later he opened another school in Bad Blankenburg, Germany, for 3- to 7-year-olds, initially calling it a Kleinkinderbeschägsanstalt, which translates into "small-child-keep-busy institute." He hit upon the much catchier name kindergarten ("children's garden") later while hiking in the mountains. Froebel's genius was the realization that the best way to develop and nurture a child, effectively laying a foundation upon which future learning could be based, was to harness the child's innate creative energies and educate him by his own activities. Rather than provide books or paper and pens for his Kinder, and rather than lecture or give them facts or answers to memorize, he gave them a series of 20 manipulative tools he called "gifts and occupations." The fifth gift, for example, was a box with a sliding lid containing 27 one-inch wooden cubes stacked 3 by 3 by 3, with 21 of them intact and whole, three that had been halved on the diagonal axis, and three that had been quartered. The teacher might ask the children to use the blocks to make the letter T, or to make a picture of something they saw in springtime, or to arrange them in patterns of three. As the children manipulated the blocks, they learned T-ness or spring-ness or three-ness (as well as whole-ness, half-ness, and quarter-ness), tangibly experiencing each concept — literally "object lessons."

Such blocks could teach simple addition at the lowest levels or illustrate complex theorems at the higher levels, something like the way you can perform virtually any arithmetic on an abacus. Other gifts included wooden cylinders, balls, cubes, parquetry tiles, metal sticks and rings, paper slats, jointed slats, then paper to draw on, prick with pins, sew with threads, and paper for cutting, weaving, folding, and finally modeling clay.

Froebel's gifts physically manifested mathematical and geometric relationships and were played with on a large round table marked with a one-inch grid that the pieces fit into. Play in Froebel's classrooms was never done idly or merely to amuse or kill time, and it always had direction and constructive purpose, under a teacher's guidance. But still it remained play — in effect, the kids didn't know they were learning anything.

In other words, his kindergarten was never supposed to be "school." It was preschool, for children ages 3 to 7, all mixed together, older children helping younger children, younger children imitating older classmates (hello, Montessori). They learned self-reliance, each child following his or her own creative path (hello, Waldorf). Froebel also had storytelling and singing games (hello, Reggio Emilia), where the student telling a story absorbed all the elements of good writing, the value of details, and the structure of beginning, middle, and end, thesis to antithesis to synthesis. The learning process took place symbolically, over time, arrived at through activity, each child at his or her own pace. The goal was not to retain or remember anything (though they did), but rather to simply get children to a place where they loved the process of learning.

Despite the fact that Froebel is hardly known anymore, his prescient notions of early childhood education live on in schools today. No matter the model (public or private) you can still see his philosophy at work.

Saved by the bell

As dumb luck would have it, a friend phoned to tell us she'd heard two spots had opened up at the last minute in a great public school (according to reputation) the next town over, available to us through school choice. With a minimal amount of groveling before the superintendent, we managed to secure one of the spots for our son.

When we drove to the new school to see it for ourselves, it was as if somebody had specifically designed a kindergarten for Jack — right down to the golden retriever (his favorite breed) sleeping on a dog bed outside the principal's door. The school was high on a hill, a modern facility with spacious classrooms, sunshine pouring through the skylights, a student-to-teacher ratio almost half that of the first school we'd looked at, an elaborate playground with up-to-date equipment, and a large vegetable garden in the courtyard. "I love this place," my wife and I said simultaneously.

Unavoidably, its curriculum had the (arguably) premature focus on academic performance mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. ("It used to be," one educator told me, "kids didn't hate school until at least fourth or fifth grade — now they hate it in kindergarten.") But it also had an after-school program for mixed ages, where kids could just goof around outdoors or indoors with blocks or art materials, a program that, to an extent, restored the Froebelian element of mentored play lost 100 years ago when American educators, among them John Dewey, decided Froebel's model was too abstract and impractical.

Modern kindergarten, they felt, ought to serve a higher purpose: to provide a useful free education, as well as to Americanize the wave of immigrant children flooding American cities. Kindergarten, then, became a place where creativity was encouraged but ultimately subordinated to the need for learning discipline and self-control, a time not to play but to work, or at least to get used to the idea of work. The "higher purpose" today is to get kids to pass standardized tests, beginning in third grade. But if you know what to look for, you can find in today's elementary schools vestigial remnants of the Froebel approach: the mathematically proportionate wooden blocks and tiles, the circle-time songs and games, the kids sewing stitches into paper, finger-weaving yarn, planting marigolds in the school courtyards, caring for the class guinea pig. Good teachers still pay attention to their students' interests, still teach through activity, and still know how to encourage kids to love learning.

We were thrilled by what we found at Jack's new school, which seemed to combine and honor many of the traditional elements of Froebel's vision. I hesitate to say one eccentric German educator got it right 175 years ago — the world sure has changed a lot since then. But little kids are still little kids, and their brains don't grow any faster than they did in Froebel's time. In this digital era, we wanted our son to have an analog introduction to school life, a hands-on, direct experience with a world that was actual, not virtual. Mostly, we wanted him to love his new school as much as we did.

And he does.

11 (Yes, 11) Ways to Make Good Schools Great

Even if you can't hire Herr Froebel as a teacher, or if you don't have the perfect school locally, here are some grassroots ideas inspired by Froebel's tenets of play, community, imagination, and learning.

  1. Organize a reading buddies program. The original kindergarten served kids from ages 3 to 7, and the older helped the younger learn. This idea lives on in mixed-age reading buddy programs. To learn more, go to misscantillon.com and click on "Reading Tips, Strategies, and Buddy Reading."
  2. Make the school a community. Host a potluck picnic for each grade on the school grounds in the first week of school, organized by parent volunteers. It's a nice icebreaker and a good way to make new friends and reunite with old ones.
  3. Rise up and sing. Children in Froebel's kindergarten spent part of each day singing and dancing. If daily singing isn't feasible, then weekly. Find a time when everyone (one classroom, grade, or the entire school) can gather together and belt it out. Go to niehs.nih.gov and search for "Sing Along Songs."
  4. Advocate for recess. Froebel believed physical activity was an essential part of a child's education. Recent research agrees: Kids learn better when they've had a chance to run around. If your school has axed recess, get parents to lobby for setting aside 20 to 30 minutes a day for kids to play outside. Or start an after-school mileage program: One day a week kids can do laps around the schoolyard (walking, running, skipping . . . ) and get cards stamped by parent volunteers for every mile.
  5. Spark an idea lab. Help a teacher create an idea lab in the classroom, using parent donations of cool broken junk, obsolete (yet safe) electronics, recyclables, and hardware thingies. Kids can go to the idea lab and concoct during their free time.
  6. Institute a class community-service project. Tend and hatch salmon eggs, then release them somewhere appropriate. Make and sell dog biscuits, and give the money to an animal shelter. Research green programs; try thegreenteam.org.
  7. Grow a garden. Froebel gave his students a tiny plot of land to plant outside their school building (it wasn't called kindergarten for nothing). Schools today are rediscovering the school garden to teach kids about ecology and nutrition. For kids who need instant gratification (who doesn't?), try planting radishes, which sprout in only a few days. To learn more, go to fertilegroundschools.org.
  8. Launch a lunch buddies program. Talk with administrators about doing a voluntary lunch buddies program, where kids from various grades eat lunch together in groups of three and are switched around during the year. This discourages lunchtime cliques, encourages mentoring, and helps kids from every grade get to know each other.
  9. Facilitate an after-school club. Put out feelers for informal, parent-supported after-school clubs where kids play together centered around a common interest, anything from kickball to chess, under loose (loose is key) adult supervision.
  10. Auction for the arts. With items and services donated by parents or solicited by parents from local businesses, you can raise funds to support arts education. Keep it simple; it doesn't have to be a gala. A potluck in the cafeteria is just fine.
  11. Show teachers your appreciation. Host a teacher and staff appreciation lunch, organized by a team of parent volunteers and complete with tablecloths, flowers, and a lavish buffet lovingly prepared by grateful families. (It does, indeed, take a village.)

About the Author: Pete Nelson went to kindergarten at Burroughs Elementary in Minneapolis. His kindly teacher, Mrs. Eckholt, seemed like she was old enough to have dated Friedrich Froebel.

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