Perspectives on Kindergarten: The Transition to Elementary School

By Stephanie Holson, Assistant Teacher

The prime purpose of being four is to enjoy being four—of secondary importance is to prepare for being five.

—Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook, 1985

Each year Bing Nursery School invites parents to come speak with a panel of kindergarten experts about their child’s coming transition to kindergarten. “The purpose of this is to give you some information and help you feel more comfortable about sending your child off to kindergarten,” said Bing’s director Jennifer Winters as she welcomed parents to this past year’s Kindergarten Information Night on December 2, 2009.

How a Bing Education Prepares Children for Kindergarten

At the beginning of the program, Bing head teacher Karen Robinette spoke about the many ways in which Bing’s play-based, child-centered education prepares children to enter the world of kindergarten and beyond. “We believe that what we do here, in the nursery school setting, lays the foundation that children can later build upon.” She explained that open-ended materials and activities offered at Bing promote habits and dispositions that encourage a life of learning. “We want them to find learning rewarding, stimulating and we want them to have it be intrinsically motivating. … Bing is carefully crafted for the kind of learning that these children need to be doing,” she said.

Children at Bing benefit from the freedom of choice and movement. They move freely throughout the indoor and outdoor space, stopping at places that pique their interest. Robinette explained: “We want children to pursue their passions and their interests and as you know and as I know, we learn the most when we pursue the things that we love.” That freedom, combined with the gift of time—long blocks of time to play—creates a setting ripe for discovery and learning.

Being a part of both a large class and the small group gathered at the snack table gives children the opportunity to develop their social skills. By participating in group life, Robinette explained, children learn to take turns, self-regulate, resolve conflicts, develop their coping skills, take on another person’s perspective and verbally express their needs, ideas and feelings—skills they will need to succeed in kindergarten. For many children, Bing is their first school experience. They learn how routines work, how to separate from parents and caregivers, resolve conflicts, follow simple directions, and toilet and dress themselves independently.

Robinette concluded by reminding the audience that skills developed in nursery school are just as important as skills developed at any time in a person’s life. “Just as first grade isn’t considered pre-second grade, nursery school shouldn’t be overshadowed by the upcoming skills that are more appropriate to the kindergarten,” she said.

Based on feedback from kindergarten principals and teachers, she said it’s clear that after a supportive, child-centered, play-based environment such as Bing children make successful transitions to any kind of kindergarten.

The Prekindergarten Checkup

Before a child starts kindergarten they need to have both a physical and a dental checkup. Lisa Chamberlain, MD, a pediatrician at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and an alumni parent, explained the checkup, which focuses on four domains: fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social-emotional development and language-literacy development. [See the sidebar with some of the questions that guide physicians assessing nursery school children’s kindergarten readiness.]

Of course not all nursery school-aged children have mastered all of the skills assessed in the checkup, and that’s OK. “You can have someone who is very linguistically gifted and has a hard time threading a needle. Skills can exist independently…so you really have to look at them discretely,” Chamberlain said. The only kindergarten requirement put forth by the California Department of Education is that children must be five years of age on or before December 2 of the school year.

The second part of the evening a panel of experts took questions from the parents. On the panel from Bing were director Winters, assistant director Beth Wise, head teachers Robinette and Nandini Bhattacharjya, and teacher Betsy Koning. Guest panelists were Chamberlain, Marland Chancellor, MD, a family medicine specialist and current Bing parent; Mary Pat O’Connell, principal of L.M. Nixon Elementary School, located on the Stanford campus; and Nixon kindergarten teachers Jody Turner Harrier and Stephanie Han.

Sidebar:

Following are some of the questions that guide physicians assessing nursery school children’s kindergarten readiness as provided by Lisa Chamberlain, MD.

Fine Motor Skills Development

• Can the child do some writing, drawing?

• Is the child able to use scissors?

• Can the child trace basic shapes?

Gross Motor Skills Development

• Can the child jump, climb stairs and run?

• Is the child starting to be able to use the monkey bars or other climbing structures that build upper body movements?

Social-Emotional Skills Development

• Is the child able to sit still for short periods of time?

• Is the child able to listen to short stories?

• Can the child follow instructions with two or three steps?

• Can the child get along with peers and resolve some conflict?

• Does the child recognize non-parental authority?

Language-Literacy Skills Development

• Does the child speak in six- to seven-word sentences?

• Does the child speak fully and clearly? The child’s vocabulary should be too numerous to count. If the child is learning two languages equally, both should be developing equally.

Five Components of Early Literacy

• Does the child have print motivation? (Does the child enjoy books and want to spend time with books?)

• Does the child know how to open a book? How to turn pages?

• Does the child have phonelogical awareness? (Does the child hear and play with sounds?)

• How are the child’s narrative skills? (Can the child describe things?)

• Does the child have print awareness? (Does the child notice letters?  Is he/she starting to learn the names of letters?)

Some excerpts from the Q&A:

Q: How is the transition to kindergarten for most families?

Family medicine specialist Chancellor encouraged parents to see the transition to kindergarten as one piece of a child’s educational process. He encouraged families to think of learning as something that happens everywhere. “I think it’s important for us to not view different situations in life as being isolated. … Learning opportunities occur not only in the classroom, but also at home and in the grocery store, and when you’re in the car going somewhere.” Their school might be changing but that is just part of their overall education.

Q: Are nursery school at Bing and kindergarten at Nixon very different?

Elementary school principal O’Connell explained: “One of our great challenges is getting parents to slow down and realize that, no, we’re not going to be teaching reading the first day. And that’ll be OK. We’ll still get there.” The academic programs are added over the course of the year, not all at once. The teachers at both schools meet the children at their developmental level. And whether they’re at Bing or Nixon, the teachers believe that for children, play is work.

Of course, there are some differences. “Because the children are entering the public school system, the expectations are not just ours to make,” said O’Connell. This means that sometimes kindergarteners are asked to practice things that they may not have chosen. “We want children to be excited about the challenges they take on and the successes they have.”

They also may have the challenge of making new friends and becoming used to a different student-teacher ratio or class size. That’s why at the beginning of the year at Nixon, the school spends a lot of time working on making children feel good about being there. As kindergarten teacher Harrier put it, “You will feel a lot like you’re at Bing.”

Q: Should my child attend a “young fives” program or a kindergarten program?

It really depends on the child. Parents, caregivers and nursery school teachers know the child best. Families who have questions about their nursery school child’s readiness should contact the child’s nursery school teacher(s) to understand how the child functions in a school setting.

The Palo Alto Unified School District offers a “young fives program” for children who are age-eligible for kindergarten but are not ready to enter kindergarten. The program is designed for children who exhibit signs of immaturity or youngness that may prevent them from succeeding in kindergarten and future school years. O’Connell added, “Palo Alto now conducts assessments related to their young fives program. They prioritize and decide which children most need this program.”

Chancellor shared how he and his wife decided to send their not-yet-five-year-old daughter to kindergarten. Both they and her Bing teachers felt she was prepared. Chancellor admitted that the transition was a little challenging for his daughter at first, but that it quickly worked itself out. Now his daughter is thriving. Chancellor added, “I think Bing does an excellent job at preparing our children for kindergarten.”

Q: But is my child ready for kindergarten?

Parents should talk to their child’s nursery school teacher and their future principal. The vast majority of five-year-olds are ready to succeed in kindergarten and enjoy themselves.

Sidebar:

Tips for Helping Children Successfully Transition to Kindergarten

• Talk to children about kindergarten as the date of entry draws near, but keep discussions as low-key as possible.

• If possible, schedule visits to their kindergarten classroom and meet their kindergarten teacher.

• If parents feel nervous about the transition, children will pick up on that feeling. Try to relax and remain positive.

• Once they’re in kindergarten, give them more free play time at home since there will be less at school.

• Don’t overschedule kindergarteners, especially at the beginning. Once they’ve settled into their new routine, perhaps focus on one or two activities.