Kindergarten Really Is the New First Grade, Research Says

Homework, tests, expectations—how kindergarten today is different

kindergarten class smiling
Kindergarten should be about teaching kids to love learning--not doing first grade work. Jose Luiz Pelaez/Getty Images

Kindergarten should be about learning to love discovering, exploring, learning through play, and building social relationships. And while learning numbers, basic math, sight words, and unlocking reading has always been a part of kindergarten, there was always time in the schedule for singing, making arts and crafts, and running around on the playground (of course!).

But increasingly, kindergarten classroom time has become more about academic work—the reading, writing, and arithmetic—and less about learning through fun, with more emphasis now on worksheets, homework, and tests, and expectations that traditionally didn't come into play in kids' lives until first grade and beyond.

 If you suspected that your child's kindergarten work seems more difficult, challenging, and, well, just more compared to previous generations, you're right: Research confirms what parents today have been seeing, that kindergarten really is the new first grade.

What Kindergarten Looks Like Now, According to Research

Researchers at the University of Virginia sought to explore this question of whether or not "kindergarten is the new first grade" by comparing kindergarten and first grade classrooms between the years 1998 and 2010. What they found confirmed what parents and educators were seeing: kindergarten has indeed become more academic and more like what was once first grade. And the changes they found were significant. "We were surprised to see such a big shift in a short amount of time," says Daphna Bassok, PhD, study co-author and assistant professor of education policy at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

Researchers examined data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which included detailed surveys of 2,500 public school kindergarten teachers in 1998 and 2,700 public school kindergarten teachers in 2010. The researchers also compared the responses from first grade teachers in 1999 and 2011. What the study found confirmed the anecdotal evidence: Today's kindergarten is much more focused on academics.

Some highlights of what the study found:

  • Teachers today are much more likely to say all kids should come into kindergarten already knowing their letters and numbers. Only 31 percent of teachers believed this in 1998 compared to 80 percent in 2010.
  • The number of teachers who believe students should know the alphabet and the number of teachers who think children should be able to use a pencil before entering kindergarten both rose by 33 percent.
  • The amount of time spent on reading and math increased and the materials the children were expected to learn in 2010 would have been considered too advanced for kindergarten in 1998.
  • Time spent on activities like art and music decreased, and fewer kindergarten classrooms were likely to have discovery or play areas such as a sand table or science area.
  • Children in 2010 were twice as likely to be taught reading and math using textbooks, and were more likely to use math and reading workbooks.

All this work and less play is not developmentally appropriate for children this age, and there's evidence that kids are feeling the stress. One study showed that kids today are getting too much homework and that families are feeling homework stress. The study also found that younger kids in grades kindergarten through second grade were spending as much as three times the amount of time on homework.

What Parents Can Do to Get More Fun into Kindergarteners' Days

If you have a child entering kindergarten, be aware of the trend taking place and do what you can to make sure that your child doesn't feel stressed or overwhelmed. "It's important for kids to have the time to play and move their bodies," says Amanda Williford, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and research assistant professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. There's a mistaken belief that learning more academic content means you have to substitute art, gym, and recess, says Williford.

To be an advocate for your child and counter the effects of more work and less play, try the following:

  • Show that learning isn't just about worksheets. As your child starts school, the last thing you want is for her to hate the idea of learning. "Worksheets are a terrible way for young children to learn," says Williford. Play online math games, incorporate math into everyday activities and have fun, and work on science projects at home. Make discovery and learning fun, the way it's supposed to be.
  • Talk to your child's teacher. If your child is stressed about homework or declares that he doesn't like school, talk to your child's teacher about ways you can either reduce the amount of homework or find ways to make learning more fun for your child.
  • Read books your kids like. Play off your kids' obsessions, whether it's Star Wars or Minecraft; get books on his favorite subjects and treat reading like the rewarding activity it is, not a chore they have to get through.
  • Don't stress about homework, and relay this message to your child. It's kindergarten, not college! If your kindergartner is unable to focus on a homework assignment because there is too much work, consider setting a timer and having him work for those few minutes and do what he can in that time.
  • Play outside! Not only is this a great way to get your child active, help him focus, and work off all that kid-energy, but research has shown that kids who have fun and play with their parents grow up to be happier. 

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