Early Childhood Education



The term “kindergarten” in the United States traditionally refers to the year of school that precedes “formal” schooling in first grade. In other countries, the term “kindergarten” often designates group settings for young children that precedes the beginning of formal schooling, and encompasses children from three- to six or seven years of age. In Israel, for example, children between five and six years of age attend “compulsory kindergarten” and younger children are educated in “recompulsory kindergarten” (Micholwitz [sic], 1992, p. 307). Kindergartens in the United States are universally available and most young children attend them. The age for entry into kindergarten is set by individual states. As expectations have escalated for what children will learn and be able to do during this year of schooling, children’s entry age has changed.

The term “kindergarten” originated with Friedrich Froebel’s nineteenth-century notion of a children’s garden in Germany. Spiritually based, his kindergarten included the development of many new child-centered materials. Robert Owen, a Scottish contemporary of Froebel during the Industrial Revolution, offered kindergarten as an on-site service to young children and their families as an alternative to child labor in factories. Kindergarten came to the United States in the mid-1800s and quickly spread through the efforts of individually committed women and philanthropists. The first public school kindergarten was offered in St. Louis, Missouri. It has since become a mainstay of public education in the United States.

Government oversight of kindergarten programs in the Unites States occurs primarily at the state level. Individual communities, though, have a great deal of latitude in setting rules and standards for their schools, including kindergartens. Kindergarten programs also are sponsored by private and community-based organizations such as religious institutions, community centers, and industrial settings. These privately sponsored programs often operate with fewer regulations than public school-sponsored programs.


Brief History of Kindergarten

Since Froebel’s time, the kindergarten has undergone a number of transformations. The growth of the child study movement in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and the progressive education movement in the beginning of the twentieth century influenced a child-oriented alternative to what had become a lockstep curriculum format. Kindergarten became increasingly viewed as a program concerned with children’s overall development and with assisting children’s acclimation to the more structured instructional environment of formal schooling. Its curriculum was characterized by a tradition of “free play” during which children might select sociodramatic play in a housekeeping center or block building or drawing or puzzles or table top manipulative materials. There also was time for outdoor (or indoor gymnasium) play, which might mean recess with children choosing from among balls, climbing equipment, wagons, or tricycles; or it might also mean group games organized by the teacher for the whole group; or a combination of these activities.

Over time, however, kindergartens have been viewed less and less as a year of transition to formal schooling and more and more as a child’s first year of official schooling. This trend has been exacerbated by the onset of formalized state enforced content and early learning standards (what children should know and be able to do), driving many kindergartens to focus more intently on the provision of structured curricula.


Contemporary Issues

The development of kindergarten programming has been and continues to be influenced by a variety of cultural, social, political, and economic contexts. These particular cultural contexts and values influence how policymakers interpret the outcomes desired from children’s participation in kindergartens, what they will experience, and when they will attend. They also influence parents’ expectations and what and how adults teach during the kindergarten year. A clear connection exists between a community’s philosophical stance on how young children develop and learn, and their expectations for kindergarten education. Communities and the cultures they represent often emphasize in different degrees the values of cooperation or individualism, achievement of technical skills or social skills, an emphasis on contemporary experience or future work life.


High-Stakes Tests

In recent years, with the advent of the accountability movement, there has been an increasing incursion into the kindergarten of academic thrusts. There now are many kindergartens that require children to sit with worksheets and workbooks, to finish teacher-directed required work, with reduced time available for play. Many early childhood educators express concern over the loss of child-directed learning and the growing focus on isolated skills, drills, and rote learning of letters, numbers, colors, and shapes with the use of paper and pencil formats.


Retention and Redshirting

When kindergarten children do not achieve sufficiently high grades or test scores by the conclusion of the kindergarten year, some schools are requiring their retention in kindergarten or in a “transitional” first grade for an additional year.

Despite research evidence suggesting that these practices do not produce mea-sureable differences in children’s success with learning or later grades (Shepard and Graue, 1993; Crosser, 2004), a trend exists to increase the age of kindergarten entry. Thus, children in some communities might enter kindergarten if they turned five years of age before December while in other communities they might need to have turned five years of age by September, or earlier. This practice of postponing entry into a program with the expectancy that children will develop sufficiently over the ensuing months is called redshirting. This policy reflects growing pressure for children to do more, sooner.


Instructional Framework

With changing expectations for what children will achieve during the kindergarten year, the focus and implementation style of the kindergarten curriculum is receiving increased scrutiny. Research studies tend to support approaches that involve a combination of direct instruction in conjunction with more open-ended approaches to teaching and learning.

A cross-cultural study of kindergarten children’s academic achievement and cognitive ability concluded that “the kinds of academic information and skills taught in kindergarten may be conveyed more effectively by indirect than by direct forms of teaching and by informal example than by formal instruction” (Stevenson, Lee and Graham, 1993, p. 529). A comprehensive review of research further suggests that the direct instructional model alone appears to reflect short-term achievement gains but the “child-initiated” programs tended toward longterm academic advantages (Crosser, 2004, p. 138).

A research study on literacy instruction in kindergarten concluded that a combination of integrated language arts instruction as well as direct phonics instruction resulted in improved achievement measures when compared with either single method of instruction (Xue and Meisels, 2004). The preponderance of research on children who had engaged in whole language instruction indicated that they considered themselves to be good readers and had positive attitudes toward reading as compared with children schooled with a main focus on phonics skills.


Full Day Kindergarten

Kindergarten children are in school between two and a half and six hours each weekday. Until recently, it was considered developmentally inappropriate for young children to be in extended-day early learning settings. This point of view has largely shifted. In the United States, public schools increasingly are offering full day kindergartens, moving from half-day to full school day programming. There have been reviews of research concerning the efficacy of the full-day program (Entwhistle and Alexander, 1998; Gullo, 2000; Kauerz, 2005). In general, children from low-income families or second-language homes appear to reap the greatest benefits of a longer kindergarten day.



The educational role of kindergarten is under extensive review. A year of school caught between the educational worlds of early childhood education and elementary schooling, it increasingly is being recognized as a pivotal year of learning and transition. Given changing social, political, and economic contexts— including our nation’s focus on reducing the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income children and ensuring children are well-prepared for a global economy—kindergartens are increasingly being recognized as an opportunity for forging better alignment between the K-12 and early childhood education systems (Collaborating Organizations, AFT and CCW/AFTEF, CSSO, ECS, NAESP, NEA and NAEYC, 2005). See also Preschool/Prekindergarten Programs.

Further Readings: AFT and CCW/AFTEF, CCSSO, ECS, NAESP, NEA, and NAEYC (2005). Why we care about the Kin K-12. Young Children 60(2), 54-56; Crosser, S. (2004). What do we know about early childhood education? Research based practice. Albany, NY: Thomson Delmar Learning; Entwhistle, D. R., and K. L. Alexander (1998). Facilitating the transition to first grade: The nature of transition and the factors affecting it. Elementary School Journal 98(4), 351-364; Fromberg, D. P. (1995). The full day kindergarten. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press; Gullo, C. F., ed. (2006). Kindergarten today: Teaching and learning in the kindergarten year. Washington, DC; Gullo, D. (2000). The long-term educational effects of half-day vs. full-day kindergarten. Early Child Development and Care 150, 17-24; Kauerz, K. (2005). Full-day kindergarten: A study of state policies in the United States. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States; Micholwitz [sic], R. (1992). The preschool educational network in Israel. In C. A. Woodill, J. Bernhard, and L. Prochner, eds., International handbook of early childhood education. New York: Garland, pp. 307-309; Shepard, L. (1992). Retention and redshirting. In L. R.Williams and D. P. Fromberg, eds., Encyclopedia of early childhood education. New York: Garland, pp. 278-279; Shepard, L. A., and M. E. Graue (1993). The morass of school readiness screening: Research on test use and test validity. In B. Spodek, ed., Handbook of research on the education of young children. New York: Macmillan, pp. 283-305; Stevenson, H. W., S. Lee, and T. Graham (1993). Chinese and Japanese kindergartens: Case study in comparative research. In B. Spodek, ed., Handbook of research on the education of young children. New York: Macmillan, pp. 519-535; Xue, Y., and S. J. Meisels (2004). Early literacy instruction and learning in kindergarten: Evidence from the early childhood longitudinal study—kindergarten class of 1998-1999. American Educational Research Journal 41(1), 191-229.

Doris Pronin Fromberg