Letter to Times Picayune
As my daughter just entered Kindergarten in New Orleans, I recently took a tour of several schools in the area. I was appalled! Most of the schools I toured were upscale private schools, the best education New Orleans has to offer, and yet unhealthy environments for young children. The kindergartens were full of plastic clutter, sugary foods, and media. The teachers showed me the “worksheets” the children would be doing for homework during the year. Worksheets? Computers? Homework? For 5 year olds? Freeplay time in each classroom was minimal at best, and even the playgrounds were devoid of developmentally appropriate natural play apparatus—no trees to climb, no logs to balance on, no flowers to smell, no gardens to cultivate, no water to splash in.
According to the Unicef Innocenti Report on child well-being in the richest countries, the U.S. ranks as one of the lowest on education. I found this report shocking as I thought we would rank highest. It turns out Sweden and the Netherlands are actually the highest, and it turns out their education system is vastly different from our own. It is typical there to teach children letters and reading beginning at the age of 7. In the U.S. we expect children to know their letters BEFORE entering kindergarten (that’s 4 years old!) and to be able to read somewhat by the end. And our literacy rates are sadly lacking behind many other countries!
Why is this? Child development experts in America and around the world have come together to form different organizations to address this issue, such as the Alliance for Children in the U.S. The Alliance for Children has found that young children thrive the strongest and learn the most when they have a lot more free playtime, time to explore a natural environment, and a lot less pressure to “perform” in school.
I remember my kindergarten days. We were in class from 9-11 and that included a long recess. It was our first exposure to school, and kindergarten served as that magical transitional place from home to school. Kindergarten was fun. There were no electronics in the classroom, no tv, nothing that would encourage us to be sedentary. According to child development experts, young children learn best through their body movement and senses, neither of which a screen can provide. We baked, played dress-up, pulled each other in the wagon, and painted rocks. It was a magical time that instilled a vibrant curiosity and a lifelong love of learning. According to educational experts, testing kindergartners and giving them homework can be detrimental to their health—mentally, emotionally, physiologically, and of course have a negative impact on their future in school. Kindergartners typically go to school in NOLA from 8-3:30pm! Between school and meals, extra curricular activities and early bedtimes, when do they get the chance to just play? To explore in nature like we did as children? Shouldn’t we be taking cues from the countries with the strongest educational system and highest literacy rates, and let children have this once-in-a-lifetime chance to just relax and be children?
I completed my Master of Education at Harvard in 2002, and there I learned about the model school run by Leo Tolstoy in the 1800’s, Yasnaya Polyana. His emphasis on a nature-based curriculum and holistic style of education led me to the Waldorf educational methodology, and I was lucky enough to find one here—the Waldorf School of New Orleans. It is the closest to what I was hoping to find when I embarked on my search for the perfect kindergarten. The classrooms are breathtakingly beautiful using soothing colors and beautiful all-natural toys like silks, wool, and wood. There is no plastic, clutter, or garish colors. The simple open-ended toys are displayed in an inviting way, not just thrown into a plastic bin. The playground is all grass with a wooden house with a tree stump for a table, a jungle gym, and different garden beds for the different classrooms to tend to. The classrooms always smell like something delicious—they bake a lot and serve warm healthy snacks to the children. Instead of saltines or vanilla wafers for snacks, Waldorf children get warm oatmeal with cinnamon, raisins and honey, rice, or vegetable soup with freshly baked bread—baked by the children! The lunch tables are wooden with tiny hand-carved wooden chairs. There are tablecloths and centerpieces, and a stunning nature table full of flowers and acorns, rocks and fairies, reflecting the season. The Waldorf philosophy begins teaching letters in first grade, so kindergarten is a magical time of fairy tales and gardening, baking and finger knitting, beautiful wooden block building and enchanting silk puppet shows. The individual interests of the children are allowed to bloom and unfold on their own time, creating an environment of confidence and creativity, innovation and innocence.
And I knew I had found the right place for our family–a place where I knew my child was allowed to be a child, to live in her naturally dreamy early childhood state and to not be pushed into stressful academic situations before being developmentally prepared for it.
My hope is that more kindergartens in New Orleans will pay attention to the worldwide best practice research and slow down their curricula to a developmentally appropriate pace. My hope is that every 5 year old will be able to experience the wonder and magic of early childhood, stress-free, for optimal development and the best quality of life.