America Needs Full-Day Kindergarten

Half-day kindergarten takes part of the joy out of teaching and learning.

Posted Jan 29, 2016

More than three million children in America are enrolled in kindergarten but roughly one fourth of them are attending half-day programs. Find out why full-day programs are crucial from the kindergarten-teacher perspective. Two of the most gifted former kindergarten teachers in America speak out on full-day versus half-day kindergarten.

Almost twenty years ago these teachers made the case for full-day kindergarten to the City Council of Philadelphia from the teacher’s perspective. At that time their appeal helped bring about positive change. Their message rings true today in every district in America where half-day kindergartens persist. Here’s what they now say to government officials, educators, and parents:

What Kindergarten Teachers Say about Full-Day versus Half-Day Kindergarten

By Isabell Cardonick MEd and Eileen Feldgus PhD

We are truly happy and proud to have spent the better part of our careers as kindergarten teachers. We got to make a difference in the lives of children, at a time when they are so impressionable, and so eager to learn. Many of you probably remember kindergarten as nothing more than a play group with snack and nap time. The kindergarten of today has gone well beyond milk and cookies. In fact, there is growing evidence that kindergarten is harder. Some say kindergarten is now the new first grade. Today, children are expected to leave kindergarten as readers and writers.

Fortunately, more and more kindergarten kids have had preschool experience. They are a little older than when they came to kindergarten in the past. Research conducted over the past 50 years has documented that young children are capable of learning far more than we ever imagined.

Kindergarten teachers teach young children how to think, find the answers, solve problems and work cooperatively. Kindergarten teachers teach them to believe in themselves and their abilities. Kindergarten teachers teach them to read and write creatively and independently. While much attention and funding has been given in recent years to lowering the high school dropout rate, we have seen proof that when local and state governments, school boards, educators, and kindergarten teachers give children a strong foundation, they won’t need to be patched up later on. It is morally and economically imperative that we do this.

In half-day kindergarten teachers rush to develop their kids'  literacy, oral language, and  knowledge of the world but too often they are forced to eliminate the traditional, joyful aspects of kindergarten such as easel painting, dramatizing stories, and outdoor play with other children.

Let us speak to you from the perspective of two children we remember from our classrooms:

Daisy was among the few children in Philadelphia who at the time were still denied a full-day kindergarten program. She was learning to read and write in school, but she wished she had more time to learn. It seemed like her teacher was always in a rush to get things done. Sometimes, her teacher didn’t have time to answer all of Daisy’s questions. Daisy loved her teacher, but wished that her teacher could understand her special needs. The problem was that her teacher had two classes and 59 other children to know—think about it—59 other children.

We remember one day Daisy’s class went to a museum. There were so many things to see! But, these kids could only stay for an hour. They missed the dinosaur exhibit. Daisy really wanted to see that! What a lost opportunity for learning!

We remember that Daisy really loved group time. That was when she would get to work in small groups using math manipulatives. She learned how to add and subtract with raisins and how to make shapes on geoboards. She learned so many things. But learning effectively with hands-on manipulatives takes time for discovery, time for teaching, and time for responding. Daisy only had half as much time as children enrolled in full-day programs. She had just as much to learn, but only half the time to learn it!

We remember that choice time was Daisy’s favorite time of day. She got to go to learning centers to explore science, math and language related activities of her choice. She learned math concepts when she did puzzles and block building, and science concepts when she worked with sand, water and paint. She got to talk to her friends and learn how to be a friend, to share and work out inter-personal problems, and develop concepts and oral language vocabulary. There was a computer in her classroom, but, time was so limited... How unfortunate that many days, choice time was eliminated due to time constraints.

When she went home, she had the whole afternoon to sit around and watch T.V. How could we do this to Daisy? How can we do this to any kindergarten child?

Joey was one of the fortunate children who attended a full-day kindergarten program. His teacher knew him really well. She knew how he learned best and how to help him with his special problems. Joey’s class did a different science experiment every day, and wrote their observations in a science journal. Joey worked cooperatively with classmates on interesting and important projects. He studied the ocean, trees, insects, people around the world and outer space. We remember the week his classroom was “Dinosaur Land.” It’s true that teachers in a half-day program can introduce these themes, but only in a full-day program can children explore them in depth.

In an age where the information we have doubles every 8 months or even faster, children need more—not less time to build their knowledge.

Joey’s teacher had time to read several stories to him every day. This was important since his mother, worn out from a long day at work, hardly ever read to him at home. In his full day program, there was time for Joey to ask questions about stories, compare different versions of stories, and act out stories. He loved to dress up as the story characters.

Every morning, Joey would write in his Writer’s Notebook. Sometimes he made his own little book! At first his teacher had to help sound out the words in the stories he wrote. By spring he could read and write all by himself. He thought of himself as an author and was proud of himself.

We remember when Joey’s mom told us that Joey learned more in kindergarten than she learned in first grade when she was a child. “But,” she said, “he just thinks it’s fun.”

This true story of two children illustrates why kindergarten teachers who want to meet the demands of getting kids off on the right path for college and career readiness need full-day kindergarten. We were privileged to spend our careers with the awesome responsibility of starting them off to academic success. But we were frustrated when as half-day teachers we were expected to meet the same expectations in half as much time. America needs to hear our call for full-day programs to put kids on the path of academic success.

Eileen Feldgus and Isabell Cardonick were the authors of Kid Writing, a very popular staff development book for kindergarten and first grade teachers a decade ago. I recently joined the team as a co-author of a new book entitled Kid Writing, Kid Reading in which we plan to bring exemplary teaching in a joyful academic classroom up to date with 2016 teaching expectations.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.