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posted: 4/10/2013 10:30 AM

Editorial: Putting the focus on play in kindergarten

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

You've probably seen it on TV or in movies: the New York stereotype that has parents competing at any cost to get their 5-year-olds into the most prestigious kindergartens, learning French and Mandarin and taking harpsichord lessons at that tender age or risk a dreary life of mediocrity in second-tier private schools or -- gasp -- public schools.

Surely, people who feel that way have lost sight of what kindergarten is: a class that prepares young kids for first grade by teaching them basic skills and social behaviors primarily through play and simple organized activities.

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There is a reason that first grade is first grade and kindergarten is called something else.

There is some danger that we, too, are losing sight of kindergarten's role in a child's development and school readiness in today's hypercompetitive environment. Which is why a pilot program in 64 school districts across Illinois, including some in the suburbs, is so refreshing.

In a recent Daily Herald story, staff writer Tara Garcia Mathewson profiled the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS), an ongoing assessment -- through observation -- of a student's growth throughout the school year in such areas as language and literacy, social development, engagement, conflict negotiation, problem solving and math.

It was developed in California more than a decade ago, but its latest incarnation, created specifically to gauge whether kids are ready for first grade, is new.

The goal is to monitor 5,000 students this year and expand it to all kindergartners in Illinois by the 2015-16 school year.

"It's going to put kindergarten back where it should be," said Julie Kallenbach, director of early learner initiatives at Elgin Area School District U-46. "It's going to make us pay attention to play."

However, not everyone is as enthusiastic as Kallenbach.

With many suburban school districts still employing half-day kindergarten, there are only 2 hours of "instruction" per day, and it can be difficult to pay close attention to each student in that time, especially when class sizes are so large.

Any new type of assessment can be a challenge to a teacher, especially something as different as this. And clearly there is more ongoing paperwork involved.

We would hope that as school districts try this out, best practices will be developed and reasonable limitations put on class sizes so the more complex assessment can be done effectively.

And down the road, if you're the parent of a student who is so advanced that you and his or her teacher would consider skipping a grade, this type of assessment -- or something similar to it -- could help in determining whether your child is emotionally ready to move to junior high or high school.

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