Preschool and Kindergarten Graduations: Too Much Too Fast?

Frederick Froebel‘s invention of kindergarten, in early 1800s Germany, heralded the idea of early childhood education — of reaching children during a period of dramatic brain development and introducing a holistic style of learning through play, music, movement, paperfolding and games. Froebel recognized that children learn differently from one another (the precursor to Multiple Intelligence theory), and that one child may learn best by sorting objects, another by talking with peers, and another through sensory experiences like physical movement and touch. He influenced many schools of early childhood education that are popular and well regarded today.

Kindergarten, as recently as many of our own childhoods, was a laboratory of discovery and social skills, as well as the preparation for grade school.

Fast-forward a century and a half since Froebel’s time to find online parent message boards crammed with questions from anxious parents: “Is my child ready for kindergarten?” There are scores of kindergarten readiness tests and commercial kits, which denote and teach precise skills one should know before starting kindergarten, such as the ability to count from 1-10, identify colors, cut with scissors, create rhyming sounds, and skip. (The last includes the especially ridiculous coda that  preschool children around the country are being taught to skip, in order to prepare them for kindergarten. Sadly, many children do not have enough outdoor play and free time to develop this skill on their own and are now taught it, not as a joyous life skill, but as part of the readiness curriculum.)

Of course, if a child is not ready for today’s kindergarten, by all means, have the child wait a year. My issue is with the sped-up nature of education. The rush toward school and academic curriculum robs many children of the age-appropriate experience of learning through play, discovery and activity. Given the fact that early childhood has accelerated to the degree that my kindergarten has become my daughter’s pre-K, is it any wonder that the ritual of graduation has also trickled down, from high school and college to pre-school?

I don’t believe I had a pre-school or kindergarten graduation. I remember a ritual of autograph books when moving from elementary school to middle. I’m pretty sure there was no middle school graduation either. High school graduation was exceedingly special. I wore a mortarboard cap and gown and screamed with excitement in the school quad, and actually got to attend a Grad Night at Disneyland that ended at dawn.

Perhaps, then, a blend of personal history and a feeling that childhood has dramatically accelerated leads me to think that elaborate preschool graduations that imitate high school and college graduations are silly (not to mention possibly expensive). Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s wonderful, and even helpful, to have an age-appropriate ritual for young children to help them note the fact of their moving on and perhaps address some conscious or subconscious grief and fear. The trappings of diplomas and caps and gowns do none of those things, however, and are another example of a culture that views children as miniature adults (when convenient). Fortunately, there are some simple rituals that might have more meaning for a child and help them ease and celebrate their transition.

This is a ritual that Anna did at her preschool to mark summer and winter solstices. It can be altered to mark a graduation. Have children stand in a circle and hold hands. An adult leader can then lead children to walk around the circle, or can break free and lead them in a spiral to form smaller circles. The children chant:

We circle around,
We circle around,
We circle around the universe,
Wearing our long tail feathers
As we fly.

I find this a gentle ritual that is symbolic of the movement of time and of change. Because small children make the circle with their bodies, I believe that act has more meaning for them than receiving a piece of paper (that many can’t even read).

Another ritual can be taken from Girl Scouts: The bridging ceremony is typically done when scouts “bridge” from one age-group level to another. They symbolize their passage by walking over a bridge (footbridges work well), under an archway, through a path or over stepping stones. Symbolic bridges can also be created with rows of ribbons, chalk or flowerpots on a lawn or in a driveway. Archways can be created with people’s arms. Sometimes older children greet the ones who bridge over. Bridging is a simple, lovely and meaningful ceremony.

What do you think of formal graduations from preschool? Do you have a favorite alternative?

Photos: Let the Children Play, Quiqle. Cartoon: Fault Lines, by Lippy, Creative Child, Academic Advancement.


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14 responses to “Preschool and Kindergarten Graduations: Too Much Too Fast?

  1. Hi Suz,
    Two comments:
    1) When we moved to the UK Nathaniel was just 4, and in the UK that’s when they start Kindergarten. And when they start learning to read. He would come home and practice his reading, and he could do it, but not very well, and he would hit his forehead and say “Daddy, I can’t do it!”. Turned out (no surprise looking back at it) that it was way too early for him. But the UK had decided that because testing scores for older kids were down, that the way to correct that was to start younger kids reading earlier (no doubt decided by some bureaucrat without kids). Then we read about Sweden where they don’t teach the kids to read until they’re seven, when their brains are developed enough…and because they wait, and they’re really ready, they pick it up very quickly so that within six months they’re reading as well as kids who have been reading for years.

    2) Regarding graduations. Sebastian went to the Morningsong pre-school here in Mill Valley (shameless plug MorningSong School) and his graduation ceremony was a Maypole dance in the redwood grove. Much more moving than any standard graduation I’ve been to. Take a look at the video of the graduation here: The Age of Innocence.

  2. My four year old son just had his Second Annual Preschool Graduation. He had one last year at his private daycare with a cap and gown which was totally ridiculous. This year, his public preschool graduation didn’t require that…but they “sang” FIVE songs(a.k.a stood there while teacher sang). FIVE SONGS for kids aging from 3-4. Next year, he’ll have another and he’ll probably have one for kindergarten. When he doesn’t have one at the end of first grade will he think, “Gee. I finished first grade. And no one cares?”

  3. funny, i was just at my daughter’s school talking about this issue with another mom. we both have elementary aged kids with learning disabilities and sensory issues and we were lamenting the trends toward “academic” preschools. less than a decade ago our kids’ preschools rightly pushed outdoor play, centers, make believe and some general stuff about seasons, colors, counting, etc. your first commenter is so right: kids should not learn to read before they’ve developed their gross motor skills (which the develop by running around on the playground and bumping into things, etc.). it can actually be bad for them to move to higher level learning before they’re ready. parents are in such a rush for this stuff, i don’t know why. the graduations seem to me to be exercises that serve parents and not the kids. as you said, simple meaningful ceremonies are appropriate.

  4. I did a search for this topic because I wanted to see what others thought about pre/school and Kindergarten graduations. I have taught both levels and I agree with the above statements. I have witnessed parents becoming angry when they were not allowed to stand in front of others to snap pictures of their child even though there was a professional photographer present to take the child’s individual picture at a low cost. It saddens me because these children can barely read or count, but they are graduating. I also have to point the finger at some of the preschools and public schools who perpetuate this rite of passage. It’s been going on so long in my state, I’m sure the parents would boycott if the schools tried to change it. I feel that we are pushing our children too fast and we are looking past their developmental stages. In one Kindergarten class that I worked in as an inlcusion teacher, all the center’s had to be literacy based. The school didn’t want play centers, drama/puppet centers, or a home center. How sad for the children. They were forced to sit for long periods. I just don’t know what’s going to happen with public school. Some of our practices are not “best” practices.

  5. We’re going to have a graduation at my daughter’s preschool, but my prediction is that it’ll be more like the “bridging ceremony” that we do for their birthdays, combined with the halloween parade, than any big-time event. I think the main function of this ritual is to allow the kids and parents (since it’s a co-op, we get pretty darn attatched) a moment to acknowledge that we won’t be seeing each other in the same way. Already, Penny is mourning some kids who have left the school, or that she knows are leaving soon. So I think it’s sweet and right to have something mellow and low-key.

    I did have a graduation ceremony before Junior High, from 6th Grade, and I remember my mom saying how dumb it was to have us parading around in this very artificial way. We had a graduation from Jr. High where we wore white robes and mortarboards and that was pretty special, mostly because I got my first French kiss from a yearlong crush AND was required to wear a white dress, which I was ecstatic about because my granola-ey mom preferred brown corduroy for children. It was fun to have this rehearsal for future rituals, because high school was such a mythical place.

    What I find poignant about some of these graduation ceremonies is how seriously people take them. I don’t mean the chowderheads making too big a deal about their little darlings mumbling an awful Shel Silverstein poem into a mike for two hours straight. (Hi. I just sat through one of these. I nearly died.) I mean the families where you can guess the parents, or maybe the grandparents, didn’t graduate, or for whom fifth-grade graduation is further than they thought they might have gone. It wasn’t my family’s style. No Mylar balloons for us, it was just expected not only that we’d graduate but that we’d excel. But for some it’s a very big deal to have gotten so far.

    But mostly I still think it’s a lot of hooey. Caps and gowns shouldn’t be busted out till high school. Otherwise they don’t mean anything!

  6. Wow. Thank you all for your extremely thoughtful comments. (Frank, your blog is priceless.) You all speak volumes about our culture which rushes kids, often unnecessarily, toward academics and other practices that don’t serve them, but serve some adults’ ideas of childhood..

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  8. I disagree entirely with your opinion of a graduation being silly and not needed, along with the cap and gown, and for who ever it was above that asked about what he will think when he gets to 1st grade my views are as follows. Every accomplishment that your child makes should be celebrated wether it be grade wide or held by the parents it should be celebrated. My son is 3.5 years old and is in pre-k 3 which is another lecture for another day on how important early childhood education is vs day care (why would you not want what’s best for your child?) they will not be having a ceremony as the class is mixed with children ages 3-5 but my son will not be joining them the following year because we are moving so I ordered a cap and gown to make my own pictures and printed a diploma an will hang it on his wall with all the other keep sakes and trophies that he will collect with his accomplishments over the year and we will have a party to celebrate graduating from pre-k3 class and welcoming summer. And we will repeat that next year for pre-k4 and kindergarten. Then it will be a celebration of making it another year and passing and welcoming summer till grade 5 and then grade 8 then grade 12. I had graduations and parties every year just the same. Didn’t mean I was being rushed it just meant I was important enough to celebrate. An by 1st grade your child should be able to be explained to why there is no graduation.

  9. Hi Kendra, Thank you so much for writing. I’m glad you expressed your viewpoint. I think it’s wonderful that your son has loving parents who care about and celebrate his achievements. I’m all for celebrations. I just question whether some of the ways we celebrate in our culture are meaningful and age-appropriate. Thanks again for stopping by. I hope to see you again.

  10. Wow! Some people are delusional. I am a mother of twins. No, they did not attend preschool and will be going to Kindergarten in the fall. I was a preschool teacher and hated the ceremonies at the school year end. The kids hated singing in front of a crowd of faces. We even had some criers and I know that there was only one or two kids who carried the rest in singing. This is just plain and simple too much. Kids don’t need all that. My kids have cousins who are graduating. They ask about this “graduation”. I tell them that their cousins did nothing more than they have accomplished her at home with me. We have played, created, and yes even prepared for kindergarten. I would have liked to avoid the making sure all letters and numbers though 15 were known in lieu of actual play. But I tried to make learning a game and hope they remember the balloon pooping alphabet game, or the water bottle squirt game. We even have always used sensory tub things, rice, noodles, sand. We have other children over to play with and they love it. I invite all of my friends with children and they just play, explore, create and get messy together for hours. When the end of the year comes to a close next June 2014, my kids will most probably have a ceremony of sorts. I will allow their participation. I will explain that we are happy for them that they went to school, learned some things, made friends, etc. I will not however make a big deal of it calling it graduation. Graduation is reserved for high school. High school graduation meant freedom, going into the world, being on your own, making something of the next few years as you found your way. These statements can not be made of preschool or kindergarten transitions. It’s psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional…-Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible

  11. Sorry my typing gets terrible when I feel so strongly about something. * here at home. * Balloon popping alphabet game.

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