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Eight ways kindergarten holds the key to 21st-century instruction

Here are eight important pillars of a 21st-century education that can be found in most kindergarten classrooms every day.

I was recently giving a workshop at a local elementary school. While walking around and speaking to teachers and children, it suddenly dawned on me that several of the “revolutionary” educational changes we’ve been calling for have actually been around for quite a while—just talk a stroll down to the kindergarten classes.

If only the rest of school looked a little more like those classrooms. In fact, eight important pillars of a 21st-century education can be found in most kindergarten classrooms every day of the week:

1. Play

The first rule of kindergarten is to have fun. Our youngest students love coming to school, and if any child doesn’t seem happy, then we make it a high priority to find and remedy the problem. Play is a highly effective method of informal learning that requires imagination and creativity. Happy, playful children are not daydreaming and clock watching—they are engaged and absorbed in their activities.

As children get older, however, play starts taking a back seat to “academics” … which are usually priorities determined by people in offices far away from the students’ actual classroom environment.

2. Create

Creativity is becoming lost in the shuffle of the current “back to basics” school movement. While certainly required in any artistic endeavor, creativity is also a highly essential coping skill for our rapidly changing lives in the 21st century—not to mention a highly coveted skill among 21st-century employers.

Our toddlers are constantly being encouraged to think and play creatively. We even structure the classroom physically in an attempt to stimulate creativity—using bright colors, informal seating, and allowing children ample room to move. Contrast that to the staid colors and fixed rows of desks found in most upper school classes, where “follow the norm” has replaced “think outside the box.”

A couple of years ago, I attended a lecture by American artist Erik Wahl. As part of his presentation, he splashed paint around a canvas while creating a portrait on stage. Afterwards he turned to the audience and asked, “How many of you consider yourselves artists?” Out of an audience of several hundred people, only a few hands were raised. He then related how he often goes into preschool classes and asks the very same question. The difference is that almost every hand in the room immediately shoots up.

The sad fact is that school squashes our inner sense of creativity as we get older. Instead of inspiring our students to be imaginative and create, we tell them to follow the rules: “Do what I tell you to do … and make sure do it exactly the way I asked you to do it.”

3. Socialize

We understand that young children are social by nature and encourage them to mingle. We don’t seat them alone in fixed desks facing the front of the room. Instead, we allow them appropriate time to roam and socialize. Importantly, we recognize the value of getting them to work together in small groups.

When students get older and try to work together, we often label the activity “cheating.” They’re usually told to sit alone, face the front, and work quietly on their own. Socializing is considered an extra-curricular activity that has no place in serious academics … well, not until you get out into the workplace!

4. Discover

Children are curious and love to explore the world around them. They naturally observe, ask questions, and demand answers. Kindergarten class might be spent exploring a bug brought in from the playground or listening to a story from a parent with an interesting profession. Their world is a playground that they constantly explore.

As they get older, we tell them that their world is divided into nicely delineated courses with predetermined content. Important questions and issues that would normally require discussion and explanation are shelved, because they don’t fit into some arbitrary course curriculum. How many times do you hear “we don’t have time for that today”? If coursework is completed, then there might possibly be some time left to explore a topic of interest. In the meantime, exploration is put on hold.

5. Experience

Effective learning occurs when children build new understandings based on experiences that help them construct new knowledge. Kindergarten teachers help provide a myriad of experiences for their students. We don’t read about hamsters—we keep a pet in class and observe how it eats. We might even allow each child to take the pet home for an evening. We encourage children to bring things into class so that others can feel, taste, experience, and learn from them. These experiences provide a scaffolding for the children to build upon and extend what they already know. We understand that children learn most deeply and effectively through experience.

However, content is king when they get to the older grades. It seems that the only valid experience for learning is reading from a textbook or listening to a teacher.

6. Express

Mixing different forms of media and communication is an essential component of kindergarten class. Children look at photos, listen to music, watch video, tell stories, and of course, read books. We understand that people communicate in a variety of manners, and we bring them into play in our classrooms.

In upper grades, our entire world is expressed through text. For whatever reason, it seems that the only valid form of expressing knowledge is through text. Outside of class, students constantly interact and create video, music, and more. In class, we have students read from textbooks and almost exclusively require them to respond in writing.

7. Move

Children need to move. We all need to move. It’s healthy for both body and mind. We understand that in kindergarten. The furniture is arranged to facilitate movement, and we often have children move around to different parts of the room depending on the activity. Outdoors, it’s essential to provide time and equipment for play.

The mantra of upper school is to sit still and face the front. Classes are designed for quiet, motionless, obedient activities. That can be excruciatingly difficult for many students.

8. Relate

Finally, in kindergarten we strive to make learning as meaningful as possible. Learning has meaning as defined by its relevance to the lives of students. If children can’t relate to it, then it won’t hold their interest.

On the other hand, the number of bleary-eyed, daydreaming students in upper grades is testament to the fact that they don’t relate to much of what passes for learning in class. It’s usually a predefined package of content defined by an “authority” sitting far from the lives of our students—physically and emotionally. Just as importantly, this predefined content package is becoming increasingly inadequate in preparing our students for their lives after school.

If you have a few moments, I’d strongly encourage you to take a stroll down to the lower grades in your school. In fact, the lower the better. Spend a few minutes observing the dynamics in class. Note the energy, laughter, and enthusiasm … the genuine thirst for learning. Then ask yourself: Why can’t it be that way throughout school?

Sam Gliksman is the author of iPad in Education For Dummies®. He has been leading technology applications in business and education for over 25 years. As an independent educational technology consultant, he advises educators on how to integrate technology into learning initiatives. Sam leads the iPads in Education community, Sam can be reached by email at and via Twitter at @samgliksman.

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