By Robert L. Hampel
Raising baby chicks, dressing as the letters of the alphabet, stretching out for a nap: thinking about kindergarten evokes many good memories.
It wasn’t all joy. Little traumas spoiled a few days. The bigger boys hogged the soccer balls during recess; 2nd graders teased the girls on the bus ride home; the laces on a new pair of shoes refused to tie.
But the good times far outnumber the bad moments. Pulling the milk cart to the cafeteria, taking home a stuffed animal for the weekend, winning Student of the Week, making close friendships that endured: Nostalgia filled the pages when I asked my 95 undergraduates for their memories of kindergarten.
Not only were their recollections positive, they were also very specific. It wasn’t just coloring; it was coloring rainbows. Not merely a stuffed animal, but a panda named Arthur. Not simply a reward for good work but extra feathers to put in a Thanksgiving headdress. And for the cherished story time, several students remembered the shape of the rug where they sat in a circle.
What a great start for the next 12 years! Who could despise school when it was such fun? But when I asked my students if kindergarten resembled first grade, only 30% said yes. The atmosphere changed. It was less relaxed. For instance, the half-hour naptime vanished. In its place were books, homework, and tests. “There were no blocks in 1st grade!” — because everyone did more and more “actual work,” as one senior put it.
How different were the reminiscences when I asked the same students for their most vivid memory of another transition, the first year in middle school, the term that began to replace junior high school after the 1960s. The anecdotes were not nearly as specific as the kindergarten tales, even though kindergarten is farther back in time.
There were fewer reports of fun, and those were sometimes laced with anxiety: Would I get invited to the 7th grade dance? Just how popular was I?
What they remembered most frequently was the organization of the place. There were unfamiliar structures that shaped the day. Nearly everyone changed classrooms for the first time, with different teachers for different subjects during things called periods that ended when a loud bell rang. Usually the school was larger, the hallways were crowded, and it was possible to get lost. For many, lockers were another surprise, as were clubs and teams. Several recalled structural novelties like block schedules, advisory periods, final exams, and ability grouping.
When asked if middle school resembled high school, 70% of my students said yes. They had to figure out how to cope with complicated places. The taste of freedom in middle school, especially the new freedom to move around during the day, prepared them for the greater freedoms in high school.
What happened to fun?
What my students recalled is exactly what many Americans want. Education is work. It’s fine that naptime disappears. We all have to put away childish things as we grow up. You can still play but it has to be after school. And middle school? Oh yes, it is high time that you learn that the world is full of organizations and most people spend their lives there. Figuring out how to get your bearings in new environments is a valuable lesson. No wonder middle schools used to be called junior high schools — that’s what they are.
That no-nonsense realism is easy to mock. I have to admit that it disciplined my undergraduates. They are conscientious and diligent. They acquired good work habits and know how to juggle five classes, sports, clubs, part-time jobs, friendships, and sleep.
But isn’t it strange that in a country so keen on sports and recreation, we have not built the case that thinking can be profoundly pleasurable. Passion, creativity, teamwork, recovering from setbacks: The virtues we honor in kindergarten and encourage in sports should be front and center throughout our school days. To get more work from our students, we should let them play.