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Psychology of Men & Masculini ty2001, Vol. 2, No. I, 3-12
Copyright 2001 by the Educational Publishing Foundation1524-9220/0iy$5.00 DOI: 10.1037//1524-922.214.171.124
Reclaiming Kindergarten:Making Kindergarten Less Harmful to Boys
Leonard SaxPoolesville, Maryland
The kindergarten curriculum has undergone fundamental change over the past 50 years. The shiftin curriculum in favor of reading preparedness has had the effect of emphasizing boys' weak-nesses and girls' strengths. Two changes are proposed. First, alternative kindergartens empha-sizing group activities and nonverbal skills must be established. Second, boys must be encouragedto enter such a kindergarten when they turn 5 years old. After 1 year of alternative kindergarten,the boy would enter contemporary kindergarten at age 6. Girls would continue to enter kinder-garten at age 5. Most boys would therefore enter first grade at age 7, most girls at age 6.Substantial evidence suggests that such a change would have many benefits, particularly for boys.
Adults think it wise to focus children's education onwhat adults need to know, without considering whatchildren are in a position to learn. . . . You shouldbegin, rather, by studying your pupils more carefully.(Rousseau, 1938, p. 2)
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) considered ita waste of time for children to read. "Reading is theplague of childhood... . Books are good only forlearning to babble about what one does not know. Iam convinced that in matters of observation, onemust not read, one must see" (Rousseau, 1938, pp.115, 575). Rousseau believed that books should beavoided completely at least until age 12, and usedonly sparingly thereafter. Children must first learn todevelop their own minds, free of adult influence.
Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) was the first to attempt a serious implementa-tion of Rousseau's ideas. Pestalozzi's school, estab-lished in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1804, featured nolectures, almost no books, andan extraordinary in-novationno flogging of laggard students. Thetrademark of Pestalozzi's method was the long walkthrough the countryside. Pestalozzi used these naturewalks to teach botany, geology, and zoology. Heshared Rousseau's conviction that education must berooted in firsthand experiencesuch as the naturewalksand not in reading the reports of others(Gutek, 1968).
Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1782-1852)worked as a teacher in Pestalozzi's school from 1805to 1808. At that time, children less than 7 years of agewere believed to be too young for school. Indeed, in
Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-dressed to Leonard Sax, P.O. Box 108, Poolesville, Mary-land 20837. Electronic mail may be sent to leonardsaxprodigy.net.
many German states it was illegal for childrenyounger than 7 to attend any school. Froebel becameinterested in applying the ideas of Rousseau andPestalozzi to the previously unthinkable realm ofeducation for children ages 3 to 6.
In 1837, Froebel opened his first school specifi-cally for children ages 3 to 6 in the Thuringian townof Blankenburg. In 1839, Froebel coined the wordkindergarten to describe his new school. His neolo-gism was deliberately ambiguous: the German wordcan mean either "children's garden" or "garden ofchildren." "Children's garden" was appropriate forFroebel's kindergarten, because each child was as-signed a small garden plot to cultivate under theteacher's supervision. There was also a larger plotthat all the children worked together. This communalplot was organized with legumes in one corner, cerealgrains in another, oil plants in another, and so forth,enabling the child to learn these categories firsthand(Brosterman, 1997). Rut kindergarten also can mean"garden of children" in the Rousseauvian sense of aGarden of Eden: a pure, nourishing place in whicheach child might flourish.
By the 1860s, Froebel's kindergarten had spreadthroughout Europe and into North America. Evenbefore the kindergarten movement was firmly estab-lished in the United States, however, some Americaninnovators tried to introduce preliteracy skills into thekindergarten. These educators brought on themselvesthe wrath of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, the mostprominent leader of the kindergarten movement inthe United States from the 1860s until her death in1894. Peabody denounced these "false kindergartens[that] cater to adults who want to see young childrenlearn to read and write and study school subjects at anearly age, rather than doing what is good for themplaying" (Beatty, 1995, pp. 60-61). Peabody defined
true kindergarten as "a company of children underseven years old, who do not learn to read, write, andcipher; nor to study objects unconnected with theirown conscious life" (Beatty, 1995, p. 61).
Throughout the 1900s, there was an ongoingstruggle between, on the one hand, educators whoadvocated a modified Froebelian kindergartenemphasizing group activities such as music-makingwith cymbals and tambourines, modeling with clay,and outdoor gamesand advocates of a math- andreading-preparedness curriculum. The launch ofSputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 shifted thestruggle within the American educational communitydecisively in favor of math skills and reading pre-paredness; the debate moved further still in that di-rection with the initiation of the Head Start programin the 1960s and with the publication of the federalreport entitled "A Nation at Risk" in 1983 (Beatty,1995; Ohanian, 1999; Sacks, 1999). In the past threedecades, the kindergarten curriculum in the UnitedStates has swung so far in favor of reading prepared-ness and math skills that today's American kinder-garten is nearly the opposite of what Froebel con-ceived. It emphasizes that Froebel banned (books,arithmetic, and literacy skills), and gives short shriftto the play activities Froebel considered essential.
In a modern American kindergarten, the focus ison paper-and-pencil exercises, reading, and arithme-tic drills, all of which would have been anathema toFroebel and Pestalozzi. The first-grade curriculumhas been gradually but inexorably "pushed down"into kindergarten (Freeman & Hatch, 1989), prompt-ing one journalist to suggest that the term kindergrind be used in place of kindergarten (Dickinson,1999). National politicians compete in terms of whowill propose the earliest possible preliteracy pro-grams. One American presidential candidate recentlyboasted that he will insist on all three-year-oldsknowing the alphabet before they turn age 4 (Broder,2000). Books are prominently featured in today'skindergarten.
In this article I argue, first, that these changes inthe kindergarten curriculum have had the effect ofemphasizing boys' weaknesses and girls' strengths.Five-year-old girls are more likely than 5-year-oldboys to be capable of mastering a curriculum de-signed to accelerate the child's reading and mathskills. Thus, the girlswho are already, on average,outperforming the boys at this age in skills relevant topaper-and-pencil exerciseshave gained a stillgreater advantage from the change in the kindergar-ten curriculum. Boys, on the other hand, now expe-rience a greater sense of scholastic incompetence,
and at an earlier age. As a result, many boys enterfirst grade with a poor academic self-concept alreadyestablished (Chapman, Lambourne, & Silva, 1990).Once he establishes this poor self-concept, the boy'sentire outlook on the school experience changes (Skin-ner, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Connell, 1998). School be-comes a burden to be endured rather than a challengeto be enjoyed. I review evidence that this negativeself-concept leads the boy into an external attribu-tional style (i.e., into the belief that nothing he doesin school has any contingent beneficial result).
Second, I propose the adoption of an alternativekindergarten curriculum, one more suited develop-mentally to a 5-year-old boy. The alternative curricu-lum is a two-year program. The 5-year-old boy, in-stead of beginning contemporary kindergarten,would instead enroll in an alternative kindergarten inwhich fine motor skills, math, and preliteracy aredeliberately neglected in favor of nonliterary groupactivities utilizing gross motor skillssinging, danc-ing, sports, and so forth. This kindergarten would beorganized into small groups, with the emphasis ongroup accomplishments and cooperation rather thanon individual performance. Such a change would bedesigned to increase the likelihood that most boys'introduction to the school setting would be a posi-tively reinforcing and socializing experience, ratherthan a series of alienating failures and humiliations.After completing one year of this group-oriented cur-riculum, the 6-year-old boy would then enter today'skindergartenwith its emphasis on pre-readingskillsalong with the 5-year-old girl. After complet-ing the two-year curriculumone year of alternativekindergarten followed by one year of modern kinder-gartenthe 7-year-old boy would join the 6-year-oldgirl in first grade.
Considerable data already exist to suggest that thisapproach would preempt the harmful effects of today'skindergarten on boys. I review these data, consider ob-jections, and make suggestions for further research.
Sex Differences in Neuroanatomy,Neurophysiology, Sensory Function,
and Reading Skills
My proposal for a delay, from age 5 to age 6, in theage at which the modal boy enters American kinder-garten is grounded in the finding that girls maturefaster than boys. Sex differences in maturation areapparent on every level of analysis, from the neuro-physiological level (e.g., cerebral blood flow), to thelevel of sensory function (e.g., auditory acuity), tohigher cognitive functions (language acquisition,reading skills, etc.). A developmentally appropriate
curriculum should recognize and accom