The magic of kindergarten

Susan
Susan Flanagan
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Still dreaming of the day when we have full-day K

“What’s so magical about kindergarten?” Education Minister Clyde Jackman asked me as he leaned back in his leather armchair.  It’s a good question, and I’ve thought a lot about it in the past few days. Kindergarten is where formal learning begins. It’s a turning point in young lives. Most people have vivid memories of kindergarten.

For many, it’s the first time they’ll learn things from someone outside their own family.

“Our focus is on one to three years right now,” said Jackman, a father of five, when I met him to discuss when this province might get around to introducing full-day kindergarten.

While research referenced on the government’s own website (Hough and Bryde 1996) shows that students in full-day kindergarten outperform students in half-day kindergarten in language arts, mathematics and norm-referenced achievement tests; and that parents and teachers have higher overall satisfaction with it, this province is not quite ready to jump on the full-day K bandwagon.

“I can say it’s not something we’ve absolutely ruled out,” Jackman said in an interview with CBC Radio.

He then explained why he decided to put all of last year’s early childhood education dollars into developing programming for children from birth to three years.

“More learning occurs from 0-3 years than at any other point in life. … If I had a choice between investing in full-day kindergarten or 0-3, (0-3) is where my money would go.”

Where the money is spent

Now, let’s look at exactly where the $4.8 million from Tom Marshall will go.

The breakdown provided is pretty vague. All I know for certain is that $100,000 has been been awarded to WaterWerks Communications Inc. of St. John’s “to produce a multi-media public education campaign to highlight the important connection between purposeful, play-based activities and early childhood learning.”

Translation: WaterWerks will develop a website, brochures, TV, radio and print campaigns to educate the public on the provincial government’s Early Childhood Learning Strategy, which will encourage parents, among other things, to read to and play with their children.

I also know a large chunk of the cash will go to developing and distributing resource kits to parents of preschoolers when they visit the public health nurse for shots.

The minister’s trusty director of communications showed me several of these kits while the three of us sat around a table in the minister’s office.

One contained a wash cloth/toy to encourage play at bath time; another contained a crib toy, and all contained books.

These are all good things. It was the amount of paper I take issue with. I suspect a good portion of the sheets of paper and glossy brochures will find their way to the recycling bin unread.

Classroom vs. campaign

I don’t agree that brochures and an educational campaign are the way to change behaviours in less-than-ideal family settings. Nothing against the efforts of those involved, but I just can’t imagine a pamphlet program rivalling the impact of personal contact with a trained teacher in a classroom setting.

The minister heard me out in a gentlemanly manner and the two of us agreed to disagree on certain issues.

He said if just one of these pieces of paper makes a positive impression on a parent that leads to encouraging learning in their child, then the dozen pieces of paper are worth it.

However, I believe that those parents who most need to be educated about the importance of play-based learning and the positive effects of reading books on literacy will not be the ones to read these brochures. I believe these parents would benefit greater by being able to send their children to a full-day kindergarten.

Picture a young mother just home from work, trying to make supper and deal with her children. In between loads of laundry and feeding a baby and making lunches and helping with homework, do you think she’s going to sit down and read a brochure on the importance of nursery rhymes? Do you think that mother would rather have a bag of brochures from the public health nurse or have the provincial government revamp its education system so her next child can enjoy a full-day of effective, play-based learning?

Surprise Baby is due to enter kindergarten in September. So far I have been presented with 20 pieces of paper and brochures by a public health nurse at his preschool check and 16 sheets of paper and brochures at the KinderStart meeting at his school. I’m an obsessive reader who loves snail mail and is extremely curious about early childhood education, but guess where most of that material ended up?

Low rate of return

Now if Charlene Johnson’s Department of Child, Youth and Family Services wants to pump tons of money into daycare for preschoolers, I’m all for it. But if I’m reading this correctly, parents have to spend thousands to get a few hundred bucks back on their tax return:

“Budget 2011 commits $3 million annually for a non-refundable Child Care Credit for deductible child care expenses that have been incurred. This credit allows for a maximum amount of $7,000 per year to be claimed for children up to seven years of age, for a maximum credit of $539, and $4,000 per year for children aged seven to 16, for a maximum credit of $308.”

Spend seven grand, get $500 back; that’s only slightly better than the refund rate on beer bottles.

But even if Johnson were able to perform miracles and provide day care for $7 a day like in Quebec, I still think the provincial Department of Education needs to up the ante.

When I asked Jackman how the provincial Conservatives expect to encourage women to remain in the workforce and contribute to the economy when most mothers in two-income homes have to deal with the stress of carting a child off to kindergarten for a few hours a day, he argued there’d be interruptions for working mothers/parents no matter if kindergarten were a half-day or full-day.

I’m guessing Jackman didn’t have to do the kindergarten shuffle like we did when his children were young.

Pressed for time

In the fall, with the half-day kindergarten program, when I’m working outside my home I will have to drop my child for class at 8:30 a.m., pick him up again at 11:30 a.m. and bring him to a daycare.

That’s not nearly as bad as the months he’ll be in school in the afternoons. Then I will have to bring him to daycare in the morning, go to work for a few hours, pick him up after lunch, bring him to school for two hours — honestly, two hours — and then go pick him up again, bring him back to a daycare and then pick him up again to go home for supper.

Yes, there are day-care centres that will shuttle children around for you, but is that affordable for most young families? It is certainly not efficient.

And let’s not kid ourselves. A lot of parents with a child entering kindergarten have other children they have to care for, too. So even if the kindergarten child is in mornings, the parent still has to go back at 2:30 p.m. to pick up the child’s siblings. Or wake a baby from a nap to drag him out into the bitter cold.

I know certain readers will take offence to my references to mothers being the ones to care for the children, but in my circles it’s generally the mothers who take care of childcare arrangements.

My two-working-parents scenario failed to sway the minister. But that’s OK. I don’t condemn Jackman for deciding to put 2011’s early childhood education money where he did. In fact, I commend him for offering up a full hour of his time to hear what I had to say and respond to my questions.

He and I are passionate about different things. I, about full-day kindergarten; he, about getting tools into the hands of parents so they can educate babies and toddlers at home.

Plenty of prep required

I know we’ve got a lot to do before full-day K can be introduced in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s a huge amount of work that will take a great deal of planning and effort, and might even take longer than the time between two elections.

I know it’s unrealistic to suggest an hour’s meeting could convince the minister to divert $4.8 million away from a program that will be up and running with lots of material to wave in the air before the next call to the polls. Plus, what would $4.8 million buy? A few school renovations, at best.

Right now, there are approximately 180 schools in the province that offer kindergarten. Of those, 80-85 would require major renovations to make space for full-day K. Gander, for example, is blocked. Paradise would need an entirely new school. Well, we all know Paradise needs more than a school to cope with the population overload, but that’s a discussion for another column.

Even if funding were to come through for full-day kindergarten, according to the Department of Education no curriculum exists, so no pilot project could be carried out, let alone full implementation. It’s not a matter of simply borrowing a curriculum from another province.

But that’s my point. If Dr. No wants to stick around for a second term, we need to convince her that full-day kindergarten is an issue that is not going to go away.

We need to convince Mr. Money to allocate funding to assess the schools, make the infrastructure work, develop the curriculum, work out the collective bargaining issues and recruit and train the teachers.

That, combined with Charlene Johnson’s department increasing the number of daycare spots and the salary of daycare workers are the only things that will elevate the status of Newfoundland and Labrador on the nationwide comparison of early childhood education called The Early Years, where this province finished dead last.

“I would hope that the next assessment done in this province, even if there’s no full-day kindergarten, would show that … this government has made good decisions in supporting our children and you’d see a different result,” Jackman said before we wrapped up our meeting.

I’m not so sure that Newfoundland and Labrador will greatly improve its rating compared to the other provinces without even an attempt to introduce full-day K.

If I were education minister, I would fight tooth and nail to get funding for development of the full-day K pilot project and curriculum.

But like I said, that’s my dream, not his.

Susan Flanagan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca

Organizations: WaterWerks Communications, Department of Education, Department of Child Youth and Family Services

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec

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Recent comments

  • momtotwo
    January 26, 2012 - 07:56

    First of all, excellent point about the brochures- wherever I go I am greeted with a mountain of paper- not too many tree lovers around I guess! Secondly either we should have access to full day daycares - at reasonable price and availability, or we need full day kindergarten. It is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect all moms to stay home and care for their kids- you are witholding valuable resources from.the employment market! As a developed country this is the least service we can.provide to our families, especially where both.adults are trying to support.the family themselves rather than.living off welfare! Thanks for the well written article!

  • Tracey
    January 25, 2012 - 06:08

    For all of those inconvenienced by their children's schedule.... get over it..... You should have thought of that before you had children.

  • Bonnie
    January 25, 2012 - 05:31

    A well written article...with lots to think about. I currently live overseas and have 2 small kids. My youngest goes to a government subsidized daycare for the whole day and we pay only about a third what Newfoundlanders pay to private daycares. My eldest went to kindergarten from 8-2:30. We are moving home next year and it saddens me to think of the differences both kids will experience. There is a huge difference in the amount of learning for the year. The 2 hour a day kindergarten in NL isn't providing the learning that most programs offer (in Canada and in other countries). By the time the kids get settled in, have snack, recess...what time if essentially left to learn? I feel the NL government should think of the children. To become lifelong learners they need a solid foundation. 2 hours a day doesn't cut it. It isn't about convenience for parents as much as it is for the best interest of the children. Of course parents would benefit as well....being a taxi while you have to work isn't ideal.

  • Working Mom
    January 24, 2012 - 20:47

    How is it that NL the "have province" is the only province in Canada that has not been able to dedicate the school and teaching resources to full time kindergarten. We are forcing our children to start their education at a disadvantage compared to their Canadian peers. ... Perhaps we need the rationale for this inequity presented in a glossy brochure!

  • Kristen
    January 24, 2012 - 17:49

    I agree with Susuan 100%. Parents are busy. They don't have time to read handouts and pamphlets on how to properly educate their children age 0-3. Full day kindergarten will make a difference in far more children's lives than the one out of a dozen or more pamphlets that are distributed. Most will end up in the trash or shoved in a bookshelf or drawer. The governments focus is trying to passively transfer the knowledge. Providing full day kindergarten would be an active and effective approach. Start the pilot programs. If other places in the Canada can have full day kindergarten a curriculum exists - borrow from it. No need to reinvent the wheel.

  • Lolly
    January 24, 2012 - 17:47

    The kindergarten program as it stands now is not a realistic introduction to school.

  • Marty
    January 24, 2012 - 16:37

    I don't agree with full day Kindergarten. This is being forced by parents who don't want to deal with there kids. For a lot of kids who spend all day in daycares and no time with there parents, it would be alright. But there is a lot of stay at home moms who take of the kids and to go from a home to a full day of school is quite the transition. Let's not be thinking about ourselves parents, and think about the kids. Full day is too much for Kindergarten.

    • open eyes, open mind
      January 26, 2012 - 07:12

      If you don't agree with full day kindergarten, leave your kid at home. Heck, do home school and never let the kid out to socialize and be prepared for the real world - which operates exclusively on full days. Most homes are dual income, which means the kids aren't home during the day...period. Why force already busy parents to deal with this mess. It's ludicrous. It's not about spending time with the kids...stay at home mom's - power to yas, but so many of don't have that luxury. NFLD needs to get with the program.

  • Eli
    January 24, 2012 - 16:01

    I'd bet Kindergarden was the best 4 years of Clyde's life.

  • robert tucker
    January 24, 2012 - 15:57

    Here ar Nova Scotia, my granddaughter goes to kindergarten at 8:30 am and gets out at 2.05PM. In Nl the sisyuation should be the same, but there is a big cost factor! The Govt. would have to invest in hiring more teachers and classrooms! I do not envy the govt. position. Parents have a big roll to play, scramble quickly or lose the game!

  • Jesse
    January 24, 2012 - 13:50

    Susan, everything you wrote is so true. And by Charlene Johnson's department opening up more daycare spots and paying daycare workers more, that does nothing for me or the average parent. It costs close to $900 a month per child to attend a licensed daycare over the age of 2. Under 2 it costs closer to $1200. Yes there is a subsidy program in place, but it does not address the needs of working class families. My partner and I both work min.wage jobs. and After the government subsidy It's still $580 per month per child to attend a daycare. Anyone with more than one child it would not even be reasonable to work, considering your entire wage would go to daycare. You are hard pressed to find a 3 bedroom apartment for under $1000. So having one parent just being the wage earner also doesn't work in that situation. It's much easier to go on Income Support, live in housing, and then also be provided with FREE, yes I said free daycare. If you are on income support and require daycare for your childs developement you don't pay one penny. These are the kinds of decisions that are facing young families. Making daycare 7/day like in Quebec So parents can attend school or work could cost the province less than providing welfare. These are the things that need to be looked into.

  • Working Mom
    January 24, 2012 - 12:14

    Very well written - I agree 100%. Two parents working full-time with one child in elementary school & one child starting Kindergarten in Sept. By the time we get home from work, supper eaten, and homework done, we spend maybe 15 to 20 min of quality time reading/playing to our younger child before bedtime. If one of us has to work overtime or travel for work, that quality time is even shorter. I don't need to read anymore brochures on what I should or shouldn't be doing! Full-day kindergarten in Sept. would be much more beneficial for our younger child. The tax credits mentioned in your article have not increased in years despite the fact that daycare rates have increased (due to increases in minimum wage rates - which were needed to retain quality personnel at daycares). I don't know how single parents, working parents with several children or families where a parent works a rotation schedule manage to find the time! Full-day kindergarten would help in all types of family situations!

  • K Dad
    January 24, 2012 - 07:58

    Very well written!! I'm in the same boat. I have a child in elementary school who we had to provide the half day shuffle for a couple years ago, and at the time started praying that full day Kindergarten would be introduce before our second child starts this coming fall. Alas, it looks like another year of doing the half day shuffle. Hope they bring in full day Kindergarten soon for other parents after us to benefit from.

  • Justa Mom
    January 24, 2012 - 07:08

    Hi Susan, Well said. I have an older child in elementary school and a child starting Kindergarten in Sept. I have been praying for full-day Kindergarten since the beginning. I feel that there is already a great deal of support from Community Health and Community Services parent support programs, in addition to private industry programs, that encourage pre-school learning. I have never needed help in keeping my preschooler motivated to learn - that's what preschoolers are built for. The constant transitions from daycare-Kindergarten-daycare-home make for a very tired and cranky child, and frustrated parents. The afternoon program is worse than useless, due to its brevity. I would vastly prefer a full-day Kindergarten setting where my child is engaged and active than the hamster-wheel of part-time Kindergarten as it currently exists.