Graham Crackers and Milk

I could almost smell the old wax crayons in my desk. I could almost taste the crispy
graham crackers and feel the lukewarm milk spill upon my little hands. I could still
hear Mrs. Bender reciting, “Jack and Jill went up the hill…” I will always remember
the feeling of being cared for and loved.

How much I loved being in Mrs. Bender’s Kindergarten class because we got to
drink that lukewarm milk and eat those crispy graham crackers while she would dim
the lights, and read us delightful stories like The Three Little Pigs and The Little
Red Hen. Listening to simple, yet catchy nursery rhymes, playing with big
cardboard blocks, singing those silly songs, cooking in the big play kitchen, dressing
up in pirate clothes or those of a movie star, and painting on that old wooden art
easel were all part of the charm of being in kindergarten.

Oh, how thrilled I was when it was my turn to paint at that old easel!

I am sure I am “dating” myself and these activities sound, and indeed are,
outdated. Nevertheless, they indeed are not, as it was there that I, like countless
others, developed an authentic love of and for learning.

I do not know when things began to change in kindergarten exactly. I am sure the
‘National Commission on Reading’ in the 1980’s had a significant influence, as did
the National Reading Panel from the 1990’s. Next, there was ‘No Child Left Behind’
at the turn of the century, and most recently the ‘Race to the Top,’ which ushered
in Common Core. Criticism of our public schools led to more standards, and when
things did not get better, more standards, and so the saga goes. Gone was Jack and
Jill for that matter, and thus began the emphasis on “early learning standards” and
the “push-down curriculum.”

All of these standards and mandates have yielded little if any positive academic or
social/emotional results – only many children that were left to feel “devalued” and
“worthless.” Consequently, most children have lost their childhood. No time for
story time, rhyming games, graham crackers, finger painting, or free play has led
to detrimental outcomes.

Furthermore, academic skills that were previously taught in the second grade over 30 years ago are now being taught in kindergarten. I venture to ask the question, “Are the children learning more, reading earlier, and/or computing more efficiently with this new approach to learning?” Many say we have more “critical thinkers,” yet I have not seen the research to support that theory. To the contrary, many students who never had those foundational skills and/or opportunities, are the same children who are lagging further and further behind in critical thinking and reading. Yes, play and finger painting are crucial for a child’s healthy development!

Renowned early childhood educator, author, and speaker, Lisa Murphy, describes and demonstrates the significance of a “hands-on, play-based, relationship driven, interest focused preschool, as opposed to a data driven, flashcard/worksheet given, and screen focused preschool.” Murphy further laments that countless, compassionate and effective early childhood educators (like my Mrs. Bender), “might not have been doing anything special, but they were doing what was right.”

Therefore, what is clear is that “high-quality preschools” make a positive difference well into a child’s later years. Meloy (2019) from the Learning Policy Institute states the importance of early childhood learning, yet emphasizes how “it doesn’t just happen. You have to design for it, support it, and continually work for it.” With the advent of National Preschool on the horizon, it is my fear that we will see many public preschools resurrecting across the country, but not the high-quality ones that are necessary for our youngest learners.

While universal preschool is not a bad idea, in and of itself, it is imperative that all parents and teachers have the courage to speak up, so our schools can get it right.

Graham crackers and milk, anyone?