The future of full-day kindergarten in Ontario is far from guaranteed. Educators and parents were stunned after Education Minister Lisa Thompson said full-day kindergarten would run next year but was under review for the future.
Thompson’s ministry later issued a statement saying the government is committed to “full day learning for four- and five-year-olds,”
but refused to provide assurances that it would continue in its current form — a no-fee, in-school program taught by a teacher and and early childhood educator.
Charges that full-day kindergarten is a surplus frill must originate from those who never went or flunked out. Full-day kindergarten wasn’t an impulse move. It was a well-planned, evidence-based strategic investment.
It rolled out in 2010 for solid reasons: Ontario’s schools were scarred from a decade plus of bitter disruptions. Test scores were falling along with graduation rates. Boys were floundering in literacy and girls were shirking math and science.
Early childhood research anchored in brain development showed that up to a third of students started Grade 1 so far behind they never caught up. By the time they entered school it was both very difficult and very expensive to make up for the foundational skills they missed during their early years.
As an early childhood researcher, I was part of a team which spent a year travelling the province and beyond when Ontario was developing the program. We gathered the feedback of educators, parents, medical, justice and business leaders.
During a visit to a northern school, the principal captured why half-day kindergarten just wasn’t enough. Producing a box filled with single mittens, she said the “lost mitten” was a symbol for the schedules of small children, rushed from place to place to place with never enough time to get stuck into a task, to make a friend or to get to know their teacher.
The challenge for small hands to keep track of both mittens caught the mismatch between educational goals and children’s lives.
Strategic investment yields results
Nine years in from its start date, full-day kindergarten is doing its job.
Janette Pelletier at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has tracked successive cohorts of youngsters, including those who did and did not attend the full-day program. Her research shows that children in full-day kindergarten score higher on reading, writing and number knowledge than those who went half day.
They also scored higher on self-regulation, which is the capacity to respond to life’s stresses and is a strong predictor of academic achievement. Additionally, full-day kindergarten children were significantly more likely to meet provincial academic expectations in Grade 3.
Sending thousands of early childhood educators into the schools as partners in the full-day kindergarten teaching team contributed to the positive outcomes. Early childhood educators bring a unique knowledge of child development and teaching strategies focused on discovery, an enthusiasm for learning and getting along with others.
Teachers and early childhood educators collaborated on the development of the full day kindergarten curriculum designed for self-motivated, experiential learning.
With two adults in the classroom, they are able to capitalize on children’s individual needs and inquiries. They have the time to know their students very well and to identify problems and intervene early before a child becomes too frustrated and discouraged to try. This is yet another advantage of full-day kindergarten.
Full-day kindergarten’s rich and secure environments are essential for the deep play where children learn to negotiate, consider the feelings of others and contribute to the group.
Ahead academically and socially, full-day kindergarten graduates are revolutionizing schools from the bottom up. The Education Ministry is updating its primary lesson plans in response to children arriving in Grade 1 ready to direct their own learning.
The learning approaches of kindergarten will serve its graduates well. Preparing for the future requires digital fluency, science, math and a high level of literacy. Also needed are the so-called “soft” skills — adaptability and empathy.
The simple advice Robert Fulghum shared in his bestselling All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten — to be kind, play fair and don’t take things that don’t belong to you — resonate beyond childhood into spheres of politics, commerce and social behaviour.
Doug Ford apparently failed his kindergarten lessons, which is why Ontario needs to teach him the consequences of dismantling one the most important programs in the lives of its children.
Written by Kerry McCuaig, Fellow in Early Childhood Policy, Atkinson Centre, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto