It has been years since I have seen an easel with a child's painting on it in a kindergarten class. There is not much sand or water play, either. There is usually a toy corner, but in some rooms it is barely used. Now, academically rigorous kindergarten has crept into almost every school district.
In the effort to accelerate learning, kindergarten has become the new first grade. In many districts, parents are warned that they need to hire a tutor over the summer if their child is not reading by the end of kindergarten. Developmental research has shown that children learn to read any time between ages four and seven, whether they are pushed to learn in an academically rigorous kindergarten or not. Indeed, in some European countries formal reading instruction begins at age seven.
Before it became academically rigorous, Kindergarten used to be the place where children learned to socialize with others, use materials, and spend a lot of time developing their large muscle groups through outdoor play. It was also the place to learn to tie their shoelaces, tell time on a clock, and read a calendar.
Occupational therapists in schools now receive increasing referrals for children who have no disabilities, yet enter second grade without properly cutting with scissors and forming their letters. They theorize that a major reason why is that kids in kindergarten no longer have sufficient time to cut, paste, hold crayons and pencils to draw, and spend time learning to tie a bow. They do not have much outdoor play time on equipment. Thus, the small and large muscle strength needed for these tasks is not well developed.
I worked with a developmentally delayed girl in a kindergarten class. The children were practicing the skill of filling in the tiny ovals on an answer sheet for a standardized test. Some of the kids were performing the task, some were pretending they were asleep, and others were crying. My student drew fanciful pictures of princesses and flowers near the ovals, but refused to color them in. I thought that her response was that of a typical five-year-old. No child that age should be bubbling answer sheets.
If parents are anxious about how to prepare their young children for academic work, I would tell them to spend a lot of time at the library, allowing their children to read or look at whatever appeals to them. I would also suggest that they provide their children with markers, crayons, paint, and clay. Once the child has created something, they can have a conversation about the finished product.
I would also encourage a dress-up box of costumes and masks for imaginative play with other kids. Children can make pretend books by folding a few pages and stapling them together. They can draw, add letters, and generally have fun with the process. They will begin to see themselves as readers, and they will love the idea of reading because they are beginning to do so on their own terms. Children who see their parents reading will naturally expect to be readers. Learning takes place when kindergarten is not academically rigorous.