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Where play is out and academics in for kindergartners

In Ruth VandenBergh's kindergarten class at Castle Elementary School in North St. Paul, youngsters are identifying rectangles and triangles and printing their names on their worksheets. It's the first week of school and ''socialization'' - once considered the raison d'etre for kindergarten - appears to be off the curriculum.

Across the river in Minneapolis, Barbara Godin is getting ready to introduce consonants and vowels to her kindergartners at Fulton Contemporary School. Units in math, science, and other academic areas are formally scheduled.

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A decade ago the word ''academic'' was irrelevant, if not unheard of, in a classroom of five-year-olds. Youngsters entered kindergarten to learn to count, color, cut, cooperate, and recite (generally in cadence) their ABCs. Good nappers were duly praised.

Today, with more children entering kindergarten with one, two, or even three years of preschool programs behind them, the traditional kindercurriculum may be disappearing.

Combining data from the Minnesota Department of Public Welfare and the Department of Education, about 27 percent of youngsters aged 21/2 to 5 in the seven-county Minneapolis-St. Paul area were enrolled in a half- or full-day preschool program last year, compared with 8.5 percent in 1971.

This is not to say that preschools are responsible for the so-called ''learning boom.''

Twelve years ago ''Sesame Street'' opened the door to prime-time learning and a host of characters, consonants, and shapes became as familiar to youngsters as their own families.

Teachers also note that parents today seem to be ''getting more into the education act,'' conscious of the quality of time they spend with their children rather than just the quantity.

Whatever the case, a counselor notes that ''what we're looking at today is a more verbal, sophisticated five-year-old whose world has gone beyond fat color crayons and the notion of his neighborhood as the entire universe.''

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But not always. And therein lies a problem.

Given 25 to 30 youngsters, little aide time, and 21/2 hours in which to cram a curriculum that will stimulate both the child who can already read and the youngster who can barely find ''A,'' how does a teacher handle the disparity in experiences for the better education of all?

''No question, the gap has widened,'' says James Olson, reading coordinator for Hopkins School District 270 in suburban Minneapolis. ''Eight years ago the differences (in youngsters' prekindergarten experiences) was analagous to a foot wide; today I'd say it's more like a yard.''

Reading is one area in which the disparity in skills is most obvious. Teachers note that science and math do not seem to get the same ''push''at home; yet many youngsters enter kindergarten merely reading words from memory and, contrary to their parents' pronouncements (''He's been reading since he was 3 !'') have no grasp of concepts.

''We look at that (reading ability) carefully,'' says Sandi Mond, principal of Wildwood Elementary School in Mahtomedi. Dr. Mond, who is no stranger to her classrooms, notes that while the entire class gets the same introduction to a reading concept, the youngsters are divided into groups for discussion.

Ruth VandenBergh begins with a formal group introduction into the alphabet - letter names and sounds, consonants, and vowels - and then divides the class into three groups according to comprehension levels.

Second half of DLAEL:Thus, where kindergarten used to be a ''total group experience,'' today's classroom is often a total of groups.Beverly Thompson, who has been teaching kindergarten for 17 years at Wildwood, says she relies heavily on parent volunteers for help in attending to the individual needs that grouping creates. After an in-service training session, 10 parents each week - one for the morning class and one for the afternoon - work with youngsters at all levels.Mrs. Thompson feels that preschool testing services have been the ''greatest boon to teachers'' in determining a child's difficulties; however, she says, the lack of coordination between preschools and kindergartens ''has us operating in the dark when it comes to establishing what a child has been learning.''Teaming up youngsters to help one another is one method Aroti Bayman has found successful in her class at Audubon School in south Minneapolis. Because of the socialization skills acquired in preschool programs, many of her 25 children are used to group living and learning.''They have confidence and will speak up - offer information - in a group setting rather than just privately,'' she explains. Mrs. Bayman, who holds a master's degree in philosophy, notes that while she is teaching the same unit she may have taught 10 years ago, ''they are much richer in scope now and I'm teaching them at a different level. For example, the unit on safety traditionally involved going outside and observing the school patrol. Now we discuss the shape of the stop sign, identify its letters, and maybe take 15 minutes for what used to be a two-day project. A unit on environment is introduced at a technical level. We talk about limited resources, recycling. . . . There's something for everyone to relate to.''In St. Paul, where new, standardized kindergarten curriculum has been introduced citywide this fall, one of the teachers, Mary Ann Renner, says she relies on sixth-grade ''tutors'' to help youngsters having trouble with colors and the alphabet. To ''reach all levels'' on a more formal basis, she uses Workshop Way, a task-oriented approach to developing cognitive skills. Her youngsters spend the first 15 minutes of their day working with a variety of puzzles, letters, numbers, and cards - counting, sorting, and identifying. When one ''task'' is completed - one concept mastered - the child goes on to the next one; if one puzzle is deemed ''too easy,'' the youngster chooses another. The idea, Mrs. Renner explains, is to encourage independence and, not incidentally, to teach by example the concept of finishing what you begin.Harlan Hansen, professor of early childhood education at the University of Minnesota, would like to see more teachers establishing ''free-choice time,'' a half-hour period when youngsters could choose and explore an area of particular interest in a learning center within the classroom. Centers need not be elaborate, he points out, but would contain carefully selected material - ''What is put in the environment will determine what is learned'' - geared to all comprehension levels: a literary corner for reading, an artifact center for relevant environmental topics, a low-key physical fitness area, and in the self-concept center, mirrors!''We don't have enough mirrors in classrooms,'' he says matter-of-factly. ''Most kids don't see themselves until they're taller than the bathroom sink.''While educators agree that the age of academics is here for kindergartners, many teachers feel that the physical and emotional development of youngsters is being put aside in favor of the intellectual.''By pushing too much too soon, you can kill the curiosity and desire to learn,'' says Dr. Mond, who feels that too often preschools are emphasizing academics to appease parents who, as one teacher puts it, ''tend to gauge all progress by reading.''

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