Did you know that kindergarten is a German word that sneaked its way into the American vocabulary? (Literally, “kids’ garden”). Fun Fact: The way we know kindergarten around here has little to nothing to do with its German counterpart.
This is an invitation to another perspective on how we can view early childhood. It is my attempt to share with you part of our experience as a German family coming to metro Detroit.
Leaving your country behind and venturing out to see how life is on another continent is one thing, but leaving your country behind and venturing out to see what life is like on another continent with your kids is another.
When our family moved from Southern Germany to Michigan, we had a second grader and kindergartener. We were all excited about this adventure, grateful for the opportunity to show our kids life in a different culture, and looking forward to the fact that they would be diving deep into another language. But when it came to our five-year-old, I felt as if we were stealing a part of his childhood from him.
As much as I love my hometown, I have always loved exploring other places in this world. Learning another language, getting to know people from another culture, figuring out the unknown…I am all in.
It both has taught me a lot of fascination that things can be done in a completely different way and how rewarding it is not to judge them as right or wrong just because they are different. At the same time, it yielded a humble gratitude towards everything that works out quite well in my home country.
I have done this at various stages of my life. After school (France), during college (Boston), right before graduation (Tokyo), and as a young professional (Brazil). Needless to say, I am not so much of a worrier. I have a tendency to start worrying when there is a plain reason for it. Not any earlier.
This time was different. Because this time I was a mother. Making this decision to say “yes” happily to Michigan for myself and us as a couple was easy. Making this decision for our two sons? Not so much. Because this is when the theoretical worrying hit me hard. And while I was sure that both of our kids were ready for #ourmichiganadventure and would easily adapt, there was one thing that freaked me out: the thought of sending my five-year-old to kindergarten here and “stealing” from him his last year of German kindergarten the way he had known it.
Even though I had done my research on the American school system, it turned out that experiencing kindergarten here was my own little personal culture shock. And I do not mean that in an offensive way. We love our school; both kids have been welcomed with open arms and minds and had great teachers that helped them transition and learn English within a couple of months. The one who was struggling here was me.
Childhood Comes to a Close
My younger son made friends quickly and was proud to go to school now, too, just like his older brother. But something in me was frustrated to see him bringing home all these countless sheets on which he was coloring, counting, and writing after an eight-hours school day. While he did not mind doing them and I was happy and proud to see how well he did, I missed the time these sheets took away from his days, time that, in my opinion, should be spent climbing trees, getting dirty, and collecting sticks and other little treasures. Time to get lost in doing a craft of his own imagination (not pre-arranged by an adult) or in role-play with his friends. Because this is how we have known kindergarten.
Kindergarten in Germany is an optional but very well-frequented institution for children aged three to six. Kids who attend kindergarten usually go there five days a week, either half-days or full days. The whole idea is (next to offering reliable and affordable childcare) turning toddlers into members of a society where they learn how to find their place within the group, how to stick to the common rules, and where they get access to all sorts of experiences. Younger kids learn from the older kids, who are helping take care of the little ones. Some kindergartens offer a weekly trip into the woods and send all toys on a two-month vacation every other year. It is amazing what this does to a child’s creativity.
German kindergartens usually have no curriculum, and still, kids learn a lot. The focus is on social and emotional skills. They work on different art or science projects, help prepare the year-round parties, and do lots of field trips to theatres and museums. They bake and sing together, run around wild and free, ride their bikes, plant, and harvest in the garden. The older kids are working on some more serious and bigger projects, ones that help them get ready for school that starts in first grade. (Apart from the social and emotional aspect, “getting ready for school” basically means two things: that the kids can write their own name and can hold a pair of scissors properly).
Sara Zaske, an American writer who published a book on German parenting after having been living in Germany for a couple years, said, “It’s not really learning ABC’s or numbers or things like that (…) It’s knowing how to communicate, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, knowing how to get help, how to solve problems and conflicts. These are the basics they’ll need for when they start school” (https://sarazaske.com/).
So why am I telling you all of this you might wonder? As I stated earlier, it is by far not my intention to compare societies and judge them. Nor do I want to make the American school system look bad here. There is actually a lot about American schools and teaching that I appreciate dearly. Especially when it comes to how a positive spirit towards the students is being embraced here. As always, I am a firm believer that if only you could pull out the best of two different worlds and mix it up, amazing things could happen. If only…
The reason I am telling you all of this is because I have seen so many moms of toddlers getting stressed out over “teaching” their preschool kids. And while it is impressive to hear a two-year-old reciting their ABCs, I wonder if it will not be of any significant difference to their future careers.
Our kids are only little for so long. They need our cuddles and care, our love and our patience. They need us to know that the grass is not growing faster when we try to pull it. Most of all though, they need time to actually be kids before we put them into a system of academic achievements and testing.
So do not stress. Kids in other parts of the world are doing just as well once they are in elementary school. They will learn to read and to calculate and be ready for the wonders of literature and science. Some more, some less, some earlier, some later. Just let them have a little bit more space to be a kid outside of any curriculum thinking. Let them climb those trees just a little bit longer…