This is a story of the Kindergarten journey our family has taken this year in German. It’s mostly Walter’s story, and mine too, but all five of us have been affected by one of us being unhappy. It’s a lengthy essay, one that has been brewing in my head for several months, as I waited to see how it might end. For the past several weeks I’ve been drafting it on my computer, hoping for a sign that a positive resolution had finally been found. Thankfully, Walter drew me a picture to let me know things were OK.
Kindergarten was first conceived by German education philosopher, Friedrich Fröbel, who coined the term in 1840 for an early childhood institute he had founded in Blankenburg, Thuringia. Until this time, almost no formal early-childhood education existed in most countries with the exception of church-run nursery schools for poor children. Fröbel’s Kindergartens were for children from all social classes and religions, and his philosophy included the belief that early childhood education could be a social equalizer.
Concerned that children were not able to get a broad based early education from their mothers at home, Fröbel promoted supportive, nurturing classrooms, recognizing the vast learning capacity and brain development of very young children. Fröbel engaged women to staff Kindergartens, providing some of the only paid employment for women of the time, and therefore tying the Kindergarten movement to the emerging feminist movement of the era. He started training institutes for women interested in staffing Kindergartens, and his teaching force underscored the ideals of social tolerance and equality.
Fröbel’s philosophy and the Kindergarten movement spread throughout the West during the mid-19th century, and the first American Kindergarten was founded in Wisconsin in 1853. Fröbel’s work contributed to the thinking of subsequent education philosophers who also greatly influenced early-childhood education including Austrian Rudolph Steiner who began the Waldorf school movement, and Italian Maria Montessori.
With such noble roots, including ties to social justice and feminism, the prospect of sending my son Walter to Kindergarten in Germany should have been a good one. Although, as it has turned out, Kindergarten in Germany has been nowhere close to the high quality experience Walter would have been assured of in Vermont.
There is a somewhat confusing distinction between German and American Kindergarten I should clear up before going too deep. Kindergarten in the United States is for just one year, usually for five- to six-year olds, and is generally the first year of “formal” elementary schooling. Kindergarten in Germany generally serves children three- to six-years old, and is separate from “formal” schooling. First class is the first year of Grundschule, the German elementary school. Most German children enter first class at age six, which corresponds with the usual entrance age for first grade in an American elementary school. So, in order to be fairly comparing the schooling options for children of the same age group in both countries, I will compare German Kindergarten to what is generally known as American preschool, plus Kindergarten.
The early childhood programs in our hometown of Middlebury, Vermont are top-notch. And in learning about Fröbel and his philosophy and motives for creating Kindergarten, the Middlebury early childhood programs are clearly in line with the roots of Kindergarten. The largest and most prominent program is the Mary Johnson Children’s Center (MJCC). The Center is run by two whip-smart, extremely organized and strong women, who I am certain hold fast to the belief that early-childhood education can be a great social equalizer.
The Center’s driving pedagogical influence is the Reggio Emilia Approach to early childhood education that was developed in northern Italy following the ravages of World War II. It is a child-centered approach that affords children the control to shape their educational experience in partnership with the teacher and classmates, drawing heavily from a child’s unique experience in his or her larger environment and world. Between Anya and Walter, my kids spent three years at MJCC, during which time I was extremely impressed with the high quality of the teaching staff, who were well trained in Reggio and completely dedicated to the well-being of the children as individuals.
All three of my children also attended the Middlebury Cooperative Nursery School (MCNS), which is the oldest preschool in Middlebury and was an independent, parent-run cooperative for over 70 years. A few years ago, MCNS merged with MJCC in order to strengthen the financial and programmatic footings of the school. The organized, yet creative Reggio program, combined with the crunchy Vermont co-op approach, created what I believe to be the strongest preschool in the area. All three of my children, but most especially Walter, thrived at MCNS.
Further, Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School has, I believe, one of the strongest Kindergarten programs anywhere. Both Anya and Greta are beneficiaries of this Kindergarten experience, which provides a firm foundation for formal schooling for children across the social, academic, and emotional spectra. The saying, “All I ever really need to know, I learned in Kindergarten,” may actually be true for kids who are lucky enough to be in Middlebury’s Kindergarten program.
Walter thrived so much at MCNS in large part because he had a teacher who truly got him. Walter is an extremely focused child, who prefers to work alone on tasks, and whose standards of perfection are quite high. From a very young age, Walter has been an exceptional drawer and a lover of locomotives. Since he’s been able to hold a pencil, drawing trains has been Walter’s favorite activity, one that also served as a comfort for him during transitions and moments of uncertainty or grumpiness. Getting him involved with creating a rendition of a train was a certain way to calm him down and make him happy. Every teacher he had, from nine months on, knew that trains and drawing were Walter’s passions. Tap into those passions and you had Walter on your side.
Walter got a lot of attention from other kids, parents and teachers for his intricate drawings, but he did not really like the attention. He preferred to focus on his work and be left alone. Playdates were often difficult for him, and parties or crowds were almost impossible. It was rare for him to make it through an entire birthday party without asking to leave. Festivals or concerts or group activities caused him to melt down, as the noise and chaos were too much. And even with his best friend next door, Walter often cut playdates short because he became overwhelmed and needed time to himself to draw.
But Walter’s teacher at MCNS understood all of this intuitively. She spent a few weeks with Walter, listened to his stories, watched him draw, and somehow understood how to tap into his ability to investigate and create. Despite his aversion to noise, Walter loves to talk, especially to adults. He tends to monologue about his intricate knowledge of specific things – how trains work was his primary topic for many years. Katie listened, but then figured out just when to ask the exact right question which would inspire Walter to want to learn more, together. Let’s make rockets, create an ocean, draw self-portraits. Katie made Walter into a class leader by tapping into his innate desire to focus on a subject, perfect the details, and thus discover its beauty.
This is what Walter had grown up with until age 5 ½ — a string of teachers who understood his passions and enabled him to follow them, and then one particularly special teacher who understood his complete self. And then we came to Germany.
I had actually been warned by a German friend in Vermont that I would hate German Kindergartens, and that I should do all I could to get Walter into first grade. So, while registering Anya for second grade here, I corresponded extensively with the principal of the school about what to do with Walter. With a mid-January birthday, Walter just missed the cut-off for early entry into first grade. Generally kids have to be six-years-old by August 1st to enter first grade, but early entrance of children who turn six before December 31st is quite common. Schools meet with a child and his or her parents individually to test the child to determine readiness for first grade. Because of what I explained to her about American Kindergarten, the principal agreed to meet with us and give Walter the test.
Two weeks after we arrived, Walter and I met with the principal. I was impressed that she would take so much time to personally administer an early-entrance exam on the day before school started. I was equally impressed by the test, which sought to determine a child’s ability to listen; follow directions; identify letters, numbers and words; recognize irregularities in scenes; perform basic computations; and follow the logical pattern of a story. And the way the test was administered, in a personal atmosphere that included conversation and “getting-to-know-you” questions, it also helped determine the social and emotional maturity of a child.
The principal did her very best to translate the test as she was giving it, so that Walter could be judged in English. She was sweet and unintimidating and at first Walter enjoyed the test. But, the test was extensive, and his attention waned. When she got to the portion about word and letter-sound identification, the translation became more difficult. She pointed to a picture of a daisy, and Walter said “flower,” but what she was trying to establish was his ability to say the “B” sound, for “Blume.” She came up with the word “banana” which is more or less the same in German and English. He said the “b” just fine, but then she asked him to spell it! B-A-N-A-N-A – with all of those Ns and As, it’s a certain trap for young spellers, much less five-year-olds.
And at that, Walter was done. He couldn’t spell banana and for several minutes had been begging me to let him draw. He refused to take the rest of the test. The principal watched him draw a perfect clown fish, and then cut it out exactly along the intricate lines. She was impressed, but told me that she recommended Walter go to Kindergarten. She said that if he could speak German, she’d recommend first grade as he’s clearly very smart, but she thought he wouldn’t be able to keep up in his second language.
And, despite my early leanings toward bumping him up to first grade, I agreed with the principal. I too thought that sending him to a new kind of school in a new country in a new language would be too much for him. I had found a Kindergarten that had an open spot and friendly teachers. While the facility wasn’t great, it had a beautiful playground with a gorgeous old sycamore tree in the middle. It seemed familiar to Walter and me, and most of all, they had a spot and it was close to our house. I enrolled him.
Free spots are extremely difficult to find in German Kindergartens, as the supply is nowhere near sufficient to meet the demand. Everyone told me that if I could find a spot, I should take it. At home, armed with too much information, I went crazy with stress and indecision, trying to find the perfect preschool option for my kids. Here, I knew nothing, and because my German skills are so basic, I could only ask a few simple questions when I contacted Kindergartens. “Haben Sie einen freie Platz?” was the most important question it seemed.
I inquired at all of the Kindergartens in our neighborhood and found one free spot. We have no car, and three kids in three schools, so I had to find a close-by option. Most importantly, I had one week here in Germany before I had to start working, telecommuting to my job back home. The curse of every working mother with small children is the urgent necessity to find a place for the kids in order to be able to work. I had no choice; I had one option; I took it.
And with all that follows in this story, I have replayed that week in my mind a thousand times. I should have asked more questions, made more phone calls, visited more Kindergartens. I should have asked someone for help with making phone calls and translating (the University “Welcome Center” here offered their assistance in the form of a link to the central Göttingen Kindergarten website; a link that I of course had already found, thank you very much!). I should have taken a leave of absence earlier or quit my job (but we needed the money to be able to afford to live in Europe for the year!). I should have done this, or that. But, what I did is what I needed to, and was able to, do at the time. And nothing in parenting is ever perfectly executed.
For the first month of Kindergarten, Walter was happy enough. He seemed to be bonding with one of the teachers, a man who spoke English better than the other teachers and was happy to chat with Walter. Walter liked the toys, especially because we weren’t able to bring many with us here. He didn’t seem to be making friends, but he never makes friends quickly. They weren’t doing any projects or artwork of interest, but it was early in the year, the weather was nice, and things were seemingly just getting rolling.
I had to focus my mothering attentions primarily on the girls in those first six weeks of school. Anya had broken her arm, requiring multiple hospital visits, and making school all that much more worrying for her. Greta was getting used to German Gymnasium, a much more rigorous and independent schooling model than she was used to. And while Walter could get by slowly picking up a little German and still be fine in Kindergarten, the girls, especially Greta, had to learn German more quickly in order to participate and succeed in school here. It was an intense couple months.
By the end of September, things were getting easier for the girls. Meanwhile, Walter was becoming increasingly disgruntled with his school. He was bored by the lack of any curriculum or program; frustrated that the art supplies were subpar and art projects non-existent; he’d only sort of connected with a couple kids; and the activities each day seemed to consist of running around outside or at a gym, and not much more.
I asked the teachers if they could help him more with learning German and facilitate connections with other kids. I asked that they try to engage him with art or other creative activities. I started packing a drawing pad and some good pencils in his backpack, as well as a German picture dictionary he could use at school. However, when he took his drawing pad out at school, he became even more of a curiosity. Kids and teachers wondered what was wrong with him if he wanted to draw instead of engage in a game of chase.
Soon, Walter stopped drawing, at school and home. It had ceased being a source of comfort for him, and had become a source of ridicule, so he started to outright refuse to draw. In early October, I scheduled a conference with his lead teacher to see if we could make a plan to help Walter. She was very positive and supportive and offered suggestions like making more playdates with other kids, teaching Walter a German word-of-the-day, picking him up earlier. She also said she’d talk to Walter to let him know that he should always come to her if he had problems at school. I was more upbeat after the conference, as it was clear this teacher wanted to help.
But the next week when I picked him up one day, he had been fighting with other kids, and had pinched a teacher on the arm. The teacher was irate and asked that I control my child, or at least that’s what I think she said in her quick, angry German. One of the other teachers told me that perhaps the school wasn’t the right place for Walter. She later told me that that is not what she said, so perhaps that is just what I thought and therefore heard. Obviously clear communication was a big barrier; all of my conversations with Kindergarten personnel here have been in German, so my basic language skills have obviously undermined my ability to communicate the complexities of the situation.
I scheduled another conference, with his primary and secondary teachers. I looked up lots of words before the conference, and essentially wrote myself a script. I explained the kind of school Walter was used to in an attempt to help them understand why he was bored and frustrated, on top of the fact that he wasn’t able to communicate in German. I told them that if he were in an American Kindergarten he’d be learning how to read, and that he was not the type of child who enjoyed hours of mostly physical play outdoors. I explained his love of projects and art and science. At that, one of the teachers actually rolled his eyes. He insisted that Kindergarten is not the time for projects or science experiments or learning to read. Kindergarten is only for playing.
I started to look for another Kindergarten. I had been waiting it out, trying to reach the three-month mark I had been told by so many was the magical turning point for children going to school in a non-native language. But things had gotten out of control. Walter was miserable and these teachers were clearly not working as a team. If the daily chaos at the school was not enough evidence, my miserable child and the four different messages I got from the teachers clearly was.
I found a tentative spot in a Waldorf Kindergarten. Walter and I visited and it was just as much an interview of us as an interview of them. When I explained that Walter was frustrated by his current school because they didn’t do much more than free-play, she told me that that is more-or-less what they would do too. Nevertheless, the facility and program seemed more organized than the current Kindergarten. But Walter didn’t want to make another transition to a new place, and when I later asked if Walter could try the school for a couple days to see if it was a good fit, the spot had seemingly been claimed. Another spot I heard about at a Montessori Kindergarten was claimed before I could even make a call.
By now it was November and Walter was just plain angry. Every day was a huge battle to get him out the door. And when we arrived at the school, children groaned, or even openly mocked him. The teachers did nothing. Walter was convinced kids hated him because he wasn’t German, and I was beginning to believe him. One day I arrived and was told Walter was involved in a large fight; kids ran up to me to report the incident. Walter was crouched in a corner by himself. I asked the teachers what had happened, but they had all been out of the room. Nevertheless, they isolated Walter in a room by himself to keep him away from the other kids.
I had finally had enough. We talked to Walter that night and asked him if he would like to stop going to school, and stay home with me until we could find him another Kindergarten. The answer was an emphatic yes. The next day we collected his things from his cubby and left the school.
So Walter was at home with me, and I was trying to work, and although I eventually took a leave of absence, it didn’t start until early January. During this time, Walter became increasingly angry and withdrawn from the world. He had no friends or community, and really hated it here. He got angry when he heard anyone speaking German, and rarely wanted to leave the house. When he did go out, he often screamed and got anxious in the street, insisting that I hold his hand ever tighter.
Luckily the holidays provided some distraction, as did his increasing obsession with Legos and Star Wars. The Christmas Market, the anticipation of presents, and then finally a trip to Rome, gave him some positive experiences here. But he firmly maintained that he wanted to go home, and the daily meltdowns and rages persisted. He never slept through the night, and rarely could fall asleep until well past a reasonable bedtime.
We had Skype consultations with his beloved teacher from home, a counselor, and his pediatrician. The latter two suggested we get him evaluated here to see if we could figure out his sleep and behavioral problems. Meanwhile, I was also trying to find him another Kindergarten, believing that if he could get out and make connections, he might feel better. I was overwhelmed by the logistics of all this, and the timing of finishing my job and celebrating the holidays made it all the more challenging.
I was sure that we were doing permanent damage to our child and that we should go home. I was so angry that the timing of this year was such that Walter got stuck between two systems, and that we’d traded a year of outstanding Kindergarten in Vermont for a Kindergarten train-wreck in Germany. During our time here, I’ve heard more and more about how inadequate the German Kindergarten system is. Random people on trains with whom I’ve chatted have told me how terrible Kindergarten is here. Academics who study German education have relayed to Jason the weaknesses in the German Kindergarten system. Other parents and Kindergarten teachers themselves have told me how frustrating the system is – so few spots, and such poor quality; the system serves nobody’s interests.
We took Walter to see a leading child psychologist as well as an ENT (out of concern for potential sleep apnea). Remarkably, both said essentially the same thing: he’s angry and not sleeping because of Kindergarten. The ENT (a model spaceship geek whom Walter refused to let look in his ears, but who fascinated Walter with his quick drawings of the Millennium Falcon and model of the Starship Enterprise) told me that he thought German Kindergartens were horrible and doing children, especially boys, a disservice. He said the lack of structure and untrained personnel left children unhinged and ill-prepared for school.
The child psychologist was a bit more diplomatic, but told us that we absolutely had to find Walter a Kindergarten that could help him feel connected, and that would be difficult, as Kindergartens here were not strong at helping children with special needs anywhere on the spectrum. And Kindergartens were not good at dealing with diversity, rather expecting children all to blend into a uniform group. He offered to have his staff make some calls for us, or even look into Walter attending a program specifically for kids with special mental and emotional needs, but luckily I had found a Kindergarten that I thought might be a good (enough) fit.
The new Kindergarten is two blocks from our home, and had a fluke mid-year slot available because a child had moved away unexpectedly. I happen to check their website on the exact right evening, and showed up on their doorstep the next morning. It’s a city-run Kindergarten in a public Catholic school, so Walter could feel like he was in a “real” school rather than a separate preschool. It only has only ten kids, including three others who also are non-native speakers, with two teachers plus an administrator. It’s a half-day program whose teachers also run an afternoon art program for school-aged children.
The director invited me to sit with her and share a cup of coffee on a sleeting, dark January morning. She listened to my woeful story about Walter’s troubles in Kindergarten. I watched as the children played quietly with Legos or cut-out clouds and snowflakes to create a winter scene for the windows. The level of calm and organization stood in stark contrast to the previous Kindergarten. Her open friendliness stood in contrast to most of other Kindergartens I’d visited. The director told me that they have the rare opportunity of having only ten kids, as most German Kindergartens had larger groups in order to help meet the demand from families.
Walter started ten days later. His first several days were a nightmare, filled with hitting, spitting, kicking and screaming, at school and at home. But, in a rare moment of rational mothering clarity, I told Walter this: “I worked hard to find you a better Kindergarten. You have to go. We will be in Germany for 5 ½ more months, and being here will be more fun for you if you have kids to play with and learn some German. You have to go to Kindergarten, and you have to participate in the activities and follow the rules. If you don’t, you won’t be allowed to go to first grade when we get home. Your friends will be in first grade and you’ll have to be in Kindergarten. Kindergarten is required before first grade. Those are the rules, so deal with it and stop this nonsense!”
Remarkably, this actually worked. Walter fussed, and still sometimes continues to fuss, but he accepted the fact that he had to do something he didn’t want to do. He’s been going to this Kindergarten for about six weeks now, and most days are pretty good. Most mornings he still complains about having to go to school, and when I leave him, he clings to me until I look him in the eye and tell him firmly that that’s enough.
His teachers report that he mostly speaks only German at school, and that he knew much more than they’d expected him to know. The sneaky boy had learned more than he would admit, but he was also finally in a place where he felt safe enough to go outside his English comfort zone. And best of all, he started drawing again! Each day ends with a half an hour of drawing during parental pick-up time. The kids get clean paper and baskets full of pencils and markers. Walter draws intricate “Star Wars” scenes, and last week even a German ICE train. For me, this is the clearest sign that Walter is Walter again. His drawing is once again helping him feel better about a situation. He’s out of that dark hole that even his art could not reach.
This Kindergarten is not what he had before he came to Germany, or what he would have had if we’d stayed in Vermont for Kindergarten, but it is good enough for now. They aren’t doing science experiments, plays, elaborate art projects, or learning to read. The teachers spend lots of time chatting and drinking coffee together while the children play on their own. But, books are read, songs sung, birthdays celebrated, games played. And Walter is finally speaking some German and connecting with other children, learning to tolerate a situation that isn’t of his choosing, and he’s helping himself do these things by looking forward to drawing every day.
I continue to hear comments and stories from a diverse cross-section of people about how weak the Kindergarten system is here. For sure there are good Kindergartens; the Montessori and University-run bilingual (which is 45 minutes and two bus rides away from us, and has no free spots) programs being the two I consistently hear are good. And there are Kindergartens that are fine, like Walter’s current one. But there are plenty, like the first one, that are a mess.
And at the state and national level, the Kindergarten system in Germany seems to miss the point of its roots. While I’ve done no legitimate policy research, I’ve heard anecdotally, and experienced first-hand, that Kindergarten teachers here are not always very well trained. The educational requirements are minimal, and ongoing training is spotty. Additionally, by promoting the idea that kids should just become one of the group, rather than stand out as individuals with particular needs and ideas, the system both squanders the opportunity to take advantage of the learning capacity of very young children, and fails at promoting social equality because kids fall through the cracks.
Apparently state and federal governments here have defunded an interim option called Vorschule, which sounds a bit more like American Kindergarten. It was for 5-6 year-olds who were ready for more structure and formal learning. It’s been eliminated or drastically scaled back throughout the country, much to the chagrin of teachers at Walter’s current Kindergarten who said that kids like Walter were the primary beneficiaries of the program.
A friend here asked me why it mattered if Germany waits to teach kids to read or provide any kind of structured or project-based learning. She contends that German kids catch up anyway, especially those who later attend Gymnasium. I believe that weak early-childhood education options jeopardize the entire educational system because children, especially those with special needs, are not provided a strong foundation for their entire educational career. Special needs can mean learning disabilities, second-language children, social issues, or simply kids for whom a free-for-all setting does not work.
The German system in general requires kids to jump from one type of school to another, with very little preparation or soft landing. Kindergarten to first class is a large jump, and fourth class to Gymnasium is even bigger. German Gymnasium is criticized for being an elite option that promotes class and social division, but if Kindergarten were doing a better job as the social equalizer it was created to be, more kids would make it to Gymnasium.
Obviously our family’s experience is individual and unique in many ways. Walter was the victim of an unfortunate necessity to take the only option before us. I know that most Kindergartens here are not as horrible as his first one was. But I also know that when I tell professionals, researchers, parents and strangers on a train about our experience, they are full of other stories that underscore my opinion that German Kindergarten needs help. One woman whose grandchildren live in the United States said to me, “If only the Germans would learn about Kindergarten from the Americans!” As the band They Might Be Giants might sing in their song “Where Do They Make Balloons?”, “Kindergarten comes from Germany, but Americans do it best!”
For Walter, I’m proud that he could overcome such a horrendous educational and social experience, and still come out of it with pencil in hand. I’m hoping that he’ll internalize the lessons of tolerance and making the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. Much of the time here, I’ve felt sad for Walter, that he hasn’t had the life-altering positive experience his sisters have had. But life-altering negative experiences can be even more powerful. For a boy who likes things his way, learning that not everything can be his way may be the best thing anyone could learn in Kindergarten.