What Is Best for the Kinder?

“My daughter will be turning four this year!” Time to call schools to register for kindergarten — right? Nope, at least not in most cases.

Why is it that the majority of frum schools across the country have integrated nursery and kindergarten into the elementary school system, but in Lakewood this is not the case? What benefits and drawbacks are there to the existing structure?

Why Is It So?

When Lakewood was still a young yet developing community, it was commonplace for wives of yungeleit to create daycare and playgroup arrangements in their homes. And that is how it remained. At this point, countless women earn a parnassah from this system and some mechanchim and parents are simply hesitant to rock the boat.

Research on the matter of kindergartens in schools versus homes reveals that there is a lot to gain from either scenario. Playgroup morahs keep classes small and provide a warm and homey atmosphere. Some mothers feel they want their children to still have a mommy-type figure for one more year. They may prefer a low-key tone.

Morah Sori, who has been a playgroup morah for a number of years, feels, “One can’t compare the warmth and individual attention a child receives from me to a structured classroom.”

“Everyone must do what works for them,” says Mrs. Kohn, an experienced kindergarten morah in a school. “It is not a competition. I will be firm in maintaining that we school morahs have the same amount of warmth and lots of helpers too.

“Kindergarten, and sometimes primary too, is housed in a different wing so that it is not overwhelming for the children.”

Ahead of the Game

Kindergarten is a crucial year for development on multiple levels: these include academic, cognitive, behavioral, emotional and motor. While many playgroup teachers give it their all and are, in fact, known as outstanding morahs, their set-up is vastly different than in school.

School provides a core curriculum addressing specific goals and aims that must be met before reaching primary. There is phonemic awareness, listening skills, sound discrimination and fine motor skills.

Practically speaking, all of our schools have a rigorous primary program, with English reading or pre-reading skills and mastery of alef-beis and kriah, culminating with the special presentation of a siddur.

When children enter primary from various places, their alef-beis levels will vary. Some will find it challenging if they have not been well-prepared or are not up to par.

“Of the playgroup morahs I sent to,” one mother explains, “most have incorporated a lot of skills. I am satisfied and comfortable that they taught my children. But I can understand that one morah stresses social skills more, while another insists on gross motor markers, and so on.

“When the children all come together they may be in very different places, making it challenging for students and teachers alike.”

Morah Epstein and Morah Tova, who both teach in schools that do have a kindergarten in the building, assert that it is apparent from day one which children have attended a formal kindergarten and which have not.

“Those who are in their second year of school come across as more mature and more resilient. In general, they have a head start to the year.”

Support System

Parental interaction is certainly greater with a kindergarten in a home because of carpool pick-up. It is easy to keep tabs on your child and for morah to casually mention something, perhaps something that wouldn’t necessarily warrant a call home.

“I value the relationships I have developed with my kids’ playgroup morahs. It’s a pleasure working as a team. Seeing them every day is a treat and they’ve really helped me to understand my children better as result!” says a parent.

At the same time, multiple teachers and principals have expressed that playgroup morahs may refrain from sharing concerns with parents during the kindergarten year, leading into a new primary year with problems that parents should have been aware of.

Additionally, even if a playgroup morah does her due diligence and speaks to parents about concerns, they don’t have the same access to solutions as a school would. These might include extra academic support with alef-beis, consultation with professionals on behavioral or language problems, or consulting with members of the staff or administration to problem-solve. And teachers and the administration in schools generally have more professional training.

Additionally, the playgroup morah lacks leverage outside of a school setting. If parents do not readily accept what she shares and suggests, she cannot push too hard; she doesn’t have the backing or ability to go to a higher authority to further explain the need or encourage action.

Phenomenal teachers who work from home, still don’t have the same supervision and accountability as a teacher with a hierarchy of staff. In a school, there are meetings and reports to write.

Interestingly, a few teachers who have taught in both settings said that while they appreciated being able to make their own decisions, they much prefer being able to discuss a concern (privately) with a peer or mentor in the building.

Other Factors

School buildings are generally more bright and spacious than the typical playgroup environment. There are also many adults in the event of an emergency or even simply to be available on a daily basis.

However, the verdict is split on the busing issue. There are those who feel that preschool children shouldn’t ride buses, which can be so overwhelming and daunting. Yet, others feel that getting used to the bus system means one less thing for children to tackle when entering primary.

Interestingly, one morah (and mommy of a number of children well past primary), said she feels that from a developmental perspective, fears increase each year.

“The majority of kindergarten students behave in a more carefree manner, while students in primary tend to be more anxious,” she says.

“On the surface they seem more mature, and they are in certain ways, but they are more aware of ‘big kid’ fears.” Therefore, she feels there are benefits to transitioning into school at the beginning of kindergarten.

Additionally, knowing the children in kindergarten allows schools to plan class lists for primary in a more accurate fashion. Principals home in on each child and aim for the ideal class placement, resulting in more effective, balanced classes.

Their needs can be addressed sooner as well. It may take even the most perceptive classroom teacher a bit of time to ascertain what issue, need or even personality trait needs addressing.

If the primary students are coming from a kindergarten in the building, that need can be addressed from the start. This can prevent children from lagging behind their classmates.

There are extra benefits on both sides of the fence. Playgroup morahs can easily take a small group on a trip or just take a walk around the block to watch construction and learn new concepts in general knowledge. Schools have special sessions for music and library.

All seem to be in agreement that while it is important to develop play and social skills, it doesn’t make a difference if students know classmates in advance. It is not necessary for mothers to insist on certain friends grouped together; children are more adaptable and resilient than we give them credit for.

One director of a boys’ cheder reflects on the complications of adding a kindergarten to the school. “While I think it’s preferable for them to have a woman teacher at that age, it would be awkward with a morah, the sole female limudei kodesh teacher in the building.”

The Bottom Line

Transitioning from small home-based groups to a school setting must take place at some time! What is up for discussion is when it should take place…

“Let’s be real,” says Morah and Mommy Rosenfeld. “Each child is his or her own package. It doesn’t always mean there is a significant problem, but in school we can better address a child who is not interacting well with peers or who is not cutting well (not just an independent skill, but vital for other scholastic and motor skill-sets) during kindergarten rather than during the year they are learning to read.”

One mother shares, “As wonderful as the morahs I’ve encountered are, how can you compare running to put your chicken in the oven to being fully focused on your job in a school building?”

But just a few blocks away, Mrs. Steinfeld effusively says, as her neighbor, Mrs. Hirshman nods, “I would never trade the playgroup morahs I send to for a school setting at such a young age!”

Will the change happen over time? Who knows! More girls’ schools have opened kindergartens over the years. Perhaps one day that will become the new norm. In the meantime, the goal remains the same: Providing the best care and chinuch possible for our children.

*All names have been changed.