It wasn’t until after we bought our house and moved to town that I learned that kindergarten was not a full day in our district. Another parent, the mother of one of Wyatt’s second grade classmates, asked me a few days before kindergarten registration, “So, are you hoping for morning or afternoon for next year?”
“Morning or afternoon what?” I said.
“Kindergarten! Duncan’s starting in the fall, right?”
“So, do you want morning or afternoon?”
“Wait… can’t he do both?”
Wyatt had gone to full day kindergarten; my siblings and I went full day; Aaron and his brother did, too. It had never occurred to me that Duncan and Milo might not do the same. However, it turns out that in the well-regarded school district where we were lucky enough to be able to buy a house, the kindergarten day is only three hours and twenty-five minutes long. (First grade is a couple hours longer, but still not a full day.)
I admit I panicked.
That’s a shorter day than his preschool! What the heck was I going to do with him during the eight and a half hours everyday between his school dismissal and bedtime? And furthermore, it dawned on me that this means that we will not have all three of our kids in full day school until Milo starts second grade… in the fall of 2018, or maybe even 2019 since his birthday is just before the cut off. Everybody tells me to treasure these precious days, they will fly by before I know it, but I don’t care how you slice it: four to five years is a decent chunk of time.
At least for our family, since I am home with Milo anyway, having Duncan out of school before lunch does not create a childcare problem, but I wondered how all the families with two working parents (which includes the majority of households in our community) dealt with the early dismissal. Nobody I talked to about it seemed all that concerned. Some have grandparents or nannies picking their kids up, some take advantage of a half day Spanish immersion program for the other half of the school day, and many are happy to use the onsite after school program: the staff is great, the kids love it, and the hourly rate is very competitively priced for this area. (I am sure it also helps that this tends to be an affluent community and for most families, spending an extra $20 a day for after school care is not an overwhelming burden.)
Two months into this school year, I am pleased to report that half day kindergarten is working out just beautifully for our family.
Here’s how Duncan’s day goes: at 8:00 each morning he walks out the door and up the block with his daddy and his big brother. By 8:20 he is in his classroom fresh as a daisy and ready to learn. He spends the next few hours working on literacy and arithmetic; with a break in the middle for outdoor recess and a snack brought from home. His weekly curriculum includes art, library, p.e., and music. And then, at quarter ’til noon, before he has time to get worn out or lose his focus and enthusiasm for school, he’s dismissed for the day.
And what does he do for the rest of his waking hours? I’ll tell you: he plays.
He plays on the playground when I come to pick him up. He plays with his friend from kindergarten on our walk home. He plays with Milo and Floyd in the house and yard after lunch. He plays on the playground again with Wyatt and his friends when we walk back to school for the third grade dismissal. And then he plays with his brothers and dog until dinner, usually at one of the nearby parks. His only other structured activities outside of school are choir rehearsal one hour a week and soccer on Saturdays. He does have to come with me to run errands sometimes and I do have him spend a little time each day helping me out with chores around the house and yard, but otherwise, he is unemployed and as free as a bird.
Last week, a typical one for us this school year, I decided to take stats on the hourly breakdown of Duncan’s time using the following categories:
Organized Activities: school, soccer, choir
Obligations: meals, bathing, riding in the car, running errands with me, chores.
Screen Time: Family movie night, computer games, educational DVDs.
Free Play: free unstructured play, alone or with other children.
I found that there needed to be an “Other” category for items that didn’t quite fit into those groups, such as doing projects with me or playing board games as a family. These aren’t quite “free play” because adults are there providing instruction, but since they happen at home with only our family members and friends, they are different from organized activities, such as choir rehearsal or soccer practice, where Duncan has far less agency in how long and in what way he participates. I included being read to by Aaron, my sisters, and me in this category.
After some thought, I decided to include our daily walks as “free play” because whether we are just taking a walk for the fun of it, or if we have some place we need to be, Duncan plays the entire way, pretending to be different characters, climbing anything there for the climbing, stopping to inspect bugs and rocks, etc. (Incidentally, I noticed that categorizing walks as “free play” makes me feel a little less inclined to bark at him, “Keep moving, Duncan, come on! Let’s go!”) I also included attending Wyatt’s soccer practice and games while Aaron and I are busy coaching as “free play” for Duncan instead of soccer, because even though Duncan often chooses to participate in the practices and game warmups, he is free to head off the field and entertain himself whenever he wants to.
A Week in the Life of Duncan, age 5
School: 17 hours
Choir: 1 hour
Soccer: 1 hour
Free Play: 41 hours
Screen Time: 5.5 hours
Obligations: 14 hours
Other: 11.5 hours
It’s really not a lot of schooling for a kid his age at this time and place in history… and I think it is great! He’s moving his body, working his muscles and his mind for hours everyday, playing imaginatively– sometimes alone, sometimes with siblings, sometimes with peers or in mixed-age groups. He plays inside and outside and in a variety of settings. He has friends over and he goes to their houses, too (with such a short school day, there is plenty of time each week for play dates).
It is easy to see that Duncan is learning everyday. His language and factual knowledge are increasing by leaps and bounds. We are early in the academic year still, but I observe him to be no less educated than Wyatt was at this point, despite half as many hours of schooling (in fact, their schoolwork looks remarkably similar). What is the most profoundly different this time around is that we are getting no notes or emails home complaining of Duncan’s inability to sit still during writing time or distracting his table mates by pretending his pencil is a rocket ship. Of course Wyatt and Duncan are two different people and I really try not to make a habit of comparing my kids to each other, but it is worth noting that like Wyatt, Duncan is an active, energetic, and inquisitive kid whose impulse control deteriorates drastically as they day wears on and he gets tired, hungry and frustrated with having to sit still and be quiet for long stretches. Because Duncan’s school day is short and the teachers, being acutely conscious of how little time they have with their students, use their time efficiently, he is not struggling behaviorally the way Wyatt did. Consequently, his attitude about school is much better. He did have some separation anxiety in the beginning, but these days, he is happy to go in the morning and in no rush to leave in the afternoon.
As a parent, I spend less time worrying about how well Duncan is taking care of himself during the school day than I did with Wyatt. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t eat his snack, drink his water, reapply his sunscreen or use the bathroom– he is typically done with school and back in my care before any of these needs arise.
Okay, so for Duncan, half day kindergarten has turned out to be a wonderful match, but of course, he is not the only one affected by his schedule. What about the rest of the family? It turns out that little Milo is also thriving with this new arrangement. Each morning, he gets one-on-one “Mommy time”– a very special thing for a youngest sibling– and then, right about the time I get tired of playing superheroes and he gets tired of me trying to make my housework a fun activity for us to do together, we take the dog out for a walk, heading up the road to retrieve Duncan from school. When the three kids are together, Wyatt is the leader and Duncan is far more interested in keeping up with him than in playing with Milo, but having the little brothers home together while Wyatt is still off at school lets them play in a different way. Duncan gets to be the leader and Milo basks in this individual attention from his favorite role model.
The most surprising thing for me has been the realization that being forced to stick close to home has made for a more relaxed and comfortable pace to my week. Because I have Duncan’s pickup in the middle of the day and then Wyatt’s again at 3PM, I don’t have time to do big outings– we can’t, for example, go to the beach or visit my sister in the city– and so instead, I stay local and just stretch out into the three hour chunks of time available to me: I get three hours in the morning with just Milo; three hours in the middle of the day with Milo and Duncan; three hours with all three of my boys in the afternoon; and then Aaron comes home and we have a few hours of family time, consumed mostly with dinner, homework, baths, books and bed. We walk to the library a couple times a week. We have several parks we frequent. Each kid has a friend over to play once a week. And that is my week. There’s no time to do anything grand; and accepting that leaves me feeling less harried and more content than I ever would have imagined I would be with this arrangement.