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What is kindergarten and at what age do kids start?

Kindergarten is the school year in which children around the age of 5 learn reading, writing, math and sitting still, as they blossom and grow into more independent individuals. 

What is kindergarten and at what age do kids start?

So much of what kindergarten entails is actually rooted in the etymology of the word, which is formed from the German words meaning “children” and “garden.” Yes, kindergarten is often considered a milestone year in a child’s educational journey — but it is literally a time for children around the age of 5 to blossom and grow into more independent individuals. 

“Kindergarten should be the most joyful school year,” says Rachel Rubin, co-founder and educator at LᐧMᐧNᐧOᐧPlay! and a former pre-K and kindergarten teacher in New York. The most joyous and the most important, as she explains: “The purpose of kindergarten is for children to learn how to learn!” She adds, “Children learn how to be in a group, to wait their turn, to listen to the thoughts and ideas of others — really, to learn that others have thoughts and experiences that differ from their own.”

“The purpose of kindergarten is for children to learn how to learn! Children learn how to be in a group, to wait their turn, to listen to the thoughts and ideas of others — really, to learn that others have thoughts and experiences that differ from their own.”

— RACHEL RUBIN, CO-FOUNDER AND EDUCATOR, LᐧMᐧNᐧOᐧPLAY!

Exactly what is kindergarten?

There is certainly a reason for so much excitement around the start of kindergarten — even if children have attended pre-kindergarten programs beforehand.

“In many public schools, it is the first year of a child’s educational process if they don’t offer pre-K,” notes Christina Soriano, a Brooklyn, New York teacher, who has worked in the NYC public school system for 15 years in various roles, including that of a summer enrichment teacher for students entering first grade. In kindergarten, Soriano continues, students “build upon the foundations of reading, writing, numeracy —  and, most importantly, they learn how to be part of a community of learners, explore new subjects and gain confidence in themselves as people.”

While specific standards and curricula differ across the nation, the general idea that children are still learning to become members of a classroom and a school community is the same. “Kindergarten is a time for kids to learn how to interact, play and socialize with same-age peers,” explains Ashley Shur, a Middlesex County, New Jersey kindergarten teacher of 13 years. “Some students have not had a ‘school type’ setting so the beginning of the year is all about getting to know everyone, how the classroom works and routines.”

“Kindergarten is a time for kids to learn how to interact, play and socialize with same-age peers.”

— ASHLEY SHUR, KINDERGARTEN TEACHER

At what age do kids start kindergarten?

The short answer is that children enter kindergarten around the age of 5 — but because cutoff dates vary from state to state (and even from one school district or private school to the next), some children will begin the school year while they are still 4 and some will be turning 6 shortly after the school year begins.

And the kindergarten entrance age isn’t the only piece of the puzzle that varies. In fact, only 19 states and the District of Columbia require kindergarten attendance (although local education agencies may have their own entrance and attendance requirements within each state).

While some schools and school districts do not give parents any wiggle room when it comes to postponing enrollment, others are more open to academic redshirting, especially for children who turn 5 close to the kindergarten cutoff date. Of course, experts say that there are pros and cons to this option, and it is very child dependent. Yes, parents often know their children best and whether they are developmentally ready for kindergarten — but talking to a child’s preschool or pre-K teachers, day care providers or even a pediatrician can help parents navigate this decision. It is also important to research and understand specific school policies.

How does kindergarten differ from pre-K?

A pre-K (or pre-kindergarten) classroom prepares kids around age 4 (again, some may still be about to turn 4; others may be almost 5) for kindergarten. However, in some schools, pre-K may look a lot like kindergarten does in others. “It’s shifted a little bit,” says Professor Erin O’Connor, program leader of early childhood education at New York University in New York and co-host of the Parenting Understood podcast. “Before, a lot of the emphasis in kindergarten was preparing kids for working with each other, for routines of the school day, leaving home — and I think since that’s really shifted a lot to pre-K, kindergarten now is much more, for better or worse, focused on preparation for first grade.”

Still, there are often more expectations placed upon kindergarten students, whose age generally makes them more developmentally mature. Rubin says that children entering kindergarten “should be fairly independent attending to personal needs,” such as going to the bathroom or putting on a coat. She adds that, in kindergarten, the demand is often higher for sitting down for longer periods of time and for being able to work more independently. This makes sense because, as O’Connor points out, the student-to-teacher ratio is often larger in a kindergarten classroom.

And what is transitional kindergarten, or TK? 

Some states now offer what is known as transitional kindergarten (TK), a fairly new program first established by the state of California for children whose birthdays fall close to the cutoff date (think, September through December) — although it will eventually serve all 4-year-olds in the state. TK is generally part of the public school system (although some private schools offer similar programs) and offers almost 5-year-olds a year to bridge the gap between preschool and kindergarten.

Why one school’s program might look different from the next

There are obvious inequities in the U.S. education system that often put marginalized and low-income students at a disadvantage early on. For example, in schools where a high percentage of children have had access to pre-K programs, O’Connor says, the kindergarten year, especially at the beginning, “is going to look a little different potentially because you already have kids coming in with pre-academic and school-readiness skills.” And even if students have access to pre-K, TK or other publicly funded early education opportunities, it is often the quality of those programs that matters for students, especially in the long run.

Of course, there are students with varying skill levels in all classrooms. “We prepare for every student to come in as a blank slate,” notes Shur. “A student can come in knowing very little, and it is the teacher’s job to help that student grow academically, socially and emotionally.” 

What time does kindergarten start and end?

Again, it varies from school to school. While some schools and districts offer full-day programs that mirror a more typical school day (think, a school start anywhere from 8 to 9 am and lasting for about six to seven hours), others offer a half-day program with either morning or afternoon options, or both. 

Kristen Foster, a mom of two in Parker, Colorado, says that sending her children to a full-day kindergarten was an easy decision for her family. “Full-day programs offered more social opportunities for children in that they would have recess and lunch together,” Foster explains. “We valued our children getting to play and socialize with their peers, and full day offered a curriculum with art, PE [physical education] and music. We thought our children would love to be exposed to these classes.”

What types of learning take place in the kindergarten classroom?

Shur says that in many ways “kindergarten is the new first grade.” She explains: “During the year students are learning to read, write sentences, add, subtract and play or socialize appropriately with others. Kindergarten is no longer painting, eating a snack and taking a nap.” Still, everything in kindergarten, from following a new schedule to reading a simple book, is a learning experience rich with opportunities for children to grow.

“During the year students are learning to read, write sentences, add, subtract and play or socialize appropriately with others. Kindergarten is no longer painting, eating a snack and taking a nap.”

— ASHLEY SHUR, KINDERGARTEN TEACHER

Social and emotional skills

So much of what kindergarten demands requires social and emotional skills that children — even if they’ve attended pre-K — develop and strengthen over the course of the year. These include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Learning as part of a group: Kids are establishing friendships, working together and collaborating in order to learn, says Rubin, who adds that by sitting in a group and listening to one another, they are also learning from their peers’ feelings, ideas and experiences.  
  • Taking turns and sharing: The concept of sharing, Soriano notes, applies to everything from a set of blocks to — especially in larger classes — the teacher’s 1:1 attention. “And that’s not a negative thing,” she adds. “It’s teaching them patience and how to take turns.” 
  • Gaining self-awareness and independence: Everything from dealing with separation in a new environment to taking responsibility for many of their personal needs teaches this kind of autonomy.  Rubin adds that children also learn self-awareness as part of a class — discovering when to be a leader and when to ask others for help.

Academic skills

“A well-rounded kindergarten curriculum will provide students opportunities to question, experiment, discover and document,” explains Rubin — who notes that while there is definitely explicit instruction in kindergarten, learning can and should still be play-based and fun. And during the year children really are learning everything from how the world works around them (think, basic science) to foundations of literacy and math.

  • Literacy: Reading and writing programs are key in kindergarten. Rubin notes that not only will children “learn to identify and write uppercase and lowercase letters and match those letters to their unique sounds,” but they will apply these skills as they assign meaning to the words around them and communicate through writing and speaking and reading simple books. 
  • Math: This includes counting, understanding numbers and shapes, comparing the size of objects and groups and basic addition and subtraction — often taught with tangible materials and in ways that help make math relevant to kids’ everyday lives. 

“A well-rounded kindergarten curriculum will provide students opportunities to question, experiment, discover and document.”

— RACHEL RUBIN, CO-FOUNDER AND EDUCATOR, LᐧMᐧNᐧOᐧPLAY!

Constrained and unconstrained skills

O’Connor agrees that a well-rounded early education blends the acquisition of all of these skills — but says that these skills are more recently being categorized into what are called constrained and unconstrained skills.

  • Constrained skills: These are “things that have a ceiling, like the alphabet or counting to 100,” she explains.
  • Unconstrained skills: According to O’Connor, these include higher order thinking skills, problem-solving skills — and even social-emotional skills (like being able to self-regulate and focus for a certain period of time) that often make it easier for children to learn certain constrained skills. She adds, “You want children to be able to learn these skills together.”

Final thoughts on this new beginning

In many ways, kindergarten is a new experience for both kids and parents — and there can be anxiety for all those involved. “One of the tips that I received as a parent was to give your child the space and the freedom to talk about their feelings whether they are nervous or happy or just don’t know what they feel,” suggests Susie Lyons, a longtime educator in both elementary and middle schools and a Manalapan, New Jersey mom of a recent kindergarten graduate. “But it’s also important not to create anxiety around a situation.” 

That means preparing kids for the first day without projecting grown-up fears. And remember, kindergarten should be joyous and fun. 

“Let kids learn to love school and learning because they have a long road ahead,” Soriano says of this age group. “It’s the age of discovery. Anything you can do to support that is the most important thing. Communicate with your child’s teacher. Develop a relationship. Be open to feedback — both positive and constructive — about your child. You’re on the same team.” 

Jessica Zuckerman, a Port Washington, New York mom of two and current middle school assistant principal, wants exactly that for her soon-to-be-kindergartener: “I believe that kindergarten is a stepping stone for your entire academic career. Learning should be fun — and I believe fun is so incredibly important for kids.”

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