The desks are lined up, row upon row, books stacked up in towers. The children are smiling, and the sun is shining. Stina has drawn a picture of school.
‘What do you think they’ll be doing at preschool class? What do you do there?’ asks the Swedish researcher Helena Ackesjö, pointing at Stina’s drawing.
‘We read,’ says Stina. ‘And do mathematics and arithmetic … and plus and minus.’
‘And plus and minus? Are you looking forward to starting preschool class?’ asks Helena.
Stina nods affirmatively: ‘Mmm.’
Helena Ackesjö has written her PhD thesis on the transition from kindergarten and preschool class to school. The study indicates that the children have notions about what it will be like to attend preschool class even before their first visit to school.
Their expectations were clearly evident from the children’s drawings – row upon row of classrooms, desks and stacks of books.
‘Before we visited the school for the first time, the children talked about school as being hard work, accompanied by tests and homework; they were going to learn a lot. This was interesting, especially given that the preschool class is intended to ease the transition. It was not what the children expected. They expected higher standards and more difficult assignments – and that there would be clear differences between kindergarten and school. They also had many expectations related to physical surroundings; the big school building and the high climbing frame, a lunch room – things they didn’t have in kindergarten’, Ackesjö adds.
A CIRCULAR PROCESS
As a part of their preparations, the pupils-to-be visited the school several times during their final year in kindergarten. They came for informal visits, where they got to use the school playground or to eat in the lunch room, for example. When they paid formal visits to the preschool class, they met their new teachers, and engaged in school-like activities. In so doing, the children crossed a border between their old life at the kindergarten centre and their new one at school, all the while ascribing their experiences and expectations to preschool class.
According to Ackesjö, preparing for school by visiting the school is a circular or spiral-shaped process.
‘One cannot view the transition from kindergarten to preschool as a linear process where the child simply crosses a border from one place to another. There are many different factors and events that make preschoolers start to see themselves as future pupils, and cause them to think about the differences between kindergarten and school. This transition is facilitated, among other things, by talking about starting school when the children ask questions, and when they visit the school and then return to kindergarten, by discussing what they have experienced. In that sense, transition is a circular or spiral-shaped process’, she explains.
‘The children should understand that starting school also implies an ending, and that they’ll be leaving the kindergarten. Once they understand this, they’ll be better equipped to handle the transition to first grade.’
STARTING SCHOOL IS ALSO AN ENDING
Even after visiting, it is unlikely that all the children understand what the transition really entails. It is therefore important for early childhood educators to explain to the children why different activities are being organised and what the goals are.
‘The children visited the school, and they understood that they were going to start preschool class after the summer holiday, but all the children did not understand that the transition also meant saying “goodbye” to the kindergarten, sighs Ackesjö.
She believes there is a need for more transparent transitional activities that would enable the children to see the purpose of an activity.
‘A great deal remains to be done to enable children to understand that they will be moving into a different world than the one they have known at the kindergarten thus far’, Ackesjö continues.
‘For example, the early childhood educators can explain to the children that starting school means no more kindergarten, and they can organise more ways to mark the end of kindergarten than just the graduation party they already arrange.’ According to Ackesjö, it would make sense to talk about finishing kindergarten both during informal conversations at the lunch table, and through more formal rituals and symbolic actions and events.
‘The children should understand that starting school also implies an ending, and that they’ll be leaving the kindergarten. Once they understand this, they’ll be better equipped to handle the transition to first grade’, she says.
COOPERATION ON BOTH SIDES OF THE DIVIDE
Ackesjö deems it important that preparations for school are based on solid cooperation on both sides of the divide. Accordingly, she suggests creating more platforms where early childhood educators and teachers can meet.
‘The early childhood teachers can describe what they have been doing and the preschool teachers can build on that. This would also make it possible to adapt the teaching, making it more challenging for the children. My study indicates that when the pupils start first grade, they often repeat assignments they have already completed in kindergarten and as pre-schoolers. That could be avoided if communication were better’, Ackesjö ventures.
She points out that it may be difficult to create common platforms since kindergartens and schools are organised differently, have different working conditions, and are often located in different places. But her message is clear:
‘It is rather simple, actually. It is a question of sitting down together and talking, teacher-to-teacher. Had there been more common platforms for teachers of different kinds, cooperation would be greatly facilitated, making the transition easier and better for the children.’