Is German Kindergarten Right For My Child? Part One

Note: This is part one in a two part article about German Kindergartens. Click here to read Part Two of Is German Kindergarten Right For My Child. 

When we arrived in Germany, we were eager to enroll our daughter, Sequoia, in German Kindergarten. She was five and would have been starting Kindergarten in the States. We personally live close enough to an International School to have it as a fallback plan, but wanted to try to integrate Sequoia into German society for our time here in Germany: to give her the opportunity to become truly fluent with as little an American accent as possible and let her grow up with her neighborhood friends, participating in the same activities as them. Here are some of the things we considered and what we learned over Sequoia’s Kindergarten year.

MAKING THE DECISION

Here are some points about German Kindergarten (often abbreviated KiGa) to take into consideration when making the decision about where to send your child:

German Kindergarten is not just for 5-year-olds who are about to enter elementary school. German Kindergarten is more pre-school-like, and those with a free-play environment are perhaps more like an American day care. The age ranges for a Kingergarten can range from 2-5, for example, and a classroom can be completely integrated. Sequoia’s class included children who were two years old through other Schulanfänger children such as herself (a Schulanfänger is a child who is going to start first grade in the coming year). I personally found it interesting that there was less expectation that every five-year-old developed at the same rate, acted in the same way, and should be confined to spaces only with other five-year-olds. We felt that being around younger children made Sequoia less self-conscious about her own lack of fluency; after all, two-year-olds don’t make much more sense than new language speakers!

That said, there are German Kindergartens who separate the Schulanfänger children, even giving them some curriculum. A nickname for this is a “dinosaur” Kindergarten. In our Kindergarten, there were certain activities that only Schulanfänger could do, such as go for (supervised) walks in the woods as a group. If you are adamant that your child be among peers for their traditional Kindergarten year, then you might want to search for a Kindergarten with a separate Schulanfänger class.

Many Kindergartens are “free play” (freispiel). This means there is no curriculum. In fact, in some cases, the kids have very little structure. Our daughter’s Kindergarten had a climbing wall, a ball pit, a Lego room, a room just to play house in, and a loft that my daughter referred as the pillow fight room. Outside with the typical playground equipment were a sand pit, dirt piles, a giant hammock, and an herb garden. I stopped sending Sequoia to school in nice clothing rather quickly.

The lack of curriculum would be of concern to me in one particular age group: a child in their American kindergarten year who would return to the States expecting to enter first grade. If you are hoping to send your child to a German elementary school (Grundschule), then the lack of Kindergarten curriculum would not concern me in the slightest. Speaking for our state of Hessen, the first grade curriculum is solid—particularly math. The child should not be behind at the end of first grade for having skipped a Kindergarten curriculum.

It is important when sending your child to a foreign school to keep an open mind and remember that different is different; not necessarily better or worse—just different. Although Germans approach schooling differently from Americans, keeping an open mind will help you embrace the different methods if you are considering German schools for your child.

Most Kindergartens are run by the churches. In our area, this means mainly the Catholic Church. This is true of our local public schools (yes, public schools) in general, but you can opt out of religion classes if you so choose. If you are a strong supporter of the separation of Church and State to the point that you cannot put your child in a public school run by the Church, then you will need to research your local schools. There are Kindergartens run by protestant churches and also non-religious Kindergartens—you just have to do your research.

Different developmental skills are emphasized. In Germany, many Kindergartens have the Schulanfänger complete a weaving project—an impressively tight-knit weaving project. Sequoia’s teacher remarked that she was surprised when Sequoia came to them knowing how to read, but not how to weave! There is a different skill focus in earlier stages. Yes, Sequoia could read, but she couldn’t ride a bike without training wheels like some of the three-year-olds in her class already could. It is another example of how things were not necessarily better or worse, just simply different.

Teachers tend not to intervene as much as in the States and rules are more lax. This was a little hard to get used to. In the first few weeks of Kindergarten, Sequoia would come home from school and tell me that so-and-so did such-and-such and Sequoia told the teacher, but the teacher did nothing about it. Sequoia had come from two years in an American preschool where she had learned to tell a teacher if, for example, one child hit another child. I was as perplexed as Sequoia because I had not yet come to realize that Germans tend to let children work things out on their own. It is an interesting concept for an American in today’s society to get used to: not intervening so often and not laying down so many rules. Instead of helping children at every move, Germans tend to let children figure out how things operate, how to climb even if it means falling, how to negotiate sharing without being forced to by an adult, etc. This might mean adjusting your tolerance for roughhousing or what you consider bullying, or for how much you intervene to prevent your child from falling—or failing.

Kids play outside in all weather. Children take “Trousers” (full-body snow bibs) to school to go outside three out of the four seasons. In the winter, they wear their snow bib overalls for snow and cold weather; in the fall, for mud and cool weather; and in the spring, for mud, wet sand, and cool weather. Rarely was Sequoia outside without boots and trousers, which were left at school unless being washed. The kids played outside in all but rain—no matter that it was below freezing or snowing outside (that’s what gloves, scarves, and hats are for) or if there was 6” of snow on the ground. Sequoia once remarked on the way to school that she was going to play outside that day, but that in America they wouldn’t have been allowed to go outside. If you don’t want your child out in the cold, German school is not for you.

Kids wear house shoes/slippers in the classroom. In fact, German kids are changing their shoes all the time: they come to school and change into house shoes, they change into boots to go out and play, change back into house shoes to go inside, then back into their sneakers to go home.

Your child will probably eat a second breakfast. Even in elementary school, there is a mid-morning break for a second breakfast. This is typically bread, water or tea, fruit, maybe some salami. Some Kindergartens offer breakfast, but often you pack it.

Peanuts are not prohibited. In fact, there are slips that come home and suggest nuts as one of the snacks to bring in during holidays. Peanuts are given by Sankt Nikolaus. Nuts are not on the list of prohibited items like in every American school. If your child is allergic, you will have to be especially vigilant if they attend a German school.

Security might seem lax. Security is tightening in schools across America. In order to enter my daughter’s Northern Virginia preschool, you needed to know the pin number for the alarm system and be on a list to pick her up. At my daughter’s Kindergarten here in Germany, there was just a buzzer that only the parents and tall kids could reach. In the play yard, even if the gate was locked, the wall around the yard was low enough to reach/climb over. Germans watch out for one another, so it is hardly complete oblivion, but the lack of security might be a deal-breaker for some parents.

In fact, there is the possibility that you won’t know where your child is at every single moment of the day. I once walked home with Sequoia and learned that she’d been to the library that morning. The Kindergarten had walked several blocks into town to the library. It was news to me!

Notices will be sent home in German, and some will be long! If you do not know German, you will need to learn, fast. This is not impossible—I took great classes at the local Volkshochschule, or you can take classes through military bases. On the first day, I had no idea what the notices hanging on the door said, no idea what all the leaflets coming home said; even using google translate gave me such a headache when it came to page after page of materials to wade through. After a year and a half, however, I can skim most school materials that come home and get the gist of it.

Whew! That’s a lot to think about! Are you ready to take the plunge? Check Part Two to get some more insight into German Kindergarten and the transition to first grade.