I spent the first fortnight of this month in kindergarten. The first week, I was there Monday to Friday from 8.30 until around 11am, the second week until 1pm. The object of the two weeks was to acclimatize my son, who turns three at the end of this month and shall thusly start his kindergarten career. This process is known as the Eingewöhnung – adjustment – everyone does it, because everyone goes to kindergarten, because every child in Germany from the age of three is legally guaranteed a kindergarten spot. (This, of course, gets a little wrinkly logistically, because a kindergarten spot does not translate to ‘in a kindergarten of your choice’ and in most cities there are plenty of waiting lists and the encouragement to sign your child up as early as possible.) Most kindergartens follow the Berlin model of Eingewöhnung, which sees a parent accompany the child daily, and being present while it begins the process of making a new environment familiar and safe. Bit by bit, the parent spends longer amounts of time outside the room, until the child is happy to stay alone for the duration.
I remember vividly where I was (a smoky Spanish tapas bar eating some wonderfully garlicky aoili) when I first heard the ‘Kita’ word – or at least, first paid attention to it. Part of living in a language not your own is hearing a hell of a lot of words you don’t pay attention to, only to have them crystallise at a later point. A friend of mine, with whom I had done the birth prep course, and whose first baby was born two weeks after mine, asked me what I was going to do about Kita. I had no idea. I wasn’t working yet, although in a couple of months I’d slowly start picking up some private students, fitting them around a baby and breastfeeding. Nor did I have plans to go back to work anytime soon – my husband and I had agreed that we would structure our lives around being able to be at home for the first few years of our child’s life. My friend, who was going back to work once her baby turned one, had already toured several kindergartens and was on a couple of waiting lists for a Krippe spot (Krippe is for the 1-3 kids, before they move up to Kindergarten). Given we weren’t sending our daughter to Krippe, I reassured myself and the churning feeling in my stomach one gets when one doesn’t fully understand a part of the society in which they live but are perfectly foreign to, that we had a couple of years yet and shelved the concern.
I fell pregnant with our second child, and soon after he was born and when my daughter had just turned two, found a part-time playgroup at a nearby Haus der Familie, an organisation with houses around the country that run educational or extra-curricular programs for children and families. We went through an Eingewöhnung process and after a week or so, she was happy to stay two full mornings a week without me. She went for over a year, and at the end was there three mornings a week. They’d read, do crafts, eat breakfast and go outside – but mostly, they played.
We moved as my daughter turned three, and in our large village of 8000 people there are around five kindergartens. We picked the closest one, which turned out to be one of the luckiest decisions we’ve made in our parenting careers so far. They had just built a brand new room and were slowly building a new group – my daughter was its seventh member. Having been eingewöhnt already and there being only six other kids, the Eingewöhnung process for my daughter was quick. My son came too, every day, and after a week or so, she was in and happy. My husband and I, again, structured our working hours around one kindergarten kid and one toddler at home and very suddenly, too suddenly, it was time to enrol the toddler. He got given a place in a different group to his sister (policy is always to split siblings unless in special cases) and a date to start his Eingewöhnung and just like that, he was trotting off to kindy, backpack on. Having been there twice a day everyday for nearly two years, he was pretty tuned in to what was going on. But he was a few months younger than his sister was when she started and his group already had twenty kids – I didn’t quite know what to expect of his Eingewöhnung process. We had, in theory, a month until his ‘first official day’ and I had two weeks off work (coincidentally and enormously fortunately) so we had time to be as gentle as needed. The absolute main thing, the teacher kept saying to me, was that he felt safe and his associations were happy. The moment he got tired or overwhelmed, was the moment we went home for the day.
I used to wonder why it was expected children at age three go to kindergarten. Of course, it made sense that parents have to work, and children have to go somewhere, but even in families where a parent stays home, once the kid hits three, it goes to kindy. Why the pressure, I asked my husband, we don’t have this at home. You send your kid to childcare so you can work, or a part-time pre-school/playgroup if you’re at home but want socialisation for your child as it moves through its early childhood years. The idea of every child at three being guaranteed a Monday-Friday spot at a garden of children, with highly qualified staff presiding, wasn’t exactly one I was familiar with.
It has taken me a few years to have this moment of clarity, so permit me to state the obvious: Kindergarten in Germany is actually the very beginning of a child’s education. Just like every kid has to go to school (no home schooling is allowed here) every kid is also guaranteed a kindergarten spot (and in some states and cities, kindergarten is free). Kindergarten, while helpful for those who need their kid somewhere while they work, doesn’t exist purely to mind children for working parents: it exists as the first, vital part of their education, in which they learn the workings of a community and their place within it. They don’t learn to read or write or add. There are no classes, no formal learning. But it’s an education and a fundamentally vital one.
Every day for the first two weeks of May, I watched my son and his group learn the basics of being part of a society. They arrived, greeted their teachers and went straight into free play, before the call to tidy up for breakfast was made. Then they washed their hands, fetched their backpacks which contained breakfast, collected their plates and cups from the breakfast trolley, and sat at the table. There was a pre-meal song they all chanted before being allowed to begin eating, and once breakfast was over, they headed off and brushed their teeth. After breakfast they could do a number of things: free play, crafts, self-led drawing or painting, reading, or a session in the gym hall in which they climbed and leapt and swung and bounced. Older kids were allowed to get dressed and go outside and roam the playground for as long as they wanted. Then came the reading circle, then hands washed, then lunch. The older kids set the table for lunch and the lunch trolley was wheeled in. At the table, they served themselves, encouraged to try everything at least once. They were gently reminded to sit properly, to chew with their mouths closed, to give each other time and space to talk, not interrupt and shout over one another. Breakfast and lunch were lessons in how to sit and eat together, in appropriate table manners, and in the pleasure of enjoying a meal and conversation with one another. After lunch, they put jackets and shoes on, and went outside to the remainder of the afternoon.
This, I realised, as I began to spend an increasing amount of time reading on the ‘parent island’ as my son hooned between his rooms, growing more and more confident without me, is their world. We are only there to chauffeur them to and from, but outside of that, us parents don’t belong there. And that’s brilliant. There, in that world, during those hours, they are the people. The tables and chairs and toilets and cubby houses cater to their size. For the most part, they are in control and they have to find ways to navigate in and out of situations, solving their own problems as much as they can.
Independence is encouraged. The kids are supervised (in our kindergarten we even have the luxury of three teachers to a group of 20 kids) but expected to use the toilet alone, get themselves changed and unchanged for various activities (for example going outside which, in the winter months, includes a hell of a lot of clothing) alone and the bigger kids have table-setting and clean-up duties. Outside in the afternoon, the huge wrap-around playground that includes an uncovered bee ‘hotel’ and various beds of strawberries and other fruit and veg, a bike shed full of things to ride at full pace down hills, is theirs, the teachers there only to watch no one’s poking anyone in the eye with a stick.
They don’t learn to read. There is no formal education. Even the six-year-olds (and many of them are six, because parents are encouraged to send their children to school as late as possible) don’t necessarily know how to read and might only be able to write their name and a couple of other words. But that doesn’t matter. They dress up, they make believe, they create little kingdoms. They paint and plant things, go absolutely nuts in the gym hall doing things some other countries might not allow for fear of litigious consequences. At their Laternenfest last year, there was a flame thrower and open campfires, the hilly playground dimly lit and yet open to all kids to play on. Taking risks, that fundamental part of development and one we have removed increasingly from children in recent years, is absolutely encouraged. When these kids start school, whether they can read or write is immaterial: whether they are socially ready, whether they can regulate themselves – that is what kindergarten concerns itself with. Almost all those skills – problem solving, organisation, social understanding, peer interaction, getting along as part of a group, self-direction – are learnt through play. Play, play, play. Kindergarten is an education founded on and found in play.
Of course, now I must go through my own Eingewöhnung: a quiet house and four extra hours in my day, entirely for myself. Huh.