A Day in the Life of a Kindergarten School

All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

Finally, the day arrived to do one of the things I was so much looking forward to doing – visiting a kindergarten class!

After a lot of work from my advisor, sending letters, explanations, my resume, my research proposal and waiting … I spent the day learning what early childhood education is like in many of the public and private schools in Seoul.

Elementary school begins in grade 1 so Kindergarten is not part of the K-12 continuum.

The school I visited is in central Seoul. It is a private Kindergarten, affiliated with  a university, or as they call them here, an attached school. I had already visited the elementary school where these students will go in first grade. English language is taught at this elementary school beginning in grade 3.

When I asked to visit the kindergarten, they were surprised since no English is spoken in this school. I explained that I work with kindergarten English learners in the States and that it was important for me to observe what the day was like and  get in my students’ shoes. I wanted to feel like many of my students, clueless about the language but doing what my peers are doing!

Since they wanted me to be able to ask questions from the teacher, I was invited to a class of 4 and 5 year olds – a pre-K4 in the States but with a mix of older children here. The kindergarten class that was next door had 5 and 6 year old children and was very similar to the one I was in, both in terms of the curriculum and the expectations.

As I was told in very simple terms, in Kindergarten we do everything through play. And play it was!

9:00 am – left my shoes in the cupboard at the entrance to the building. The children were sitting in a circle on the rug singing the “ hello how are you song” or as they say –안녕하세요-an nyong ha se yo.

 

my-feet
So great and so clean not to wear shoes for the day!

First thing that struck me – no student desks, no teacher desks, no large whiteboard, no Smartboards, no charts, not only in this classroom but in every classroom. Tables are set up for snacks, lunch, coloring and playing – some tables are low so children can sit on the floor, some are regular children’s height. Students do not have assigned seating.

When I asked about the teacher’s desk, the answer was simply, This is the children’s classroom, we don’t need a desk here. Our desks are in our office.

What there is plenty of are toys, learning centers, musical instruments, a piano, a large screen TV, books, art supplies, plants and children’s work.

 

The teacher, a young man with a wide smile, a contagious laugh, a kind and even tone and an amazing voice, introduced me to the class. All the children giggled and bowed – I told them that I teach kindergartners, many who come from Korea and they looked surprised. Then it was time we to learn. Of course, it was easier for me than it is for my English learners as I have lot of background knowledge but I still had to pay close attention to figure out what they were talking about.

The class is made up of 24 students. There is an aide who helps with the snack, lunch and stays in the room when the teacher takes some of the children to the gym. All the other “specials” take place in the classroom as well as lunch. The teacher teaches music and art and is part of the physical education class too.

10:00 am snack-time– two mini-cheese muffins and a glass of milk. It was so quiet and orderly. The students know exactly what to do with their trays and cups. Trays are piled up in one basket, cups piled up in another, garbage in can.

snck-time-2snack-time

After snack we had PE. Today was a special day – the students were weighed, measured and did some specific exercises to evaluate their physical fitness. Those students who had already done this stayed in the classroom with the aide playing with Legos, in the centers or doing art. They were all very busy.

 

scale-and-height-measure
Teacher measuring weight and height electronically
pe-stretch-machine
Teacher measuring a child’s “range of stretching”

Back from PE, the teacher decided that instead of doing the read-aloud, the children would be better off going outside. There is no scheduled recess. The Ministry of Education has mandated that all students spend one hour outside playing every day. All toys were put away quickly, the teacher asked only once. Out to the playground for one hour. In between children’s requests, he explained how the day goes. This was the only time we had to chat until the children left at 2:00pm.

 

Back to the classroom for a read aloud, students talked about the book, asked questions, gave opinions and did what we do in our classrooms. They all sit on the rug or bring a chair if they want to and the teacher reads.There is no turn and talk or partner talk. It is a whole group activity.

Sharing time – the book was about different celebrations so I shared what we do for Thanksgiving and they were fascinated by the fact I cook a big turkey!

Lunchtime – washing hands in the open bathroom and line up to follow the routine: get your spoon, chopsticks, bowl, put everything on the tray, help yourself to kimchi, noodles, dried squid, put the food in each “compartment”, then go to the teacher with your tray and he will serve you the hot food – today’s menu: chicken soup and rice, of course.

 

bathroom-wide
Bathroom -communal sink
bathroom-stalls
Bathroom stalls – all for boys and girls – a shower stall for those accidents!
urinals
Part of the open bathroom

Some of the classrooms share one communal bathroom in the middle- some have their own. One thing that I concluded about the way bathrooms are set up, based on my experiences at the jjimjilbang찜질방 – or Korean spa, is that children do not have the same sense of privacy here as they do in the States. On my visit to the spa, families are together for the day using the sauna, hot tubs, ice rooms. While the boys are young, they go to the showers with their mothers. When they are older, around 6 years old, they go with their fathers or alone. These places are safe and people are very kind with children.

No words to describe how organized and clean the classrooms and bathrooms are.

 

setting-up-lunch
Chopsticks and spoons – soup bowls – trays
lunch-first
Children helping themselves to noodles, kimchi and dried squid
lunch-final
Time to get the hot food – soup and rice.
lunch
Sitting down to eat and chat at the large table.
lunch-next-to-role-play-food
Sitting down to eat and chat at the low table where the role play food is.

 

 

Time to brush your teeth – as they finish eating – no rush, they take as long as they need about 45 minutes on average- they walk to the bathroom, pick up their toothbrush and rinsing cup, get the toothpaste and brush their teeth. Once they are done, they put their toothbrushes in a basket – toothbrushes and cups will be washed later by the aide (this is done every single day, the same as with the water cups).

 

kids-brushing-teeth
Children brushing their teeth after lunch
toothbrush-cubby
Toothbrush and water cup cupboard
toothbrushes-once-used
Used water cups and toothbrushes

 

As they are finished, the children go to the rug and play some more, then clean up and are ready for more instruction.

 

 

Reading, some writing by the teacher on a small portable whiteboard, more discussions, no partner talk or small group – all together raising their hand when needed, listening to the teacher read and when he stops, time to discuss the text.

Goodbye song – thanked them for a glorious day and told them that I would share everything with the teachers and children in the States!

1:50 pm – time to change our slippers into our street shoes and go home. Some children take the bus home or to the hagwans –private academies for more learning. Others are picked up by their mothers or grandmothers to go home.

Half of the class stays until 5:00pm with another teacher who works with a mixed group of 4, 5 and 6 year olds until the parents come to get them. Long day but they get to nap for one hour!

As for me, homework time – I came home to download photos and begin to write this blog.

The most extraordinary thing I observed today – the children are totally independent – they don’t ask if they can go to the bathroom or get a chair or put it back or color or pour themselves water– they know  what they need, where to get it and how to do it and they just do it! As the teacher said and we all know what he means, We practiced our routine a lot in the beginning of the year.

I hope you enjoy reading this entry as much as I enjoyed being in the classroom.  It was refreshing and magical – great school, amazing teacher and very happy children.

 

 

31 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a Kindergarten School

  1. Oh Monica, this is my favorite post yet! I am so impressed by the early focus on the importance of play in the education process. My many years involved with Primary Project, as well as the After School Program, have underscored the absolute necessity of abundant play time in the daily lives of children. And then to read further of the independence that comes at such a young age…fabulous! (Do you know if independence is taught/encouraged at home prior to school attendance? Does independence extend not only to actions but also to thought?) You highlight the cleanliness and orderliness of the classrooms and rightfully so! And oh those bathrooms!!!!! I am positively green with envy! “Refreshing and magical”…I cannot think of a more perfect description. Thank you for sharing and I can’t wait until your return when you will show us how to transform CHS! (wink)

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    1. Andrea, what a wonderful response! Your questions are important ones that I can try to answer – kids are quite independent here in many different ways: they tend to ride their bikes, scooters, play on the playgrounds with under very minimal adult supervision, safety is not a concern. Therefore, they are really encouraged to be independent early. In terms of thought, unfortunately, I do not speak Korean to be able to follow conversations but based on what is translated back to me, they seem quite independent too. I will be so very happy to share my experiences with you upon my return. Again, thanks so much for reading my entries – always a pleasure to get your comments!

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  2. Wow! I have to say this is my favorite post yet. I have been waiting for you to experience kinder education in Seoul and report back to us teachers. It was so fascinating to hear each aspect of the school day and to compare it to ours back in the states. The K teachers actually spoke about this post during lunch today. It is very interesting to hear how other cultures view “play” as learning time. As K teachers, we agree with this concept and have seen it be successful, but the rigorous curriculum keep us from the amount of “learning play” we can actually accomplish on a daily basis. So many things were different than our school- from the footwear, to the classroom set-up, to the day-to-day schedule. Reading this post, I get the feeling that the day is laid-back and relaxed, while also being quite productive. I feel like we are lacking that aspect. I love the classroom set up, the cleanliness/community feel of the bathroom, the meal prep, and the independence of the students. I believe we do a good job helping our students grow more and more independent throughout the year, but probably never reach this level of independence.
    As always, thank you for your insightful post. Very eye-opening!
    Casey

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    1. Thank you Casey for such a great response. It is so good to know that the K teachers discussed it at lunch. One of the main reasons I am here is to share with you what education is like in Korea so it can help us to work with Korean students at home. Now I can see why our new students are so lost when they come from Korea! They would never have a school day like our kids have at home – maybe now we can work with them differently until they get used to a totally opposite way of schooling. Be well and hope you like the next post too – it will not be about Kinder but…

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  3. This post is so fascinating because it reminds me of when I went to Kindergarten in Korea! It brings back all my old memories and I felt like I was on a time machine, traveling to the past while I was reading your post. It was wonderful hearing about your view and I can’t wait to hear more from you!

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  4. Hi, Ms. Shnee, I am flattered at your big praise for Korean kindergarten, and I am very surprised when you commented something that I already experienced but did not recognize. Anyway, I hope you can get a lot of experience of Korean education system, and it can be helpful for children educated in NJ. My wife will contact Minju’s school to request permitting your visit soon, and if it is possible, that will be another good chance to expand your understanding Korean elementary school education because her school has a little different education goal from other public schools in Seoul. Take care and have really precious time for children in both countries.

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    1. Dear Dr.Kim, how wonderful to know that you have been reading my blog and found something interesting that you had not recognized! I will continue to learn about your country and school system and look forward to visiting Minju’s school if it is possible as I know that you and your wife have been trying so much to make this happen!

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  5. Hi Monica,
    What an experience! In countries where Kindergarten is not part of the grade school (which begins with First Grade) there is usually more time for exploration, play, and more relaxed instruction. What a treat to see it in action!
    Beth

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  6. Wow! Monica, this post was fascinating to read! I have so many questions….where to begin? I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the day focused so much around learning play. This is so important for 5 & 6 year olds. If they do not learn how to get along with others, share, take turns, etc. at this age in school, where/when will they learn it? I’m glad the children in this school are building that foundation in their classroom and it appears as if this is focused on at home as well. It’s so important. So here are my questions:
    1. How do the children decide which center to play in? Is there a charting system and the children place their card in a particular center? What if too many children want to play in the music center? How do they decided who plays and who needs to find another center?
    2. If there is inclement weather, where do the children play for the mandated one hour of play?
    3. Are the toothbrushes shared and sterilized each day?
    4. I noticed pink and blue chopsticks. Is there much concern for gender neutral in Korea?
    5. Silly question – Is the outside sandbox covered at night? I’m curious about animals digging in it at night.
    6. Who cooks the lunch for the children? Are there outside vendors like we have for student lunches? Do students pay for lunch?
    7. Is flexible seating a new concept in Korea? I have noticed a few teachers starting to use this at Roosevelt.
    8. It appears as if the teacher is with the children for a good portion of the day, including lunch and special. Do they receive a prep period? If so, when? After or before school?
    9. You mention that teachers have offices. Are these communal spaces with desks or individual offices? I would find it difficult to have my desk and files away from the classroom and all of the materials I need at my fingertips.

    Thank you for sharing your Kinder day with us! We enjoyed talking about your post at lunch on Friday.
    All the best,
    Colleen 🙂
    PS – It’s peek autumn colors this weekend. Just gorgeous with color, but windy and rainy 😦

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    1. Hi Colleen,
      It gives me such a thrill to know that you are truly taking in this experience. I will try to answer each question below. Thanks for discussing this with the other teachers, it could not please me more!

      questions:
      1. How do the children decide which center to play in? The go where they want and negotiate for their spot. Is there a charting system and the children place their card in a particular center?No, they figure out which center is available or just ask to join in – there is no fixed number of children per center. What if too many children want to play in the music center? They figure it out. How do they decided who plays and who needs to find another center? They just went to the spot that they wanted to play in and they negotiated if they needed to. The teacher had no say on it – it worked.
      2. If there is inclement weather, where do the children play for the mandated one hour of play? They have a lovely gym that they go to and there is also a very nice lobby that they use – they can also stay in their room.
      3. Are the toothbrushes shared and sterilized each day? The toothbrushes are not shared, they each their name, same with the cups. Everything is sterilized daily.
      4. I noticed pink and blue chopsticks. Is there much concern for gender neutral in Korea? Not really, they just have both and kids can pick which they want.
      5. Silly question – Is the outside sandbox covered at night? I’m curious about animals digging in it at night. I asked the same question! not silly at all – the teachers cover it every afternoon.
      6. Who cooks the lunch for the children? Are there outside vendors like we have for student lunches? Do students pay for lunch? There is a kitchen in the building, there is no food coming from the outside and no parents serving lunch.
      7. Is flexible seating a new concept in Korea? I have noticed a few teachers starting to use this at Roosevelt. I don’t think they call it flexible seating in Kinder – they just sit on the rug and chairs at flexible spots. In terms of grades 1 and up, they have assigned seating in this particular school.
      8. It appears as if the teacher is with the children for a good portion of the day, including lunch and special. Do they receive a prep period? If so, when? After or before school? You are correct! Teachers in Korea do it all – in some schools, such as this, they also have a PE teacher but the teacher is there as well. In most public schools the classroom teacher does it all – there is no prep period during the instructional day. In the case of grade 1 and up, in this school, when the English teacher comes, the teacher has that time to correct workbooks, etc. They do go to art and PE but that is not the case in many schools. Teachers stay in school until 5:00pm or even later. The situation is not arranged the same way as in US public schools districts.
      9. You mention that teachers have offices. Are these communal spaces with desks or individual offices? I would find it difficult to have my desk and files away from the classroom and all of the materials I need at my fingertips. In the kindergarten case, the teacher has his desk in a communal office, files included. In the upper grades, there is a desk for the teacher.

      Voting – yes, I have already voted. I registered as an absentee voter living overseas on election day. I did that in NJ before coming here. I got my absentee ballot in the mail on September 28. I cast my ballot at the US Embassy in Seoul on October 7th. I have it marked in my calendar. I kept the envelope that the ballot came in.
      Hope I have answered all of your questions satisfactorily – always and pleasure and keep on asking!

      Monica

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      1. Thank you for responding, Monica! I am really enjoying your blog. Reminds me of when I had a pen pal as a child.

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  7. One more question, Monica! Will you be able to vote in the presidential election while temporarily living in another country? If so, please share the steps you had to take to cast your vote.
    -Colleen 🙂

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  8. This reminds me of a Montessori school. It seems very open and nourishing both socially and emotionally for the little ones. This was a fabulous post. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. You are right. My children went to a Montessori school and that is what they did in many ways. The big HOWEVER is that play is what all of Kindergarten here is about – there is no emphasis on the explicit instruction of skills that we now have in the States.Thanks for liking the post!

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  9. Loved reading everything about Kinder. So interesting to see the difference.
    My question. “Do they have report cards?” “How do they collect data for grading purposes?”

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    1. My understanding from the teacher is that there are no report cards but they do collect data like weight,height,physical dexterity (push ups, balance, running speed) and they have narratives for other behaviors. There is no testing at this level. They have many years to go through “Testing Fever”.

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  10. Wonderful, wonderful post. I loved the narrative and the accompanying photos. What an amazing experience. I’m so impressed by the autonomy of the students in the school setting. Thank you Monica for including us in your journey. It’s a privilege.

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  11. I enjoyed reading this post! I was impressed with the teaching of socialization, neatness, cleanliness, respect, good health, sharing, along with childhood play. This is what children should be learning on an early level..how to be and enjoy being children. Thank-You for sharing!

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  12. Hi Mrs. Schnee….this is Ms. Boucher’s class sending you a message back. We miss you! We had some questions. Why do you take off your shoes before going into the classroom? Why do boys and girls share a bathroom? Do the children have homework? Did anyone else there that day know how to speak English to you? How big is the school – how many more classrooms are there? Who cleans the classroom and bathroom? We can’t wait to hear back from you. Enjoy Korea! From Ms. Boucher & Ms. Miele and all of Ms. Boucher’s students : )

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    1. Monica,
      I thoroughly enjoyed your post and learned so much. The cleanliness is amazing and something I so appreciate! I can see bits and pieces here of what you describe at lunchtime where my Korean students often have compartmentalized lunch holders that showcase delicious looking food, fruit and candy. These children eat with such relish and I love watching them. How refreshing to see that children really have time to be children! I loved hearing about the slow pace of learning and exploration…something we don’t have!
      It was so great seeing you on Skype! I shared what you said with my students, and some remembered meeting you in the spring. We would love to Skype with you from my classroom maybe in December or January. When I mentioned to my Korean students that you were in Seoul their faces lit up!
      Can’t wait for your next blog…stay safe, and be well!
      Rosanne

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      1. I thought you would enjoy visiting this classroom! I am so pleased that you can now make this connection about lunch for our students – it makes sense, right? Let us try to Skype in December.

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    2. Hi Dearest First Graderes, Ms.Boucher and Ms.Miele,

      Thank you for all your great questions. I will try to answer them below.
      Why do you take off your shoes before going into the classroom? People in Korea and other Asian countries like Japan and China take off their “street shoes” when entering a home or classroom.
      Homes and buildings here have an area when you come in where you take off your shoes and then a small step step up to the floor of the house. This makes you think that your are walking into someone’s private space. In the old times, The Koreans had under floor heating stones to heat their wooden floors. They invented what we now call radiant heat. Also, in those days, Asians did most of their living centered around the floor. They had low tables, they sat on the floor to eat – in many restaurants you still do and if you look at the pictures, some of the tables in the classroom are low. The also slept on the floor – today’s futons are also low- and they many other things on the floor. That is why taking off your shoes would keep the floors and house clean. This is a wonderful tradition that people still practice today. It is also very nice and healthy to walk barefoot, specially if the floors are warm!

      Why do boys and girls share a bathroom? The bathroom is a large room with little stalls with doors. Children here are not as private as in the States as the rooms and homes are much smaller so this feels like something natural. They still have privacy in each stall but there aren’t two separate rooms for each bathroom since they are little and this is not something they worry about.

      Do the children have homework? Not in Kindergarten. Some children have English classes after school but there is no homework. Very different, right?

      Did anyone else there that day know how to speak English to you? Only one person spoke English. The teacher in that beautiful classroom. He was very kind and his English was really good.

      How big is the school – how many more classrooms are there? The school is just a building for PreK-3, PreK-4 and Kindergarten. It is about the size of New Bridge Center without the third floor.

      Who cleans the classroom and bathroom? There are special custodians that clean both but the teacher still has to keep everything neat – just like in our school.

      I loved reading and answering your questions. I hope you read the story of Hangeul and you ask me a lot more questions though I may not know the answers!

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  13. Hi Monica, I really enjoyed reading this post. This K setting reminds me of the Montessori school my daughter went to, and also I see some similarities with Russian Kindergarten a few decades back. Back then, when I still lived in a former Soviet Union, children started first grade at the age of 6, and Kindergarten was still a part of day care centers or school – preparation programs where kids mostly played during the day and had a few short 20-30 minutes lessons a day.
    The photos in your posts are amazing. I can’t believe how clean, stylish and modern the facilities are. However, I am not sure I like the idea of the same exact food for everyone. I remember how I stayed hungry day after day in Kindergarten in Russia because we all had to eat the same food, and I hated it. I love our multicultural ethnic lunches here at CH that I get a chance to observe during my lunch duties. Some aspects of the K routine that you are describing seem military style or even futuristic to me. Also, this place looks very groomed and new. I am wondering if public schools there look as wealthy and upgraded.

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  14. Hi Mariana,
    Interesting points – yes, the Montessori schools have some similarities – my kids went to one and I can see them. In terms of the food, the kids love it and do not have to eat what they do not like but the menu is very much what they would eat at home and they have a few side dishes too – so no one stays hungry. I have to disagree with you in terms of lunch in many of our schools – not a good way to respect a meal, food, and be fed. The multicultural lunches have created a lot of issues that have to be addressed and we have many opportunities to teach multicultural awareness – now that I have been to many schools here, I am convinced that lunch is for eating and learning to work as a community to clean up after us. – I know we will continue this conversation upon my return. Great to hear from you!

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    1. Mrs. Schnee, have you seen what Japanese schools are like? They are a bit more rigorous with all the “organized systems” but share in the same idea of community learning. I would love for our schools to have more of this!

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  15. I hope you are well. I love reading your posts. When you get back, I think you need to hold a series of workshops or some forum where you can share all these great learnings! It is all so very interesting to me as a Korean American mother with little ones who are growing up in the States. I am very aware of the cultural differences but seeing all the details up close and personal is very different. I’m so interested how and when the extreme academic focus enters kids lives given that it is everything to Korean parents for the majority of their children’s schooling years. Hope you are healthy and well and enjoying all the delicious food and sights…so very jealous!

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  16. Thanks for the suggestion! I hope I can share what I learned here with people in out district and beyond. As you can tell, I am a great fan of real lunches for kids and adults – as far as the academic rigor, I will share my insights later on either on the blog or in person. There is so much to understand that explains the way parents and children view education here.

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