Big bags for big boys

June 3rd, 2011

The Small Boy will be starting first grade in August. In the German-speaking parts of the world – most so, I think, in Germany but here in Switzerland as well – a child’s first day of school is a cause for celebration; it’s not the completion of Kindergarten that is marked here but the beginning of proper school. Entering the first grade is a big deal, and depending on the traditions of the region it might be marked by a special church service or a parade of the children through town or a service followed by the parade; certainly each child will get a Schultüte on the first day of school. Around here, it’s a bit less formal an occasion than in Germany but it is still very much a ritual.

The difference between Kindergarten and first grade is stark here. I’ve heard it said that these days, in the US, “Kindergarten is the new first grade” but here in Switzerland Kindergarten is about socialization and integration and getting ready for school but there is very little formal instruction. They play in Kindergarten, and there is a great deal of learning hidden in that play, but it’s essentially play. Kindergarten is about socialization, learning how to be away from home, and gradually adapting to a structured day in which you follow the instructions of your teacher. Small Boy’s Kindergarten class is a mix of five-year-olds who are in their first year of Kindergarten and six-year-olds who will enter school in August; the teachers do have different expectations of the  two groups in some circumstances, but the age groups mix and mingle during most of the day. Here, children learn to read and write in the first grade, and although from what I can tell all the six-year olds in Small Boy’s class know their letters and can write their names, it’s not a requirement for entering the first grade.

The things that do matter in Kindergarten, the things that define a child as Schulreif (ready for school) have less to do with what the child knows in any academic sense than with social competence. Kids here are expected to walk to and from school by themselves; that means they also have to be able to put on and take off all manner of clothes (including snow-suits and winter boots) without assistance. Children need to be able to sit still. They should be able to play with different kids (having one super best friend you always play with to the exclusion of other kids is a cause for mild concern here) and you should be able to engage in different types of activities (if you play in the building blocks corner every single day in Kindergarten, the teachers will encourage other activities). A child entering the first grade should recognize shapes and forms and be able to draw letters and numbers when looking at a model, but reading and writing is a job for the first grade.* Rather than writing in Kindergarten, the focus is on basteln – art projects. They are a useful measure of so many things, if you think about it: the fine motor control that children need to master writing, patience, the ability to follow directions and patterns (in the case of projects where the teacher tells you what to make), imagination and creativity (in the case where the teacher tells you to draw a picture of anything you want), or memory (in which the child might draw a picture showing a scene from the story the teacher read that day). Small Boy does a lot of art projects. The things we talked about at Small Boy’s parent-teacher conference were all along this line of social competence: if he can make friends, get along with people, get to school on time including getting undressed and changing his shoes, follow rules and pay attention to the teachers. In short, is he independent and confident enough for school? (If you can read German, there is an interesting checklist on this site; the chart on page two lays out the most important aspects of Soziale Kompetenzen.)

For all these reasons and more, the transition from Kindergarten and school is a big one. Kindergarten is Kindergarten; first grade is school. And so there are traditions to mark the move from one to the other; the first day of the first grade is a true milestone in a child’s life in the German-speaking world. There is the ceremony of the first day of first grade, the Schultüte, and the school backpack. Because there is no homework in Kindergarten, the kids only need a snack bag. For school, they need a school bag. Not just any old backpack, a special school backpack. Small Boy and I went shopping for his school supplies last week, and he took his time picking out his school backpack, looking over the different designs and ranking them one a scale of 1 to 4. The school backpacks here are big and boxy with a solid form that distributes weight fairly evenly and – I think more to the Swiss point – protect books and papers inside from getting bent and crumpled. They’ve also got a good deal of reflective material on them, what with all that walking to and from school kids do here. They’re really big, though; they can overwhelm a slight child.

Here is Small Boy’s school bag:

Inside the backpack are his school supplies, all neatly contained in an “etui”:

Buying them was a big deal for the Small Boy, and he is very, very proud of them. He’s getting ready to head on down the road wearing his school backpack, his school supplies tucked neatly inside, his snack bag a thing of the past. My Small Boy, getting Big.

* The other day Boychen’s babysitter** was here when Small Boy came home for lunch; it happened that he had gotten a piece of mail that day and when I gave it to him he asked where it was from. I said, “Read the return address.” “In-ter-hock-ey” he sounded out. “Cool, it’s from Interhockey” – the store where we buy all his hockey gear – and the babysitter was so surprised he could read and asked if was still in Kindergarten. There is absolutely no pressure for Kindergarteners here to learn to read and write before the first grade and no shame if they don’t. That’s what first grade is for.

** I think we’ve found a babysitter for Boychen one day a week. At her house. Rays of celestial light!