Since its introduction across Ontario several years ago, one question has hung over full-day junior and senior kindergarten: Is it working? The answer, at least in the interim, seems to be a solid yes. A recently released study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) tracked almost 600 students through their earliest years to grade 2, comparing those who started out in half-day kindergarten with students who enrolled in the full-day program.
The results? “The full-day kindergarten children were ahead in reading, number knowledge, writing and behavioural self-regulation,” says Janette Pelletier, the study’s lead researcher and a professor at OISE’s Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, noting that the differences are “significant,” and adding that they also discovered some vocabulary benefits and an advantage on grade 3 province-wide reading tests.
The study is important, because earlier research showed little, if any benefit for the program, which was maligned as costly and unnecessary by critics when it was first rolled out in 2010. With an initial $1.5 billion price tag, full-day kindergarten, which begins with two years of play-based learning, suffered from large class sizes and other problems. Ontario’s department of education has now capped classes at 30 students, and Pelletier chalks up the less-than-impressive initial studies to the difficulties inherent in introducing such a huge policy initiative, adding that she hopes her team’s research will contribute to its ongoing improvement.
These new findings may lead other Canadian provinces to introduce similar programs for younger children—currently Ontario is alone in offering full-day kindergarten for four and five year olds (although New Brunswick and British Columbia do provide a full-day curriculum for five-year olds). Noting that Nova Scotia is moving toward an all-day program for four-year-olds, Pelletier adds that the program benefits parents, too. “This investment supports parents, especially working parents or parents who return to school,” she says.
And for the children, Pelletier observes that the non-academic benefits are significant, observing that gains in self-regulation lead to better overall well-being and learning later in life. Interestingly, researchers also sought to capture the ‘voice of the children,’ interviewing them using finger puppets in junior kindergarten and asking them to draw pictures that capture their in-school experiences. Across the board, Pelletier says, children value friendships and play above all, adding that kids in the full-day program who valued play performed better, academically.
Going forward, Pelletier speculates that the benefits in self-regulation for full-day students may persist, citing other studies that have found similar trends. And the academic advantages? We will have to wait and see. “After grade 2, the way we measure reading, writing and number knowledge changes because the children are older,” she says, observing that it will be “interesting” to see if the benefits will be detected by these other academic measures. “The evidence will have to speak for itself,” she says. “We have begun the longer-term follow-up to grade 6, so stay tuned.”