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Kindergarten Programs

Kindergarten Programs: Full Versus Half-Day
Information for Parents

A Brief History

Over three million students are enrolled in kindergarten programs in the United States. Slightly more than half of these are enrolled in full-day programs; the remainder attend more traditional half-day Kindergarten.  However, there is no consistency across states regarding requirements for kindergarten. In some states, public schools must offer kindergarten; in others it is optional. Some kindergarten programs are less than two hours per day while others provide six hours or more of daily instruction and activities. Typical “half-day” programs are about three hours in length, while “full-day” programs are five to six hours in length.

Kindergarten initially became popular after World War I, when part-day programs were first used to serve more children and save money. During the Depression, many school districts cut back on kindergarten, but the programs grew again following World War II. By 2000, 88% of all five-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in a school-based kindergarten program.

Because more and more children participate in preschool programs, kindergarten is no longer the first school experience for many children.  Today, many five-year-olds not only receive more educational opportunities, but they also experience more social, emotional and physical life activities. Many are used to a full-day program and are ready for a full day of kindergarten. Furthermore, the increasing number of single parent families also means that more parents may seek a full-day kindergarten program to better accommodate work schedules and provide a more consistent learning and care environment for their children.

Finally, interest in academic preparation to ensure later school success has created a demand for early school programs. Full-day kindergartens appear to have many advantages to school districts and to parents. However, to be effective, both half-day and full-day programs must be geared to the development young children. Full-day programs designed to push children to learn academic skills before they are really ready are likely to backfire.

Quality Kindergarten Programs

Many states are now developing guidelines for children ages six and younger based on the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) list of “developmentally appropriate practices.” The major challenge facing kindergarten is to provide developmentally and individually appropriate learning environments for all children who are legally old enough to attend kindergarten.  Because children entering kindergarten vary widely in maturity, teachers need to provide several levels of learning experience for each activity.  For example, a “trip to the store” can provide a language experience, a math lesson and a science lesson:  The language experience is making a grocery list; the math lesson is measuring the ingredients that the children buy; and the science lesson is the discussion about what happens when the ingredients are mixed and baked.

Small group and individualized teacher-directed activities, as well as child-initiated activities, are essential to successful kindergarten programs.  High quality programs recognize the importance of play and view teachers as facilitators of learning.

Full Versus Half-Day Programs

Developmentally appropriate full-day kindergarten can offer a more relaxed atmosphere and more opportunities for child-centered, creative activities, as well as more opportunities for developing social skills.  Full-day programs provide more time for field trips, activity centers, projects, and free play.  Students who are at-risk for school problems due to delayed development, disabilities, or limited preschool experiences, and who attend rigorous and nurturing full-day programs, are more likely to have stronger achievement in basic skill areas and generally better preparation for first grade.  For all children, full-day kindergarten programs help increase academic achievement while reducing the probability that children will be retained in the early elementary grades.

On the other hand, some argue that half-day kindergarten also can provide high quality educational and social experience. Others feel that children’s shorter attention spans and interest levels are more suited to a half-day program. The following summarizes results of current research comparing the effectiveness of full-day versus half-day programs.

Compared to half-day kindergarten, full-day programs are typically associated with:

  • higher long-term achievement
  • higher achievement for disadvantaged and low income children, and for those receiving Title I services
  • higher reading scores in early grades
  • fewer grade retentions
  • higher test scores
  • more time spent in individualized instruction
  • more time spent in free play, less time in large groups
  • greater progress in social skills for disadvantaged and low income children
  • more reinforcement of positive social behaviors
  • higher self esteem and independence
  • greater creativity
  • access to nutritional breakfast and lunch
  • a more relaxed, less hurried school day with more varied experiences
  • less parent involvement
  • no evidence of more individualized or innovative curriculum
  • no evidence of excessive fatigue or stress
  • no evidence of negative consequences in general

What Is Best for My Child?

For some children and families, a good quality half-day kindergarten program will offer sufficient experiences for the development of strong school readiness and social skills, while also providing time for other life experiences within the home or other community settings. For other children, the additional time spent in the structured learning and social activities of a full-day program will provide more ideal preparation for formal education. Particularly for children who have had limited learning and social experiences, or who are at risk for later difficulties due to developmental problems, family stress, or other factors, a high quality, full-day kindergarten program may offer the best opportunity to reduce the impact of these risks from the very beginning. There is no evidence that full-day programs are harmful to children .

If a child is already in a preschool program, discuss half versus full-day options with your child’s early childhood teachers or day care providers. If possible, visit the options in your community, and find out more about the learning and socialization experiences they offer.

Most importantly, when making decisions about full-day or half-day programs, parents should recognize that what a child does during the kindergarten day is more important than the length of the school day.


Full-Day Kindergarten: Exploring the Research by James Elicker. Phi Delta Kappa International (June, 2000) ; ISBN: 0873677412

Kindergarten: It Isn’t What It Used to Be by Susan and Mitch Golant. McGraw-Hill Contemporary Books (3rd Revision) 1999; ISBN: 077302534

Readiness for kindergarten (website):

Ready or not…Preparing young children for the classroom (website):

What should parents know about full-day kindergarten? (website)

Bilingual resource (website): (English) (Spanish)

See also: The National Association for the Education of Young Children—

This article is adapted from a handout by Mary Ann Rafoth,  Ph.D., Beth Buzi, and Sara A. Grimes, to appear in Helping Children at Home and SchoolSecond Edition (National Association of School Psychologists). Dr. Rafoth is Chair of the Educational and School Psychology program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania; her co-authors are graduate students in the IUP program. © NITV, 2003.

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