German Kindergartens: One mother’s story

We all know that learning a second language is a great opportunity for our children, but many hesitate when considering a German kindergarten.  No two experiences are alike, but one mom was kind enough to write up her thoughts and experiences.  I’ll post mine here later in the comments.  If you have something to add, please add your comments as well.  This should help ladies in the future who might want to consider the German kindergarten for their young children.

Kindergarten in Deutschland: One Mom’s Story

Of all the many many daily-life things newcomers to GK could use a cheat sheet about (house hunting, shopping, traveling) the one I would have loved the most when I got here was one about German Kindergarten.   I can’t really offer a one-size-fits-all guide, because the biggest thing I’ve learned is that Kindergarten experiences differ greatly, depending on the school and the children, but with the closing of the International Preschool on GK, there’s one less option on the table for the preschool set and more families are investigating German Kindergartens.

So here goes….  Once you get here, ask your friends and neighbors about their experiences: some’ll be good, some’ll be bad, and some’ll be inbetween.   Maybe other moms can send Living in GK  their  own Kindergarten experiences or leave notes in the comments, just so that there’s more info for newcomers to draw on.

Enrolling your child:

Depending on where you find a house, there’ll likely be several kindergartens near by.  My village doesn’t have one, but there are two within walking distance and two more that would be an easy drive or bike ride.  When we visited the kindergartens, they asked us where we lived.   I’m not sure it matters what village you live in, but it might matter what Gemeinde you live in.  For example, one  Kindergarten in Gemeinde Gangelt told a friend who lived in Kreis Heinsberg that they’d put her on a waiting list, but that families who lived in Gemeinde Gangelt had priority.  I’ve also been told by another parent that German Kindergartens give priority to older children and have more spaces designated for older children.    I’m not sure what the actual policy says, but I do know it is very very hard to get a child under 3 a space, without spending 6 months or a year on awaiting list.   My two year old got a space this year, but I’m pretty sure it’s only because when we enrolled Big Brother in April of 2009, I told them that I wanted Little Brother to attend too when he was old enough. At a popular Kindergarten over threes might also have to wait.  If you think you might in the slightest want your child to attend the German Kindergarten, get him/her on a waiting list as soon as possible, even a year or more ahead of time.  (There isn’t always a wait. We enrolled my just-turned 4 year old in April, and every school we visited would have taken him right away).  The local Kindergarten will have you fill out basic information, but before your child actually begins attending you’ll receive enrollment paperwork in the mail from Heinsberg. All official enrollment as well as payment is made through the main Kreis Heinsberg office. 

When you enroll your child you choose 25, 35, or 45 hours a week and how much you pay depends on the number of hours as well as your income.  American families typically end up near the top of the rate scale, simply because the Heinsberg administrators count all of the various monies that show up on our LES, including COLA, BAH,  and incentive pay, not just base pay.  And, they want to see an LES as proof of income, not a tax return.   When we received the enrollment paperwork, we made an appointment at the legal office to have them help us with it.  It is a binding contract, so you’ll want to be sure you understand what you’re signing.

When we visited we showed up unannounced, rang the bell, and each Kindergarten gave us an impromptu tour, but then also asked us to make an appointment to come back to speak with the principal.  There will definitely be at least one teacher (probably more) who speaks English, so don’t worry about the language barrier.

Each Kindergarten is set up a little differently and each has its own vibe, so do visit more than one.  At ours there are 76 children enrolled all together. The children are divided into 3 classrooms, with ages all mixed together.  IOW, there are two to six year olds in each classroom.  I was leery at first, but as my youngest is the youngest kid in the Kindergarten this year and my oldest, one of the oldest, I can say I think the system works.  The older kids learn to help the younger the kids.  Each classroom has three adults assigned to it: a main teacher, a secondary teacher, and a teacher’s aide.  There are also teenagers rotating in and out, completing high school internships.  (*I have heard of Kindergartens who separate the two year olds into their own room)

A typical day….
Each morning begins and ends with circle time in the classroom.  In between, children move around at will between rooms, or to the gym, or out to the playground.  While there is far less structure than what is typical in an American preschool, it isn’t a complete free for all.  The difference is mostly that the kids get to choose what they want to do and when they want to do it.  If it’s craft time, but your kid wants to keep playing legos and not do the craft — that’s a-ok.  If the younger kids get tired and want to take a nap, that’s fine.  If they want a snack they go to the kitchen area and get a snack. (Some Kindergartens have mom bring a lunchbox with daily snacks for a designated snack time. Ours has each family contribute a part of the snack at the beginning of each week).   During all this free time, the adults are milling around in what I can best describe as a zone defense and each teacher is responsible for all the children in her zone at any particular time. 

My oldest child also attends in the afternoon and each afternoon has a different scheduled activity. For example, Tuesday is English day.  Friday is Fussball. Wednesday is school prep for the oldest kids, where they make sure they’ve begun teaching the children the skills they need for  German Gruendschule (elementary school).  FWIW, my observation of these skills is that it’s more equivalent to what American children would be taught in 4yo preschool, so pre-reading (letter recognition and letter sounds) or pre-math (counting and number sequencing).

The different kindergartens handle English speakers differently.  One kindergarten we visited split the English kids up, put each one in a different class and if they could help it, didn’t add a second English-speaking child to that class until the first had learned German.  Our Kindergarten chose to put all the English-speaking children in the same classroom with the the teacher who spoke the best English.  Either way, your child will learn German.  The rate at which she does, however, truly depends on the child.  My oldest child quickly figured out which adults and which children spoke English and he refuses to speak German to anyone he knows can understand him in English, even if they speak to him first in German.  And, he chooses to interact with the English-speaking adults and English-speaking kids before he interacts with the German-speaking ones.   However, he does know German (at least pre-school level German), and his accent is perfect.  I have friends whose kids showed no resistance to the German at all, jumped right in, and by 6 months were at a level that it took my child two years to attain.

The Struggles….
I constantly feel out of the kindergarten loop.  Rarely do I know what’s going on before it happens. I’ve had the best luck using my cell phone to take pictures of the signs and then translating the signs another time.   When I ask about the posted information, the teachers are more than willing to help me, but I hate to be *that* mom, you know the one who needs special attention every single day.  We never have a toy for “show-n-tell” day, never manage to bring the right raw materials for craft day, and usually don’t have the right clothes for gym time.  However, my kid isn’t a kid that cares about fitting in.  It doesn’t phase him in the least that everyone else brought a stuffed animal and he didn’t or that everyone else has gym shorts and slippers and he’s wearing the same sweats he wore to school and his socks.  And I know that about him.  Ergo, it’s more ok that I miss stuff.  If your little one is going to be distressed by missing out, then you’ll want to make a special effort to read the signs, ask questions, and stay informed.

We do attend some of the after-school events and meetings and the staff makes an effort at those events to make sure we feel included. At one meeting they even provided me my own translator, a teacher sat next to me whispering the English. 

The Rumors….
German kids are mean and are bullies and there’s no discipline 

German kids aren’t really any different than any other kids.  My sense of it this:  just like my kiddo knows who speaks English and who doesn’t, so do they.  They know the new kid can’t talk to them, so why would they go talk to the new kid when it’s not like he can understand them?  And, then, the teachers don’t insist on making space for the new kid.  In an American school, on Bobby’s first day, the teacher might ask Mark to make sure Bobby is included in the favorite playground game.  That kind of adult intervention doesn’t seem to happen in the German system.  I do understand why some American families initially feel that their children are isolated.  Hopefully, in most cases that feeling of isolation gets better over time.

Teachers appear to give the children more independence than is typical in an American preschool.  For example, we had to remind my oldest over and over again, that if he needed help (for whatever reason), he needed to go ask for it.  The assumption seems to be, that rather than intervening immediately, they’re gonna let the child try to work it out on his own, and that goes for everything from getting changed to play outside to solving playground disagreements*  It’s not that there is no discipline, it’s just that they approach it differently.  Here’s my favorite story to illustrate the difference….

One day, Eldest was building a block tower and Little Girl came over and purposefully knocked it down.  Eldest hit her.  In an American playgroup, I imagine our reaction would have gone something like this.  “Eldest, you don’t ever hit anyone, ever!  There is NO hitting.  Use your words instead.”  We would have taken Eldest to task, probably put him in time out, and then turned to Little Girl, almost as an afterthought, and said, “and Little Girl, you know you shouldn’t have knocked down his blocks.”

Eldest’s German Kindergarten teacher handled it this way.  She asked wailing Little Girl if she was alright and then asked somewhat-calmed-down Little Girl, “what did you think was gonna happen if you knocked his blocks down?  You shouldn’t knock down any one’s block tower, but certainly not the tower of the biggest kid in the room.”  Then, she reminded Eldest not to hit when he was angry. 

Interesting difference, huh?   *The notable exception to this less intervention policy might be crafts.  The crafts that the boys bring home really do look like the grownups built them. And I know for a fact that my boys aren’t all that interested in crafting, so my guess is the grownups do build them.

The Bottom Line:
I was super hesitant to send the kids to German Kindergarten. I readily accepted all the bad Kindergarten stories I heard and dismissed the good ones. It took me 6 months of living here, to work up to it.  BUT, I’m super glad we did.  The staff are now some of  my kids’ people. When eldest recently lost his first tooth, he couldn’t wait to tell his teacher.  The language barrier is an issue for me at times and it often makes my interactions with the staff awkward, but it’s clear, they love my kids and have my kids’ best interests at heart.  I don’t know whether it’s the German Kindergarten system in general, or just the school my children attend, but despite the sometimes “hands off” policy they are skilled at assessing where each child is and what each child needs and they strive to meet those needs.  This strength became apparent to me this year when youngest joined eldest at the Kindergarten (second kids are free, btw).  My kiddos couldn’t be more different in temperament and yet they’ve both been well taken care of and thrived at the school. 

12 Responses to “German Kindergartens: One mother’s story”

  1. Anonymous June 2, 2011 6:48 am #

    Our son started Kindergarten a couple of months before he turned 3 and the experience has been priceless. I was initially wary of such a free-range format and all the independence, but the older kids now the rules and routines and help out the younger ones. The teachers at the school (in Lieck) are attentive and affectionate and they keep things running smoothly. There is definitely no bullying or fighting allowed! I have seen them make sure that newbies and shy kids are included and they routinely buddy those children up with another child for activities. The level of organization on the “admin” side is astounding; lists, notes, sign-up sheets etc. It is usually very easy to follow, but the teachers always make sure that I know what is going on and the other parents are friendly and helpful too. I make a big effort to participate where I can and I know they appreciate that because, as one commenter stated, they do try to create a family atmosphere. 1)Sign up early, I was scrambling to find a place for my son as the limited slots for “under 3yrs” were full. 2)Visit! Call ahead or just show up to view/schedule. 3)Ask around: my German neighbors steered me away from our town school and I sought out another. But you have to visit; I know Americans who love the school in our town, you just have to find a good fit.

  2. Anonymous February 1, 2011 11:59 am #

    My youngest of three, my only daughter goes to German kindergarten. She has been there for 7 months now and we have been very happy with our experience. I have come to the conclusion that our German Kindergarten is designed to feel homey like family. Each morning when they get to school all the children take off their shoes and don cozy slippers. They call all the teachers by only their first names instead of using Frau. They also speak in the informal German, that is they use ‘du’ and ‘dich’ as opposed to ‘sie’ and ‘sein’. Her class is also mixed ages from 2-6 years, just like being at home with your siblings. When they eat ‘mittag’ (lunch) the children take turns helping to prepare the meal and then they all sit together like a family meal.

    The children are given lots of playtime. The classrooms have centers to choose from, similar to a Montessori approach. This is great for our daughter, who balked at all the class work in her Abeka preschool. They also have structured circle time where they sing songs and learn things. They have small group activities and special activities for ‘schulekinder’ to prepare them for grundschule.

    My daughter is the only English speaking child in her class. Since she is very social and loves to talk, she has done very well learning the language. However, there are days when even she seems overwhelmed. However, each week she speaks more and more. At home I often hear her playing with her toys in German

    I think this is a wonderful experience for her and I only wish my boys were young enough to go to Kindergarten. I wish I could go to German kindergarten, for that matter.

    • Update September 21, 2012 8:53 pm #

      Since I posted this comment, our daughter’s experience got better and better! We were so pleased we kept her in kindergarten for her American Kindergarten year. She made many German friends and had many playdates and invitations to birthday parties. It also gave me the opportunity to make friends with German mothers. The ‘Abschlussfeier’, graduation from kindergarten was over the top and a real immersion into the German culture. German kindergarten has been one of the best parts of living here.
      We were so pleased, we decided to continue the adventure by enrolling her in grundschule.

  3. Tiffany T. Weber January 29, 2011 1:43 pm #

    There has been some restructuring within the German services and the preschool was cut because it wasn’t making money and was going to cost people more. It’s a bit complicated. It’s a huge loss as we all loved that school.

    I’ll be deleting this thread of comments and moving any pertinent information to a post so that only German Kindergarden testimonials are listed here. The best way to “converse” is through my email.

  4. Anonymous January 28, 2011 3:55 pm #

    Thanks for the link. Do you know why the International Preschool closed? I see the link still on your website. BTW I’ve been to San Gimignano – it’s divine!! Thanks for all of you help. Regards Sara

  5. Tiffany T. Weber January 28, 2011 11:13 am #

    Many people see the experience of living in Germany as an excellent opportunity for their children to learn another language and another culture. Putting their children into a German (or Dutch) preschool program gives them a language immersion experience that many emerge from fluent.

    It isn’t for everyone, but it’s a great choice for many.

    As the International Preschool on GK has recently closed, the list of preschools that I have is limited. I have one posted here: http://livingingk.blogspot.com/2007/08/schools.html

  6. Anonymous January 28, 2011 12:43 am #

    Hi again. My name is Sara, I’m not anonymous, I just don’t have a google account to send this message with so I picked the “anonymous” title to send with. I assumed most people on this blog are US/Brit/Can Air Force families, so why wouldn’t their kids be sent to AFNorth for Pre and K classes?? I’m just a bit confused. Also, would you happen to have a list or website for a selection of preschools in the GK area for my 3 year old? thanks Sara from Canada

  7. Tiffany T. Weber January 27, 2011 10:51 pm #

    Normal age is 3-6, but some two year olds are accepted if there is space.

  8. Anonymous January 27, 2011 10:12 pm #

    Hello…we are Canadians moving to GK this summer… what age group is “German kindergarten” exactly? Is it North American “preschool” age? I have a 2 year old (turning 3 this fall) and a 5 year old who I expect to be going to the AF North Elementary school “kindergarten”?

  9. Anna January 27, 2011 1:38 am #

    My daughter when to the Kindergarten in Aphoven. It was a GREAT experience. She went for almost 2 years before we moved. When she enrolled she was required to bring a pair of gym shoes, a pair of rain boots, and a pair of house shoes (crocks..soft soled shoes). We later brought in a pair of the thin snow pants for rainy days. They split up the English speaking kids into the different classes. They also would speak to her in German and only if she really couldn’t understand would they then speak to her in English. We had only 2 options for hours half day or full day. She went full day and absolutely loved it! The first year she went they would come home for lunch for an hour and a half then go back. The second year we sent in lunch and she ate there. They had nap time and plenty of crafts to do. I met some great moms there who would tell me everything that was going on and help me out. If we had stayed I would have kept her in there until she could start Kindergarten on base. I hope this helps.

  10. Holly At Home January 26, 2011 12:17 pm #

    Our daughter attended Kindergarten in Gillrath. It was a challenge, an experience, and ultimately a delight. I spoke less-than-any German and this WAS a challenge; but the moms were patient and helped me. Our primary class teacher spoke no English so she and I worked HARD to communicate. This was one of the best, most humbling, life-lessons I’ve (personally) ever had.
    As for my daughter — she was speaking functionally after 3 months and fluent after 5-ish. It was nice to have my own pocket translator! ~:-) The work wasn’t always challenging for her, but they worked a great deal on fine motor skills (like in Montessori), which has boded well for her handwriting later on. I must say they were far more concerned with coloring correctly and doing things orderly and correctly than learning pre-school skills. This is where you, as a parent, have to step in. If your child will be attending American school the next year you will HAVE to supplement at home so they will not be too far behind. This includes writing numbers, knowing their alphabet and basic/beginning reading.
    Socially? Yes, the German way is different. But I’m SO glad she went through that! She had to learn to solve her problems and handled situations herself. She learned that physical play isn’t bad at all and you CAN go outside in a lot of different kinds of weather.
    The traditions at a German K are fun and very different, too. You have to be open-minded — know it’s not going to be “American” and embrace that. For ‘graduation’ the teachers (TEACHERS) took the kids to a ‘hay hotel’ for an sleep away adventure. It was GREAT! Embrace, embrace, embrace.
    It’s not for everyone and you will have stumbling blocks (count on it!), but with a few years’ perspective I am SO glad we made the choice for her to attend.

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