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Kindergarten - Full Versus Half-Day: Information for Parents and Early Childhood Educators

By Mary Ann Rafoth, PhD, NCSP, Sara A. Grimes, & Beth Buzi
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

More than 3 million students are enrolled in kindergarten programs in the United States. Slightly more than half of those students are enrolled in full-day programs, and 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 other states it is optional. Some kindergarten programs are fewer than 2 hours per day while others provide 6 hours or more of daily instruction and activities. Typical half-day programs are about 3 hours in length, while full-day programs are 5–6 hours in length.

A Brief History

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 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 activities. Many children are used to a full-day program and may seem ready for a full day of kindergarten. In addition, 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. The following list is adapted from the NAEYC list of the “Top 10 Signs of a Good Kindergarten Classroom”:

  1. Children are active, playing and working with other children and materials.
  2. Children have access to variety of activities and materials.
  3. Children receive individual and small-group work time with teachers, not solely large-group work time with teachers.
  4. Children’s work decorates the classroom.
  5. Children learn numbers and the alphabet during everyday experiences, not solely during instructional times.
  6. Children have long periods (at least an hour) of playing and exploring, including playing outside daily, and do not fill out worksheets.
  7. Children are read to by teachers during the day and in small groups, not just during group story time.
  8. Children receive curriculum individualized to meet their own needs and strengths.
  9. Children and parents look forward to school.
  10. The focus of the classroom is on the development of the whole child, not just academic readiness.

Full-Day 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 at-risk for school problems owing 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 most children, full-day kindergarten programs can 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 interests are more suited to a halfday program. What follows summarizes results of current research comparing the effectiveness of full-day versus half-day programs.

Advantages of full-day kindergarten:

Advantages of half-day kindergarten:

Equal benefit (the following variables do not appear to be influenced by half-day versus full-day kindergarten):

Helping Families Decide

For some children and families, a good quality halfday 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 owing 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.

When considering kindergarten options:


For Early Educators

Clark, P. (2001). Recent research on all-day kindergarten. ERIC Digest. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service 200010601).

Clark, P. A., & Kirk, E. W. (2000). All-day kindergarten. Childhood Education 76(4), 228–231.

Cryan, J. R., Sheehan, R., Wiechel, J., & Bandy-Hedden, I.G. (1992). Success outcomes of full day kindergarten: More positive behavior and increased achievement in the years after. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 7, 187–203.

Elicker, J. (2000, June). Full-day kindergarten: Exploring the research. Phi Delta Kappa International.

Housden, T., & Kam, R. (1992). Full-day kindergarten: A summary of the research. Carmichael, CA: San Juan Unified School District. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED345868.)

Natale, J. A. (2001, March). Early learners: Are full-day kindergartens too much, too soon? American School Board Journal, 22–25.

Viadero, D. (2002). Study: Full-day kindergarten boosts academic performance. Education Weekly, 21(31), 14. Weast, J.D. (2001). Why we need rigorous, full-day kindergarten. Principal, 80 (5), 6–9.

For Parents

Golant, S., & Golant, M. (1999). Kindergarten: It isn’t what it used to be (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN: 077302534.


Child Care Aware, a bilingual resource:


Readiness for kindergarten—
What should be learned in kindergarten?—

The National Association for the Education of Young Children—

Mary Ann Rafoth, PhD, NCSP, is Professor and Chair of the Educational and School Psychology Department at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a past coordinator of the NASP Early Childhood Interest Group. Sara A. Grimes and Beth Buzi are graduate students in the School Psychology Program at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

© 2004 National Association of School Psychologists