After a complicated application process and a long wait, we were thrilled to finally find availability at a German kita for Payton! The kita that we chose for Payton is considered to be a large kita with about 86 students in attendance ranging from ages 1 1/2 to 6. A large kita can definitely have its perks! Some of the smaller kitas in Berlin may be a bit cozier and have only 15 or 20 children, but the parents are often required to come in on the weekends to clean or provide maintenance (such as painting and repairs) for the school. Another downside to a small kita, is when the teacher gets sick, the kita closes and the parents have to figure out alternative arrangements for childcare. Payton’s kita has plenty of staff that can fill in when the teachers are out and other perks like hot lunches cooked onsite and a garden!
Montessori Approach & Mixed Age Grouping
The kindergarten that Payton attends, favors a Montessori approach and mixed age grouping (both are very popular here in Germany.) Payton is in the “Frösche” (frog) group at kita, and the children in her class range from ages 2-4. It is amazing to see how well the children of all different ages get along together! The older ones are always helping out the little ones, and it’s fascinating to watch how much the younger children learn from observing their older peers. Kitas in Germany tend to be a lot less structured than American preschools/daycares. They still have a daily routine that includes the basics like morning circle time (morgenkreis), lunch, outside play, rest time, snack, etc., but the daily activities are typically more open ended. German kitas tend to engage the children in a great deal of play time, movement, art, and music. Classrooms are rarely quiet, and there is a a lot of activity occurring at all times.There is also a greater emphasis on socialization and “free play” as opposed to the more academic driven approach you might often see in U.S. preschools. The German kitas encourage imagination and exploration in the classroom on a daily basis which I think is so important! Everything is very hands-on and kinesthetic with little intervention from the adults. Most German children don’t start really learning things like the alphabet and numbers until they go to primary school at age 6. German adults also tend to intervene less when there is conflict between children (unless of course things escalate!); they believe that it is important for the kids to learn to work things out on their own. Go to any German spielplatz (playground), and you will notice the parents are sitting around the perimeter watching their children play rather than hovering over their every move like American parents. (That is a habit I have had a hard time breaking! I still tend to hover a bit!)
The first time I visited Payton’s school, It was quite the learning experience! I couldn’t believe how busy and active the environment was! As a former assistant preschool teacher, I was used to weekly themes, carefully choreographed daily activities, a strict schedule, and a much stronger academic focus. In German kindergartens it just isn’t like that, but the children are just as smart, happy, and well-rounded as American children! Payton gets to do fun things at kita like have crazy dance parties with her classmates, smear butter in a dish for homemade apple cake with her bare hands, and practice balancing and gymnastics in the activity room! I am not necessarily saying one approach is better than another-they both have their pros and cons! Even though I initially had a tough time adapting to the less structured atmosphere of German kindergartens, as time has passed, I have grown to love the way they do things! The children I observe every day at Payton’s school are learning to be independent, compassionate, curious individuals. I am thrilled that Payton gets to have that experience!
When you walk into Payton’s classroom at kita, you will notice one thing right away-everything is on the child’s level which goes back to the Montessori Approach. All of the toys, tables and chairs, shelves, and cubbies are easily accessible to the students. Even art supplies like clay, paint, and scissors are within easy reach for a child, and the children have unlimited access to the materials for creating whatever they want! The hall bathroom is customized for young children, as well. In the bathroom you will find miniature sinks, toilets, and small hand towels on hooks lining the walls (each child has his or her own towel.) All of the girls and boys at the kita are able to use the bathroom and wash their hands with very little assistance from an adult! There is definitely a big emphasis on teaching the children to be responsible and independent individuals.
Underneath the initial chaos of a German classroom, there is a surprising amount of order! If you observe the children playing in the classroom during the day, you will notice that as they play they usually pick up after themselves quite well! I watched as one young student helped himself to a puzzle, put it together, then carefully placed it right back on the shelf where he got it from. The children all seem to know where everything goes and what they can and cannot touch. I even noticed glass vases of real flowers on the child-sized lunch tables and none of the children laid a finger on them! In German kindergartens the teachers tend to be a bit more hands off in an effort to let the children problem solve and explore their environment more on their own, yet they still have firm boundaries in place, and the children respect them.
The Language Barrier
The children who atttend Payton’s kita come from all different countries (primarily in Europe), but the main language spoken is German. Payton is the only native English speaking child in her kindergarten. It is strange to be the only American family at the school, but that did not stop the staff from welcoming us with open arms and connecting us with other “English-speaking” families at the kita. Many of the parents speak English as a second language, and the teachers even speak some English too! One advantage that we have when it comes to the language difference is Payton’s age. Two and three year olds are still working on building their language skills, so they tend to interact with their peers mostly through play! I always joke with Adam that the German picture books at kita are the same to Payton since she can’t read English OR German!
Payton has definitely had her days where she has gotten frustrated because she was unable to understand her classmates, but for the most part she doesn’t seem to care! Over the last 6 1/2 months that she has attended kita, she has learned more of the language, and I think she understands most of what her teachers and classmates are saying these days. Payton has actually started using some German words at home, and her teachers say that she follows commands in German at kita. I am so proud of how well Payton has adjusted to kita and a new language!
The Staff at Kita
We love the director of Payton’s kita! She was extremely warm and helpful from the start, which immediately put me at ease. Her English is also excellent, which is a perk! One of
my favorite things about the kita is that every single person who works there from the teachers to the cook in the kitchen knows who my child is. On any given day, I will walk down the hall of the school and any adult I encounter is able to tell me exactly where to find Payton at that time. It feels like a big family! I love that the teachers at the kita take the time to get to know ALL of the children. In the afternoon, the kita tends to blend the classes more and rotate the teachers around, so Payton gets the chance to be around other children, and she is able to get know the other teachers, as well. One of the benefits to the teachers knowing all of the kids, is that when Payton’s classroom teacher is out sick, the kita can sub in another teacher that the children already are familiar with. It is very comforting to know Payton is so well cared for at kita!
The school schedules are a bit different here in Berlin. Some of the kitas here will close for a short holiday (2-4 weeks) during the summer, but Payton’s kita is actually one of the schools that stays open year round which is wonderful! The kita does close for major holidays like Christmas (2 weeks), Easter, etc. and for a teachers’ planning day once a month. In case you need childcare during the days that the kita is closed, you can actually sign up to take your child to a neighboring kita free of charge! During a typical school day, most children arrive at kita between 8:30 and 9:30 am and leave by late afternoon around 3:30 or 4pm. Many of the kitas, Payton’s included, also offer early drop off and late pickup for those parents who have to work longer hours. The teachers are very flexible with the times, which is convenient. I typically bring Payton to kita between 9:30 and 10 in the morning and pick her up between 2:30 and 3 pm in the afternoon.
The Garden at Kita
Another thing I love about Payton’s kita is that they have a large garden (playground) at the school. Believe it or not, it is hard to find kitas with onsite playgrounds in Berlin due to the shortage of space in the city! The kitas that do not have a garden take the children to one of the many playgrounds (spielplatz) around Berlin instead. It is very common to see Tagesmütters or kita teachers leading groups of kids or pulling large carts of children down the sidewalks of Berlin to the playgrounds! The children are usually dressed in reflective vests so the adults can easily spot them. Payton’s kita actually takes the kids out to local playgrounds around Berlin a couple times a month just for fun! The Germans are big believers in lots of time outdoors even when it snows! If the weather is nice, Payton’s class typically goes out to the garden at least twice a day for extended play time.
Part of the garden at Payton’s kita!
One of two sheds in the garden. The first shed is where parents can store their strollers during the day since everyone either walks or rides a bike to kita. (There is not really a convenient place to park a car at the school!) The second shed is filled with outdoor toys for the children to play with like ride on cars, bikes, sand toys, gardening supplies, child-sized brooms for sweeping the sidewalks, baby doll strollers, etc.
Payton playing in the garden during the winter!
One of the kita outings to a local Spielplatz back in January! Many of the children walk, but the teachers will sometimes bring a cart along for the kids who get tired and want to ride.
Typical Classroom Activities
The types of activities that the children engage in at kita are not all that different from what you may see in an American preschool or daycare. Payton paints pictures and colors on a regular basis at
kita. They even have an art room where the teachers can take the class to work on different projects. During the morning circle time, the students talk about the date, time, weather, and schedule for the day. They play instruments, dance, and sing songs (in all different languages!) Payton can sing some of the “Wheels on the Bus” in German and “Guten Morgen,” a daily welcome song. They also sing songs in English, and I have even heard some French! The classroom teacher makes waffles with the class every Friday, which Payton loves! There is a library room where the students can go to read books, an “activity” room to do movement games on rainy or cold days, and a sleeping room for nap time. The class plays outside a good bit in the garden, and they go on “field trips” to playgrounds in the area. I actually accompanied the class on a visit to a local spielplatz since Payton was still doing her Eingewöhnung (more on that later), and the teachers decided to take the kids to a local history museum afterwards! The kids had to best time pretending to camp out under the stars in one of the exhibits, and they were so well-behaved!
The thing about German kitas is they don’t really do “permission slips” (unless it is an overnight trip), and most of the time the parents don’t even know that the kids are venturing off the kita campus for the day since they do it so often (the director at kita always knows where they are, of course!) It is actually quite common for some of the older children at kita to do overnight camping trips or sleepovers at the kita! At the end of each day, the teacher writes up a summary on the board outside the classroom of the day’s activities, which is wonderful! I take a picture of the board when I pick up Payton then go home and spend 15-20 minutes translating it! I have actually started to get better at my German, and the translating is getting much easier!
Payton’s schmetterling (butterfly) picture!
Payton next to the picture she painted at kita! She said it was “a design!”
Summary of the day’s activities! The class is learning all about “Summer and It’s Colors!”
Meal Time at Kita
Observing the children during lunch time (mittagessen) at kita is very interesting! The children sit at child-sized tables and eat off of ceramic plates with real silverware (even the young ones!) They also ALL drink out of regular cups with no tops! Sippy cups are very uncommon at kita. (I had to quickly teach Payton how to drink out of a cup after I realized that was the norm for a 2 year old in Berlin!) The children eat a hot lunch cooked onsite every day, and it is served “family style” at the tables in their classroom. The amazing thing is that the adults rarely serve the children. The kids actually serve their own plates and even pour their own drinks! It is sweet to watch the older kids assist the young ones with the food and drinks during meal time!
The kita provides milk for the kids during meal time as well as still and sparkling bottled water. Payton is actually a big fan of sparkling water now! You should have seen the look on the flight attendant’s face during our last trip to the US when my 2 year old requested sparkling water for her beverage! It was quite funny! His response, “That’s high class!” Payton is not, unfortunately, a big fan of the German food served at kita. I actually have to send her a packed lunch every day just in case she does not like what they are serving (which is a lot of the time!) The types of foods on the menu include pork and potatoes, pasta, rice, soup, mixed vegetables, salmon, bread, etc. It all looks pretty good to me! Hopefully with time, Payton will get better adjusted to German food! She already eats more of the food at kita than she did when she first started in January!
What to Bring to Kita
When Payton first started attending kita, the teacher gave me a list of items that I needed to provide. I had to ask some of my German friends to elaborate on several of the things on the list since they were quite foreign to me! First of all, you have to bring a
toothbrush for your child since they typically brush their teeth after lunch every day. I was also required to provide “sleeping clothes,” a blanket, and a stuffed toy for rest time. In kita, the children actually change into pajamas for nap time every day! Since they spend so much time outside, rain or shine, I had to purchase a rain coat, waterproof pants, and rain boots for Payton to keep at kita. You are also encouraged to bring in a sun hat for summer and a knit hat for slightly cooler weather (the Germans LOVE to put hats on their children!) In the winter, you are asked to provide a warm hat, mittens, snow boots, scarf, and a complete snowsuit for your child! All of the clothing and shoe wear can definitely add up since it is quite expensive out here! I priced out a pair of new snow boots for Payton, and they were almost $100! Luckily, there are a lot of second hand children’s clothing stores in Berlin. I was able to find the gently used purple snow boots pictured below for only $25! Since Payton has an afternoon snack at kita after her nap every day, I had to get her a “snack box” (the star box in the picture above.) I also pack an additional snack box with a lunch for Payton since she dislikes the kita food!
Payton all dressed up in her winter gear at kita! Knit stockings are extremely popular in Germany, and you will see young children dressed in them practically year round!
Payton in her rain suit! This is very typical of what you see German children wearing outside on rainy days at kita or at Berlin playgronds.
This girl knows how to rock her red rain boots!
Sleeping soundly during nap time on her cot!
Another interesting requirement at kita is “hausschuhe,” which are “house shoes.” All of the children at kita wear one pair of shoes (house shoes) when they are inside the school, and a different pair of shoes for outside play (usually tennis shoes, snow boots, or rain boots.) It is actually a smart concept to have two types of shoes with so many little feet going in and out of the kita all day long! It keeps things very clean! Where do they store all these things you may be wondering?! There is a large coat room in the kita where each child has an assigned cubby, coat hook, and bin where they store the indoor/outdoor shoes and clothing. The sleep clothes, blanket, and stuffed animal are kept in labeled cubbies in the sleeping room. Payton also has her own hand towel and place to keep a drinking cup and toothbrush in the bathroom.
The coat room at kita. Check out all of the winter gear! Berlin parents strongly believe in LOTS of layers of clothing on their children in the winter!
Payton next to her cubby in the coat room! My child definitely sticks out as the “American child” at kita! I am sure the Germans were not sure what to make of Payton’s oversized hair bows and monogrammed outfits. Monograms are not popular out here, and German girls do not wear hair bows.
Once I gathered up all of the items requested by the kita, I got ready for Payton to start her first day at her new kita! In Berlin kindergartens they have something called “Eingewöhnung” which is an acclimation period for the child. The idea is that you introduce the child to kita gradually until he or she is comfortable with staying a full day without the parents. You can expect for the Eingewöhnung to last anywhere from a month to 6 weeks depending on how well the child adapts. I actually think it is a smart concept, and it worked quite well for us! On Payton’s first day, I was there the entire time, and we stayed for 15 minutes just to meet the class and see her new room. In the 2 weeks that followed, I accompanied her every day, and we worked our way up to about 2 hours at school. I usually just sat in a chair off to the side and observed the class. After the first couple of weeks, I started leaving the room for short amounts of time (15 minutes to a half hour) and then finally left the kita for a full hour. Payton actually did really well during the acclimation period. She had worked her way up to staying a full 5 hour day by herself after about 4 weeks. It is funny because once the “newness” of kita wore off after a month or two she struggled for a few weeks but now she does great going every day!
As Payton was going through the acclimation period for kita, I was busy spending my nights filling out a special book that all Berlin kitas send home with children who are beginning kindergarten for the first time. “Mein Sprachlerntagebuch” which translates to “my language learning diary” is almost like a scrapbook/information book all about the child. The first half of the book has questions for the parents to answer about the child’s likes/dislikes, abilities, personality, learning style, fears, interests, etc. You also add photographs to the book of things like the child’s home, family, favorite toy, friends, bedroom, etc.
The kita uses the book to learn all about the child when he or she begins kita. The teacher can also pull out the book to show the child pictures of his or her family when the child is feeling sad or missing home while at kita. The second part of the book is for the teachers to fill out about the child! They write in general observations about the child’s learning and development and also attach samples of student work. The teachers at the kita fill in the book throughout the child’s time at kita (3-4 years), and then the book can be kept as a keepsake or passed on to the child’s primary school teachers. Of course the book is ALL in German, so I spent several hours with my translator figuring out the questions. I will admit that I wrote most of my answers in English. German grammar is difficult, and I still have a lot to learn! Luckily the director and several of Payton’s teachers do speak some English. The book will be a special momento for us to take back to the U.S., so Payton can remember her time at kita!
Finally Settling in!
Payton has now been attending German kindergarten for about 7 months. She has
made several friends and really enjoys going every day! It was not always easy for her. There was a period of time when she would cry for a short while every day because she was a bit overwhelmed. Payton has never attended daycare or preschool before, so it was a big change! Her teachers would tell me that Payton was getting frustrated that the other kids only spoke German, and she could not understand them. There is also the occasional issue with the language barrier between Payton and her teachers. There have been times that I have needed to help the teachers understand what Payton was trying to communicate to them. Payton had to quickly learn to ask to use the “toilette” versus “potty,” so that she could let her German teachers that she needed to use the bathroom!
It is amazing to hear from her teachers that Payton now uses some German phrases at school, and she even counts more often in German than in English! Payton knows basic greetings in German and even her colors in German! She will come home and tell me things the other kids said at kita, and she sings me songs in German. Last week, Payton turned 3 years old (her first birthday here in Germany!) and she got to celebrate with cupcakes, gifts from her teacher, and a dance party with her class. She had an absolute blast at kita! When I watched the video Payton’s teacher sent me of Payton dancing like crazy with her classmates at her party, it warmed my heart! Enrolling Payton in a German kita was a big decision, but it is also one I will never regret! I have definitely learned a lot, but I think she is learning even more!
Payton was thrilled when she arrived at kita and discovered the birthday decorations and surprises waiting for her!
Payton’s teacher, Nancy, gave her candy and a cute little purse that she can color with permanent markers!
The daily report on Payton’s birthday! It says that the children enjoyed delicious cupcakes, played party games, and danced to celebrate Payton’s birthday. It also says that they wish Payton lots of love and a wonderful day!