David Boucher’s kindergarten classroom was a cacophony of vowel recitations, rhyming words, vocabulary drills and sentence decoding.

It was Day 34 of school at Folwell School in Minneapolis. The little ones should be reading by June.

Memphis stumbled in her read-aloud turn when she reached the last word of the sentence, “The leaves are brown.” With some coaching from Boucher, she proudly pronounced the color.

“I don’t want to hear you say you can’t do it when you can,” Boucher said to her.

When the school year ends, his kindergartners should be reading sentences like “The duck went in the little house” — and doing other things that used to wait until first grade.

Across Minnesota, kindergarten has morphed from learning-while-playing into a grade that emphasizes reading earlier and counting higher. Boucher’s Powderhorn-area school has an arts curriculum for kindergartners, for example. A school in the Hopkins district gives kids hands-on science exploration.

“Kindergarten is the new first grade, period,” said Greta Callahan, who teaches kindergarten at Bethune Community School in north Minneapolis.

The new expectations find teachers straining to balance mounting standards for young learners while trying to keep activities developmentally appropriate. Play often falls by the wayside.

Teachers’ impressions are backed by a study from the University of Virginia earlier this year that found that kindergarten has become more like the first grade of the late 1990s.

“Thirty years ago, 5 percent of kids could read at the end of kindergarten,” Boucher said. “Now, everybody’s expected to read at the end of kindergarten.”

Kids adapt to expectations

The mounting expectations date back about 15 years, recalls Janet Kujat, a teacher at Dowling school in the Longfellow neighborhood who has taught kindergarten for four decades. Earlier, kids would count to 30 by the end of the school year, she said. Now, they’re expected to be able to count to 100.

Minnesota’s climb to a more rigorous kindergarten can be traced partly to statewide goals urging that all third-graders should read at grade level. The ripple effect has seeped down into kindergarten classrooms, some educators say. In addition, the move to all-day kindergarten from half-day programs two years ago means kids dig deeper into concepts, said Debbykay Peterson, kindergarten specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education.

The effect of the changes on kids is unclear, the same Virginia study said. Some researchers think a heavier emphasis on academics will help close achievement gaps, while others say the early concentration is “potentially harmful.” The Virginia study found that nationally between 1998 and 2010, art, music and playtime had slipped from kindergarten daily routines.

Meadowbrook Elementary in Golden Valley, in the Hopkins school district, touts a kindergarten with STEM — science, technology, education and math. One recent day, 5-year-old Taylor Kotnour drew numbers in the patch of shaving cream smeared across her desk at Meadowbrook. Her favorite number tends to fluctuate, but at the moment, she said it was 10.

Her teacher, Lindsay Thomas, had set up stations with typical kindergarten activities like shaving-cream writing and drawing numbers in sand-filled baking sheets to help her students recognize and write numbers.

Earlier that morning, kindergartners played with gizmos like gears and funnels in Kristin Koloski’s Meadowbrook classroom.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” said PJ Fussy, a 5-year-old in her class, as he tried to make a robot out of plastic toys. “I just feel like playing something.”

Parents say they don’t feel their kindergartners are pressured to perform.

Children are eager to learn and adapt well to the rigor if they have support at home, Kujat said.

“They don’t want to feel like failures,” she said.

But some kindergartners are already anxious about their learning, said Tammy Goetz, principal at Seward Montessori in Minneapolis. That bothers her, she said.

Classrooms hold a mix of kids with different experiences, said Callahan, the Bethune kindergarten teacher.

“Not all children go to preschool, yet are expected to end up at the same place academically by June,” she added.

More children are getting access to preschool. Gov. Mark Dayton’s prekindergarten plan expanded early education this year so that more than 3,000 4-year-olds can attend school for free.

What happened to play?

But in the process, guided adult-supported playtime like sand and water play, dress-up corners and role-playing has largely vanished from kindergarten classrooms, said Amy Susman-Stillman, the director of applied research and training at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Education and Development.

Teachers are trying to balance rigor and fun. Kindergartners molded the shapes of letters with Play-Doh at Meadowbrook Elementary. They sang along to a song about the colors in Boucher’s class.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis district is administering tougher kindergarten assessments, Boucher said. He knows the bottom line but wishes things were looser: Kids need more time for Lincoln Logs, Legos and building blocks.

“My schedule doesn’t really allow for us to do that,” he said.

At Folwell, Boucher said he does his best to keep kindergarten fun despite the academic expectations with singalongs and arts projects, but the little ones wear out and lose focus in the afternoon.

The focus on rigor is cyclical, Callahan said, and she expects it to shift back to the importance of play.

“We’re going to start going the other way and having more of a balance,” she said.