What a great topic. I am a former elementary teacher, and I spent several years teaching Kindergarten. (I quit when my oldest son, now eight, was born.) I am so discouraged by the changes that I have seen in education in the last several years that I pulled him out of school last year and am now homeschooling him.
Yes Kindergarten children are learning to read. There is a saying that Kindergarten is the new first grade. I find this so sad. Some of the questions I have are: What is the hurry? Why are we pushing our kids so hard? Is education supposed to be a journey or a race? And most importantly, at what cost is this to a child's imagination, creativity, self-esteem and sense of competence? Many children are not developmentally ready for the academics that they are being pushed to do. We accept that children learn to crawl, walk, talk, etc. at different rates, so why do schools throw this paradigm out the window when they reach age five?
With all the focus on early reading, math etc. there is less time for play. There is a lot of research that shows that child-initiated play helps children grow and develop intellectually, socially and emotionally. There is also research that shows that children who start out in a heavily academic setting may initially be "ahead" of children who are in a more play-based setting, but they show no significant gains of standardized test scores by the time they reach third or fourth grade.
A good resource for learning more about the importance of play, and the detrimental effect of pushing early academics is the Alliance for Childhood website at http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/
Another interesting link is: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/66
Which is a talk by Sir Ken Robinson entitled "Do schools kill creativity?" In which he argues that given how fast our society and technology are changing, and the huge challenges we will face in the future, creativity is at least
as important as literacy.