Do four-year-olds need a graduation ceremony?

Child graduates from nursery in Cardiff, 2013

Why are more children having "graduation ceremonies" when they leave nurseries - and is there really any point?

The graduates line up nervously to receive their diplomas. One by one they pass by the master of ceremonies as they are handed a scroll. They pose in gowns and mortarboards as teary eyed-parents take photographs.

It is a scene re-enacted by twentysomethings in universities around the world every year. But a younger crowd is starting to copy them - a much younger crowd.

More and more nurseries, kindergartens and other pre-school institutions are offering "graduation" ceremonies for the three and four-year-olds about to leave for primary school.

Tens of thousands of outfits, based on those worn by university students, are being sold every year in Europe, the Middle East and Far East. They usually retail at up to about £20 and are available in dozens of colours, from gold to maroon.

In the US, pre-school graduations are an established, sizeable industry. Books have been written to reassure nervous children ahead of the ceremony, while cuddly toys of characters such as Sesame Street's Elmo in academic garb are available.

Graduation day at North Fleet Nursery in Kent Graduation day at North Fleet Nursery in Kent

Mothers offer advice on what food to serve at ceremonies, including tortillas rolled up to resemble degree certificate scrolls, mortarboard cupcakes and pencil-shaped cheese stick appetisers.

Some children even give valedictorian speeches. One boy's declaration that "I want to be Batman" has attracted more than a million hits on YouTube.

But now this US phenomenon is spreading rapidly.

Little Ladybirds nursery in Stockton-on-Tees in the North East of England has offered graduations since 2011. "It's all about celebrating their completion of pre-school and their individual development," says manager Catherine Mason. "Many have been with us since they were babies.

"When the ceremony happens there aren't many dry eyes among the parents, but the staff get the most upset of all. They're the ones who won't be seeing the children again. But mostly it's a very happy day and the start of the next part of the children's lives."

The kids, who have a celebration tea afterwards, seem to have enjoyed themselves. "It was lovely having my mummy watching me graduate," says Brooke. Imagen's favourite memory is wearing a red hat and gown, while Hayden expresses a particular enjoyment of the party food.

Vibeke's children Making paper mortarboards can be part of the fun

Despite the sartorial formality it is all apparently rather laidback. But another recent ceremony in Shanghai, China, involved pre-school graduates giving books to the next age-group - the two and three-year-olds - a sort of mini-inter-generational handing-down of wisdom.

A brawl broke out in a Los Angeles pre-school two years ago, after one mother apparently commandeered a cap and gown designed to be used in turns for photographs.

"It's all getting a bit silly," says sociologist Joel Best, author of Everyone's a Winner: Life in Our Congratulatory Culture. "It's absolutely meaningless. What does it really mean to say someone's 'completed' kindergarten? This is very much about the parents.

"In the past we worried about society becoming all Big Brother-ish and and anonymous. But, far from this, we've become a collection of smaller groups where everybody is reminded that they belong by receiving these little rewards."

Parents seem divided on the significance of pre-school ceremonies, with views on chat rooms varying from "cute" to "ridiculous".

Picture of smiling children from North Fleet Nursery, Kent

The term graduation has been used to denote the awarding of degrees since at least the 17th Century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the US similar ceremonies for younger groups, such as high school-leavers, have become all-pervasive. Conservative critics argue that, if this continues unabated down the age range, even to those too young to sit exams and receive grades, such awards have no point and could even damage the will to work for success.

The 2004 film Meet the Fockers satirises a liberal "prizes-for-all" mentality in a scene where Gaylord Focker's parents have collected and mounted on display their son's ninth-place ribbons from his school sports days. "He's my champion," his father Bernie declares.

US comedian Kerry McCarron has mocked kindergarten graduations, pondering whether there should also be a high school-style prom dance to appease parents desperate for ever more ceremony. "It's just a way of celebrating mediocrity," she says. "I remember my middle school graduation and thinking, 'This is ridiculous. It's not hard to pass 8th grade.'

St Paul Talmud Torah Nursery School graduation, Minnesota 1963 Kindergarten graduation has been an event in the US since at least the 1960s, as this photo shows

"A girl in my class was crying, hugging everyone, as if she was never going to see any of her friends again. We were going to see each other, not only all summer, but the next four years at high school."

Some argue that holding graduations for those leaving toddlerhood behind for the "big school" cheapens the idea further. They are seen as little more than another opportunity for a digital photo-fest. But the events are becoming increasingly popular in the UK. The Hampshire clothing firm Marston Robing started selling "a few hundred" pre-school graduation outfits a year in 2008. The number is now above 10,000, the firm says.

"Far from undermining the idea of having to work to achieve things, it gives a sense that you can do things in life," says Marston's founder, John Martin. "For some poorer families, this is the first taste of a graduation-type ceremony. About 50% of adults don't go to university and never get to attend one, so their kids have little idea of it. We find it's this group which is keenest on the nursery ceremony.

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The mortarboard
Woman carrying mortarboard
  • Thought to have developed from medieval square cap known as the biretta, worn by both clerics and laity to denote status
  • Mortarboard was originally awarded for doctorates or higher
  • Name - derived from cap's similarity to mason's board - can be traced back to 1854, but "mortar cap" thought to have been in use from 17th Century
line

"Of course it's not an actual graduation ceremony, but there's the whole aspirational side of it. Who knows, at age four, what children are going to achieve?"

Not that long ago failing to attend university graduation ceremonies in the UK was common.

"That's changed. We live in an age where there's a real search for rituals," says Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent. "In my time no-one even bothered to pick up their degree certificates unless they were a real mummy's or daddy's boy or girl.

"There's the sense now that we're trying to make a big deal of even the relatively ordinary, trivial aspects of life. A nursery 'graduation' is a reward for being there and then leaving. It's just a gesture, a fad."

Graduations can be touching, though, none more so than that for five-year-old Tatum Raetz in Phoenix, Arizona, last year, where 300 police officers attended a ceremony held just three days after their colleague - her father - had been killed while on duty.

Martin thinks all ceremonies, whatever one's age, have poignancy. "Most nurseries have a leaving party," he says. "If you have a normal party, that's fine, but in 15, 20, 40 years the people who went won't remember anything about it. If you keep the mortarboards, gowns and the photos of kids in the outfits, then you will."

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