“The most unnatural thing in the world is a room of 16 3-year-olds.” That was the statement with which Bev Bos, Play-Based preschool advocate, opened her keynote speech. The audience was a large group of preschool teachers at an Early Childhood Education conference, and we all smiled, chuckled and nodded. I wrote down her assertion and my question: Then why are we doing this?
I had the joyous job of teaching 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds for 15 years. While I would never say that preschool is unimportant, I will say that, under specific (yet simple) conditions, it is unnecessary. If you decide that preschool is right for your child, then it is very important you find the best possible fit for your child and your family. There are a number of variables to consider and the internet has numerous useful lists of questions to ask when visiting a school site to observe and speak with the teachers and directors.
My concern with preschool, and the recent push for preschool-for-all initiatives, is that those advocating for it are lying to the public about the benefits of preschool. The most repeated lie is that children who attend preschool have an academic and social advantage over those that don’t. Studies are referred to that show kids who went to preschool commit less crime, make more money and were more likely to graduate from high school. What isn’t reported are the demographics of the study’s subjects. The generalizations don’t stand without knowing the larger picture. More recent research concludes that whatever gains are evident in the first years of elementary school have vanished by third grade.
Another concern is the ongoing push of the education system and popular culture to have our kids do more and do it earlier. Just because we can teach a 4-year-old to identify letters and their sounds doesn’t mean we should. I’m reminded of a colleague who told me that she had her 3- and 4-year olds sit at the big kids’ lunch tables, even though they were way too big for the preschoolers’ bodies and the kids often were fidgety and falling off the benches. Her reasoning was that “they were going to have to sit there eventually.” Using that logic, I should have given our kids the car keys when they were 12.
I hear this same argument when parents defend their decision to send their child to a preschool where the students are assessed and grouped academically. The popular notion is that an academic preschool will make the children more successful in kindergarten, and forever more. However, the kindergarten teachers I know and have surveyed informally don’t care whether Connor can count to 100, Devon knows every fact about dinosaurs, or Riley can read at a Level 8. They appreciate students who respect authority and others, are responsible for themselves and their belongings, can take turns, are polite in both speaking and listening, are good citizens and are resourceful, confident and curious learners. It’s up to parents to instill, develop and nurture those qualities in their children, beginning when a child can follow a simple direction and ending only when certain the lessons have taken root. To leave such an important task to anyone else is risky.
Ultimately, as a teacher who loved every day with her preschoolers, my advice is that it’s perfectly fine not to send your kids to preschool if, and only if, you are committed and prepared to enrich their environment with opportunities to learn and grow, socialize with peers, practice good manners, take turns and share belongings, provide physical and intellectual challenges, read daily, sing, dance, cook, explore and get messy a lot. If you can manage to spend at least the first five years of your children’s lives with them more than away from them, you won’t regret it. Your kids might even thank you some day.