Whether or not to send a toddler to preschool is a decision many parents face. For some, it’s a no-brainer, while others would prefer to wait or forego it entirely. We asked two moms and an expert to tell us why they feel the way they do about this issue.
“I’m a big believer in preschool,” says Karen Quinn, a mother of two and former preschool admissions officer in New York City. “Kindergarten has become what first grade used to be, and kids need to have the pre-math and pre-reading skills that nursery schools provide.”
The whole area of socialization is not one to be minimized either. “Preschool is usually the first real experience away from home where the child begins to deal with socializing with other children,” says Quinn. “Mom is not there to intercede, and the child begins to learn to function in a group as well as one-on-one with other children. They also learn how to relate to other adults. This is also a very important skill as they move through school. Keeping a child out of preschool makes it a lot more difficult for the child to develop these skills. But, I think they’re important tools for dealing with the world.”
Quinn admits that it is possible to keep your child home and provide the benefits of preschool. For example, one of her clients was “homeschooling” her toddler and approached it like a full-time job. As a result, Quinn says, he was very bright, friendly, and socially well adjusted. “But most of us can’t provide that rich of an environment for our child,” says Quinn. “Maybe we work full time. Maybe we have other children. Maybe we aren’t the kind of person who would be comfortable teaching her child – or maybe we don’t know-how.
“If the parent was doing the kind of things my client did – or even half of the things she did – I’d be comfortable,” says Quinn. “I’d just want to know that the child was getting at home what he would be missing from not being in a day-to-day group learning environment. But it takes a very special, committed parent to make staying home as enriching as going to preschool.”
Quinn feels that for a vast majority of moms, preschool is a wonderful opportunity for children to learn from professionals who know how to teach in a fun and age-appropriate way. “And even if we stay at home, every mom needs a few hours a day for herself,” she says. “When your child is at preschool, it can be ‘Mom’s time.’ And everyone benefits.”
Quinn concedes that it might not be 100 percent necessary to start a child in preschool at age 3. Still, she believes it becomes important by age 4. “In the end, I’m convinced that children who go to preschool are more confident and better prepared when the time comes to go to kindergarten,” says Quinn.
Marcy Axness, a mother of two and an early development specialist in Granada Hills, Calif., is passionate about this issue. “We’re on an ill-conceived national trajectory of teaching younger and younger children more and more academics,” says Axness. “Yes, it’s still wrong even when delivered with loving, sing-song voices: learning numbers and letters is considered academics – requiring a very young child’s brain to work with abstractions when it isn’t yet ready! I also have strong feelings about the appropriateness of ‘preschool’ of any kind for toddlers; let’s call it what it really is – daycare!”
Truly developmentally appropriate preschools are hard to find, Axness says. What about preschools that have a focus on play with integrated learning? “There’s a central misconception right in that phrase and misapplication of the very notion of what learning is at this young age,” says Axness. She thinks that the idea of “integrating” a more abstract, academic kind of learning into the play is silly. Activities that relate to a particular letter, for example, are fine, as long as there’s no pressure in any way on the children to turn around and “demonstrate the learning,” says Axness.
Axness admits that preschool can be good for socializing and dealing with conflict for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds, even a bit at 3. But at an earlier age, “I would question the appropriateness of seeking to foster the ability to successfully deal with conflict, etc., without Mom there, for toddlers,” says Axness. “This is in itself utterly contrary to psycho-social developmental realities.”
What Does the Expert Say?
“In my opinion, there is usually no right or wrong way to structure your child’s preschool years,” says Robyn Landow, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with a subspecialty in child and family psychology and a private practice in New York, N.Y. She has consulted with various community groups on child development issues, and a large number of her private practice patients are referred to her for issues of parenting and child development.
“There are many excellent options that would contribute to preparing your child beautifully for school,” says Landow.
However, Landow says most experts agree that at least one year of school – commonly called Pre-K – is necessary. It’s becoming the norm in our society, and many public school systems are working to provide Pre-K for all children. In addition, some parents opt to send their children on the early side because they want their religious education to begin early. In contrast, other parents opt to create a nursery-years schedule through other activities such as playgroups and organized classes.
“Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr. probably did not attend nursery school and lived successful lives in which they succeeded both academically and socially,” says Landow. “I think we could also assume that their toddler days were not filled with Montessori, Mozart CDs and the big parachute that children love to run under these days. Sending your child to preschool will not make or break the academic years. That being said, I agree that kindergarten is closer to the first grade of yesteryear, but I do not believe it has moved the children of today up an entire year.”
The concept of using preschool as a respite for parents is popular and falls into the category of “what works for you,” says Landow. “Some moms are just not the ‘amateur nursery school teacher’ type and know that sending their 2- or 3-year-old to a nursery setting will be both entertaining and educational for them while giving Mom a few hours to focus on the other parts of life she is juggling.”
Landow concedes that nursery school for a 2- or 3-year-old is a type of daycare. “I do not think calling it that is tarnishing its name, however,” she says. “Children need to have someone taking care of them at any given time, and if nursery school is part of that weekly schedule, I do not see anything wrong with that. In fact, many nursery schools are daycare centers and vice versa, creating a nice hybrid for dual-career families who feel a nursery school experience is a priority for them.”
Does a 1- or 2-year-old need to go to nursery school? “Absolutely not,” says Dr. Landow. “If they go, will they have fun and benefit from the social interaction and exposure to pre-academic tasks? Sure!”