Many of today’s preschools are focused primarily on preparing little kids for kindergarten — but do they really need it, or is attending preschool merely an accepted rite of passage these days?
Chances are, many children would benefit just as much, if not more, from staying home with Mom or Dad — provided the home environment is nurturing and stimulating, with opportunities for proper socialization.
“Kindergarten requirements are, unfortunately, more like first grade used to be 10 years or more ago, with kids expected to be reading by the end of kindergarten, and with fluency, no less,” Boston-area mom Marianne Downing said. “So pre-K is now like kindergarten, which used to be about learning to take turns, learning letters and numbers, learning through play.”
President Obama, of course, proposed making preschool education available to every child in America in his 2013 State of the Union address. And his 2016 budget includes a renewed push for universal preschool, as many lower-income families find preschool either too expensive or not of good quality in their area — yet the decision must be a personal and family-based one.
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As income rises, so do quality opportunities for children. Three-quarters of children ages 3 and 4 whose families have incomes of $75,000 and above are enrolled in preschool, The Huffington Post reported.
Pre-K can include a lot of bells and whistles these days, and programs can get pricey. The Lone Mountain Children’s School in San Francisco, for example, has an extensive music and creative movement curriculum, which includes singing, dancing, and performing.
The price tag? An astonishing $18,000.
Parents need to look at several factors when deciding whether pre-K is right for their child. They need to ensure pre-K is not the default, but is instead considered carefully and according to each individual child’s needs.
“Is the child interested and happy while socializing, or does the child prefer to cling to Mom and explore the world only as long as it is within a 3-foot radius of her lap? If it’s the latter, don’t push pre-K,” Claudia Ruiz, a psychoanalyst in New York and author of “Where’s My Sanity? Stories That Help,” said.
“Also, does the mother enjoy getting down to the child’s level, or does she prefer to nurture the child in other ways?” said Ruiz. “There is no right or wrong answer here, but if the mother does not love playing with the kids, a pre-K experience could benefit the child.”
Today’s ever-changing family structures, including multi-generational living, may fill in gaps in a child’s experience at home.
“Does the family have a community that exposes the child to different personalities?” said Ruiz. “If so, that could serve as a pre-K experience.”
Dr. Jean Robbins has been the head of the Early Childhood Division at Catherine Cook School in Chicago since 2007. Of the pre-K decision, said, “I do think it’s wonderful for kids and families to have time with their kids, but it’s not possible for all families to be together full-time now that both parents are working. The benefits of a high-quality early childhood environment reach both children and their adults.”
Children are learning all sorts of life skills in pre-K — including negotiating and collaborating with each other, said Robbins. “They’re creating a sort of pattern for how life works, and when they do that together, they build on each other’s experience,” she added.
The benefits of pre-K extend to families as well. "Parents are getting ideas on how to parent from others in a pre-K community — other parents as well as teachers. It's often helpful to see how other parents solve problems."
The best of both worlds may be a 2- or 3-day program, said Robbins. Catherine Cooke offers half-day or full-day programs that include art, music, library, and lunch — and Robbins believes lunch is a more important time for tots than people would think. "Lots of things are happening during those social moments of lunchtime together!"
Cada Dawn, a Boston parent, has found what works for her child. "My six-year-old had no pre-K and is doing so well in kindergarten," she said. "My son has two older siblings and went to numerous activities other than pre-K — story time, for example. He had many playdates, too, and just was a social person, so I guess I got lucky."
The decision comes down to this overriding consideration: "It's really a matter of what helps the family feel good about life," said Ruiz.