“Bing! Your son goes to Bing? How’d he get in?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that in the last few weeks. My 3-year-old son Marco just started at Bing Nursery School a couple of weeks ago.
A lot of Palo Alto area parents would kill, or so it seems, to get their kids into Bing. “About once a week, a parent loses his or her cool and is rude on the phone to Svetlana Stanislavskaya, Bing’s enrollment director.” (See this article.)
Bing is the Stanford University “Lab School,” and like Stanford, far more kids apply than can possibly go there. I’ve heard from someone (is it true???) that its waiting list is 4,000, and the school enrolls only 400 students!!! How can a nursery school be in such high demand? The irony is that Bing is far from the Stanford of preschools. There’s hardly a book in sight there. Instead, it’s entirely play-based, so Bing is more like the Chico State of preschools. Party school, baby!
I’m very skeptical of Palo Alto (CA) area parents’ interest in play. It reminds me of my single days when my male friends and I took up salsa dancing. Did we love dancing, or did we just consider it a means to another much more important end?
While parents here might be extremely driven to get their kids into a play-based preschool, they certainly don’t want them to play after preschool. Have you really looked at the neighborhoods around here recently? Where the heck are the kids? Where are the games of tag, pickup basketball games, etc.? OK, many are at organized sports practices and games, but those are adult-controlled, so kids aren’t engaging in “free play,” where they decide what to do and how.
From the point of view of an old kid like me who played outside every day thirty-something years ago, Palo Alto and surrounding communities are utterly B-O-R-I-N-G.
By and large, Palo Alto area parents see play for toddlers as a means to another end – intellectual and social development in the school years. A number of developmental psychology studies, most done at lab schools like Bing over the years, do indicate that play in the preschool years gives children an advantage in academic achievement in school in later years.
Parents around here just assume then, I guess, that the benefits of play abruptly end at the age of five, when children enter kindergarten. Thus, they can just drop their kids in Bing or a Bing wannabe (there are many in the area) for two years and feel like they have filled their kids’ quota for play.
Likewise, I quit salsa dance lessons six years ago in the very month I met the woman who would become my wife. Unfortunately, just as the benefits of salsa dancing go well beyond picking up babes (e.g. I’d be in better shape if I were salsa dancing now), the benefits of play go well beyond preparing kids for academic achievement in elementary school.
Many psychologists and medical researchers have written about how play continues to yield important benefits to children well beyond the preschool years. For example, see the recent American Academy of Pediatrics’ report entitled, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” David Elkind’s “Power of Play,” or Paul Donahue’s “Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters.”
These writers point out how free play beyond the preschool years yields benefits in creativity, social skills, leadership skills, problem solving, happiness, and physical fitness.
I don’t think we need Bing-like play-based lab elementary schools. However, I do hope that parents realize that, when their kids move on from play-based preschools like Bing to academic elementary schools, they have a responsibility to keep play as an important part of their children’s lives. That means letting them play in their neighborhoods around their homes much like they were able to play in preschool.
Certainly, over time, they should spend more time on academics and less on play, but play, and I mean *free* play, should always remain a prominent aspect of kids’ lives. An 10-year-old who can’t go outside on his own and help organize a game of tag or pickup basketball is as deficient as a 4-year-old who can’t recite his ABCs or count to ten.