Is Preschool Important for All Kids?

photo: wakeforestmontessori.com

How the heck did we get the idea that all three-year-olds need to go to preschool? Now that I’ve had two sons waste a year at age three in preschool, I really started to think about this question.

Three years ago, my son Marco, now 6 and doing very well in kindergarten, floated around in his own world for a year at a renowned play-based preschool, Bing Nursery School in Palo Alto, CA. He didn’t really engage with any other kids. He didn’t seem to care about any other kids there. He claimed to like school OK, but we couldn’t really detect that he got any measurable benefit out of it.

Now, my second son, Nico, is three, and he’s been attending another well-regarded play-based preschool. He’s a very different kid than Marco in many ways, but he shares one thing: he’s gotten nothing out of preschool at the age of three. Zero. In the meantime, at home, he’s a very happy, social kid who plays very well with Marco, with his younger brother Leo, and with many neighbor kids.

Over the past few years, I’ve spoken to quite a few parents who have had problems with their three-year-olds or four-year-olds – both boys and girls – at preschool. The problems aren’t identical to those of my boys, but in each case, the child wasn’t getting much out of preschool or was actively disliking it.

Who should we blame? The schools? Us parents? Our kids?
I’ve got a new culprit for you: educational researchers. I know a fair amount about these folks because I studied at the Stanford University School of Education for a year back in 2002-3 and got an MA in education there. Practically every piece of research we studied focused on low-income kids.

This research focus on low-income kids is largely responsible for the current conventional wisdom that preschool is essential to prepare all kids for kindergarten. For instance, consider the Rand California Preschool Study. The name certainly sounds like it’s focused on preschool for all California children, but if one looks more closely, it’s clear that this study is really about “closing the achievement gap” so that the low-income kids of California can catch up to the rest. The first report alone mentions the word “gap” 199 times in 134 pages.

It concludes that for closing this “gap,” preschool is very important. In other words, preschool is very important for low-income kids.

I applaud the effort to increase the academic achievement of low-income kids, but educational researchers like the Rand Corporation do other kids a great disservice when they author research that looks like it’s about all kids, when in reality it’s just about low-income kids.

So, given the fact that there’s little or no research on preschool for middle or upper middle class kids, how can we parents of these kids make a decision on whether to send them to preschool?

I think we parents of middle and upper middle class kids need to consider a few things to make this decision:

  1. What was our own preschool experience, or lack thereof? Yes, our experience decades ago is relevant to our kids today. Our kids share our genes, and genes certainly play an important role in determining a child’s temperament. Neither my wife nor I went to preschool, yet we both adjusted to kindergarten quite well.
  2. Do our kids have quality social interactions with other kids in their daily lives? Many people believe that the most important impact of preschool is on a child’s “social skills.” If a child has no siblings and doesn’t encounter many other kids daily, preschool may help that child start to feel comfortable with other kids. My boys don’t have this problem. We have three little boys in our family, and they all have an active neighborhood life with lots of other kids here. I do not believe that a three or four year-old can only learn social skills in a class of a dozen or more kids. Frequent quality interactions with one or two siblings, or one or two friends, is absolutely fine for kids at that age.
  3. What would our kids be doing if they weren’t in preschool? If a child would be watching television all day, certainly preschool is a better choice. However, if the child would be doing fun and interesting activities with a loving mother or caregiver who can teach things, it’s not immediately clear that preschool is advantageous.
  4. If we are considering skipping preschool entirely, can our kids get the kindergarten prerequisites without going to preschool? My son Marco’s elementary school told us entering kindergarteners should be able to read and write the letters of the alphabet and numbers, and be able to count to 10 or 20. (I don’t remember exactly.) We taught him all of this and more at home in his preschool years.

For those of you middle and upper middle class parents who send your kids to preschool, and are happy with it, by all means keep doing it. Preschool won’t harm your kids, and it might just do some good.

This article is really for parents who are considering preschool for their kids and for parents of kids currently in preschool who aren’t getting much out of it.

To these parents, I say, don’t sweat this one too much. If your kid’s doing OK socially, if your home life is good, and if your kid can pick up the minimum kindergarten prerequisites at home, preschool’s not going to add much to your kid’s life. People tend to underrate the value of your home life and to overrate the value of preschool for your kid. Decide for yourself what’s best for your kid, and don’t think that you’re putting your kid at a disadvantage for not sending him or her to preschool when practically every other parent you know is.

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