Rachael Rachael, a mom of two daughters, is a freelance editor and writer who enjoys gardening and dreams of keeping chickens in her suburban St. Louis backyard. In her spare time, she helps to edit her husband’s science fiction books. Read more of Rachael's work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com or contact her by emailing rachael@mumblingmommy.com.

From circle time to centers, preschool is a complicated, wonderful, difficult, and memorable experience. This is the first post in Mumbling Mommy’s series about preschool. Check back later to read more and join the discussion.

I dragged my feet on preschool for a long time. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and it seemed counter intuitive to make financial sacrifices so I could be home with our children and then turn around and pay to send them to preschool. Our community does not offer free public preschool, so we had to ask ourselves tough questions. Do we pay for a year of preschool or pay to replace our lumpy couch that’s been hanging around since my husband’s bachelor days? My husband, an educator, also knew that not all experts believe preschool is the great investment many have
proclaimed it to be. More on that shortly.

After much discussion, we decided to wait until the year before our oldest daughter, Megan, started kindergarten before enrolling her in a two-day-a-week preschool program. That meant she’d start preschool this coming fall, in 2012, and she’d have time to get her feet wet in a classroom setting before taking the plunge into all-day kindergarten. (I have my hesitations about all-day kindergarten, but I’ll save them for another discussion.)

Then we added a second child to our household last fall and slightly altered our plans. I was busy caring for newborn Abby and didn’t have as much time or energy to keep Megan occupied. She was restless at home. And while she has a nice group of friends at our weekly library story time, has play dates with peers, and participates in the children’s ministry at church every Sunday, she was hungry for more time around kids her age.

In January of this year, my husband told me frankly, “Go enroll her in preschool. She’s ready for it, and it will give you a break.” I immediately signed her up for a program we’d heard good reports about. On her first day, she was so
enchanted by this colorful new world populated with other little people that she hardly acknowledged me when I said goodbye. In her eyes, preschool has been a big hit.

Although we are now rolling along on the preschool wagon, we did not climb aboard without careful thought. Our situation is unique because I stay home with our daughters, and many families don’t have that option; their children have to attend child care and/or preschool. I understand that. For families who do have a choice, though, there are a few things to consider. With the political push for universal free preschool these past few years, no one talks about some of the misunderstandings and potential pitfalls of preschool. Here are a few issues my husband and I have researched and discussed:

1.   For middle and upper class children with supportive, involved families, preschool may have little to no lasting academic benefits. One expert is concerned that preschool may become a new “middle class entitlement.” For low-income children who presumably stand to gain the most from preschool, benefits often fade by middle school, and early childhood investments are “no more cost effective than later investments in boosting adult educational attainment.” While preschool can be fun, it probably doesn’t improve a child’s chances at getting accepted to Harvard.

2.  Young children learn best in unstructured environments. Experts say kids need time to be bored. This is when they engage in creative play and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. There is value in building a castle out of couch cushions or a city out of sticks and rocks in the back yard. Pressure to improve test scores in upper grades has resulted in academics being pushed on younger and younger children. It’s fine to spend some time learning the basics, but a preschool program heavy on academics may not be developmentally appropriate. In addition, kids who are enrolled in too many structured activities – especially if they attend school on top of organized sports, art, dance, and music classes, scouting, etc. – can get burned out.

3.   Too much time in preschool can result in behavior problems and stress in children. Within the first few weeks after enrolling Megan, we noticed an increase in defiant behavior and are pretty sure she picked it up from a particular school friend. Studies have found “that the more time kids spent in non-maternal care during the first 4.5 years of life, the more behavioral problems they developed.” One study showed that while children made academic gains, behavior problems increased corresponding to the amount of time spent in school or child care centers. The reason? While it’s important for young children to learn social skills through interaction with others, their peers can be poor examples. Preschoolers are still developing traits like self-control, patience, and empathy, and those are best learned by spending time around adults who model good behavior. In addition, levels of the stress hormone cortisol are higher in children who spend long hours in child care or preschool programs. Just like an adult job, school can be stressful!

Does this mean you should completely avoid preschool? Not at all. Look for a good play-based program (versus a program heavy on academics) with limited hours per week, and if your child comes home with bad behavior she’s picked up from friends, view it as a teaching moment and explain, “We don’t do that in our house.” We have had a few discussions with Megan about what is and is not nice behavior. Good behavior modeling by parents can also make up for many peer shortcomings.  Also make sure your child is not over scheduled and still has plenty of time for unstructured free play.

My husband and I agree preschool has largely been a good thing for both Megan and me. The baby is considerate and naps most of the morning while Megan is away, and I am a better mother for having that brief time off. And while I can teach my daughter academics at home, preschool has broadened her experiences. Where else can a child play with boxes upon boxes of tiny manipulative toys or romp in a gymnasium with wagons, scooter boards, trampolines, and balls?

As with many things, preschool has its pros and cons. Educate yourself. Find balance. Consider what would best help your child to thrive. Remember that you can always change your mind and you won’t ruin your child for life. Ultimately, do what works best for your child and your family. Oh, and when that first day of school does arrive, don’t forget to snap a picture of your child wearing that cute backpack that’s as big as she is!

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Category: Education

Tags: advice