The times they are a-changing. “Back in my day,” as my Mom would say, “kids didn’t go to school at all until we were six years old! We stayed home and played with other kids in the neighborhood. We got to just be kids.”
Nowadays the push for education starts early. Parents feel pressured to enroll their kids in preschool as early as possible, partly because the rosy days of kids running freely around the neighborhood have given way to a more “indoorsy” generation of youngsters. They can be outfitted with iPads and airpods before they can even speak, and having a parent who can afford to stay home is becoming more rare by the day.
But another reason for pushing children out of the nest sooner is because parents think children need to get ahead, lest they fall behind. The budding societal pressure for youngsters to have the alphabet memorized has parents thinking their toddlers need to divide and multiply if they’re ever going to make it in today’s competitive economy.
But what does the data say?
Preschool does provide an opportunity to prepare kids for the atmosphere of learning: structure, routine, patience. It may give them a leg up on “falling into the fold” of kindergarten, and soften the chasm between the comfort of home and the rigor of school.
However, academically speaking, any “leg up” on academics is not even noticeable beyond the second grade. Children who did not attend preschool catch up quickly and close the gap.
Special Early Childhood Programs
Still, some parents feel the need to provide a dual-income household and enroll their kids early, moreso as an affordable alternative to daycare or hiring a nanny, than as a scholastic advantage. While there are various programs in place to support struggling families who need childcare prior to the start of kindergarten (Head Start, for example), the Virginia Preschool Initiative was created in 1994 to serve at-risk 4-year-olds who are not being served by Head Start.
For these at-risk children, preschool is vital. It is a safe environment for them to flourish while their home life is anything but. The programs serve an underprivileged segment of the population, and for these children, something as simple as one year of preschool makes a tremendous difference in the trajectory of their lives. From reduced rates of incarceration and lower drop-rates to future happiness and career success, the importance of this program cannot be overstated.
Though only certain families qualify for these state-sponsored programs, there are many other options for parents who wish to enroll their children in preschool. Whether it is the child who seems to be chomping at the bit to start school early, or the parent who is chomping at the bit to return to work, there are many different preschool options (from half-day to full day to three days a week, etc.) to fit the family needs.
There are also many different learning models. The Montessori system fosters self-confidence built on the premise that children should be independent learners and have more control over their learning choices. These classrooms have children of mixed ages, so siblings can be together if desired, and older kids can guide younger kids in a more organic way than if a teacher was always involved. The Reggio Emilia approach also employs a sense of curiosity-led self-discovery within the child, putting the focus primarily on learning through play. Children are all members of the same classroom “society”, and social skills are at the forefront.
It is certainly not a one-size fits all situation. Different children are going to flourish in different environments, and some children might just thrive the most with a single, dedicated caregiver at home. It is essential for parents to do their homework and find the right fit for the unique needs of their child, and not to be swayed too much by fancy programs and pedagogical jargon. At the end of the day, the greatest benefit to any child is going to be the simple presence of a loving and supporting environment, whatever shape that may take. Manageable classroom sizes and competent, loving teachers will outweigh rigorous instruction and formal programming.
Flexible Preschool Ideas
There is a growing movement toward a more natural, flexible preschool experience, and the Forest School is a great example. This program, catering to ages 2-7, is adaptive and offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves. The school year is composed of regular sessions across all seasons and emphasizes sensory, practical play, outdoors.
Another happy medium between homeschooling and preschool is the co-op experience. Sharing the burden of homeschooling across multiple families allows children to benefit from social interactions with peers, and gives the stay-at-home parent a much-needed break. Each participating household takes a particular day of the week and subject area. These co-ops became even more popular during the pandemic, when many parents were frustrated with the lack of socialization their littles ones were getting when stuck in masks, six feet apart, during such an important time of their social development. Valley Classical School in Blacksburg offers a unique blend of classroom instruction and homeschool.
What the Future Holds
The bottom line is that fewer parents are choosing to stay at home with their young ones beyond the toddler years. Almost as soon as children are potty-trained, parents are eying preschools and daycare. Many mothers in America return to work immediately after maternity leave because they cannot afford to stay home. If you are a stay-at-home parent in today’s economy, your family may be making some sacrifices to do so or you have the option of not needing both parents in the workforce. This latter scenario can be a lonely place when playgrounds are empty, and your youngster has no one to play with because all of the other kids are in preschool or daycare. In fact, so many kids are not staying home with a mom or dad that preschool programs are becoming overstretched, with long waitlists and increasing tuition. The teacher to student ratio is widening, and kids are getting lost in the crowd.
Preschools are racing to catch up and meet the growing demand, but it doesn’t seem to be happening fast enough for many parents. Company-sponsored daycares are a growing trend, and with more work-from-home options today than ever, parents find themselves balancing child-rearing with a career. But providing stimulating activities for the burgeoning mind of a preschool aged child can be difficult when you are tied to a home office chair.
Striking the right balance for each child and family is key, and hopefully more options will continue to become available and serve the changing needs of the community.
Text by Emily K. Alberts
Freelance writer Emily K. Alberts fondly remembers taking a business call at the Chick-Fil-A play place when her children were pre-preschool ages!