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Do kids need preschool?

South Florida Parenting

With all the talk about school readiness, parents are beginning to feel enormous pressure about getting their inquisitive, talkative, energetic preschoolers on the fast track to success.

The earlier the better. Or is it?

The messages are swarming like a plague on overwhelmed, guilt-ridden parents: Are you doing enough? Is your child smart enough? Have you missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in your child's early brain development? Will you get closed out of the preschool of your choice if you do not start at the earliest possible age? Can you afford to send your child to the "right" preschool for two or three years?

Is there some way to quiet all those fears? Yes and no.

A good early childhood program, with a professional staff and a thoughtful curriculum, cherishes childhood and each child living it. But so do active parents, thoughtful grandparents and vital neighborhoods. A child will not necessarily miss something irreplaceable if he does not get into the right school at an early age. But working parents, or parents trying to balance their own needs with the demands of child-raising, should be able to place children in preschools without self-reproach.

Preschool choices are lifestyle choices that have as much to do with parents' needs and interests as with children's needs and interests.

The question of when to start preschool is a decision about what works for your family - not about what children "must" have.

Quality is a concernA frightening and disgraceful fact is that too many of our preschools are below acceptable standards of quality. The Children's Defense Fund web site cites studies around the country where the majority of centers are providing less than "good" quality education and care. One owner of a South Florida preschool told me she wouldn't put her own child in the school she owned. Fortunately, she has since sold the school.

Licensing standards are not sufficient to meet what Dr. T. Berry Brazelton calls the "irreducible needs of children." The voters' passage of a constitutional amendment requiring high-quality prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds - and the legislature's subsequent discussions of various preK plans - are just a starting point to understand how best to provide children the foundation to become healthy, productive members of our society.

Every parent must become an advocate for their child's early care and education.

What children needAll research points to one necessity in early childhood: It's personal. Children learn - children grow - when they participate in nurturing relationships. There are no shortcuts. There are no quick fixes. There are no we'll-get-to-that-after-we-master-other-skills. Young children need people to talk to them, people to listen to them, people to guide them through their questions and their discoveries. Young children need people with time.

I've seen mothers of young children join together to create incredible early-childhood experiences. They've visited water treatment plants to see "where the poop goes" and restaurants to make and throw pizza dough.

They've provided children with experiences in storytelling and hands-on museums and a study of local manatees. That works for parents who genuinely enjoy spending their day with children and have the flexibility to schedule it.

It will never work for already exhausted, overwhelmed parents who want to jump off the nearest pier if one more child yanks on their sleeve to ask yet another question.

I've seen children wait to start preschool because their grandparents beg for more time to spend with them. These grandparents aren't teaching initial consonant sounds and letter links; they are telling stories, singing songs Mom and Dad forgot, and showing children how to bait a fish hook.

Every parent must be reassured that there is no curriculum anywhere at any price that can give a child more than that. At the same time, we cannot regret that we live in a world without extended families and ever-available relatives. In our world, preschools fill that need.

What a good preschool doesWill teachers love your child like you do? Of course not. But do you wake up in the middle of the night and write yourself a note to remember to find a new book to read about dinosaurs? Or create a hospital in the living room because you want your daughter to practice what it feels like when Mommy leaves to have a baby? Or build a three-dimensional cow complete with latex-glove udders for the children to "milk"? Good teachers are always thinking of ways to meaningfully engage children's minds and bodies.

The best preschool experience is an extension of your home and your neighborhood. Good preschools are places where children can be children with people who eagerly welcome each child's unique gifts. They are places where children are safe, physically, emotionally and socially. They are places where children learn to consider the needs of others and think of others as friends and partners.

The preschool choice is a parent's choice to share the education and care of a young child with others based on a particular family's lifestyle, values and goals. Your child's teachers are your parenting partners, helping your child negotiate the day-to-day struggles of childhood: toy disputes, misunderstandings or being slighted by a friend. School is valuable if it can encourage a little person to maneuver in a world of competing needs while maintaining a love of learning.

It is personal. You are "buying" more than academic services for your child. You are committing to a long-term relationship. Do you trust these people? Do they agree with most, not necessarily all, of your parenting beliefs? Do they want for your child what you want for your child?

Look beyond the teaching of superficial literacy and numeracy skills. This kind of rote learning is surpassed by developmental learning by third grade.

Yes, brain development research warns us not to waste the early childhood years. The real waste is filling children's days with the equivalent of educational fast food - superficial experiences that look like learning but are really empty calories. There are just too many fast-food schools out there. Good preschools are like home cooking - it takes time to plan and prepare, but the essential ingredients are right at your fingertips.

Children need the same things, whether at home or at school: attentive adults, age-appropriate responsibility, problem solving and risk-taking, and a small group of friends. Eliminate guilt and fear, and you will make the right choice.

Karen Deerwester, Ed.S., owner of Family Time Coaching & Consulting, has been a parenting and early childhood educator since 1984. Currently, she is the Mommy & Me coordinator at the Ruth and Edward Taubman Early Childhood Center at B'Nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, which she believes is a genuinely worthwhile preschool experience. She is the president of the Broward Association for the Education of Young Children.

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