As a resident of the D.C. suburbs, I live in some respects between two worlds.  On the one hand, I’ve worked downtown for years and been (at times) thoroughly absorbed into the fancy-happy-hour, out-with-colleagues, traveling-on-expense-account world that treats preschool admission as Baby’s First Accomplishment and applies for a spot before birth.  On the other hand, I’ve found an utterly fantastic group of moms here in the suburbs who appear to be more relaxed about the whole affair, and who have had wonderful results with their kids at neighborhood co-ops, preschools at nearby churches and temples, and the public kindergarten.

Personally, I’m torn between the whole must-get-into-the-best-school flurry and an overwhleming urge to just keep my kids at home and close to me, protected somewhat from the suburban stress and testing merry-go-round.  They’re going to be in school for a long, long time.  Twelve years for a high school diploma.  Four more for college, and if they want to go on for graduate degrees like their daddy and I did, we’re talking easily 20 years or more.  Should I really add on to those years with a high-stress preschool? 

I’ve been visiting preschools this week, and it’s hard to find a good fit.  The one that I was so incredibly certain would be a good match for us — home-like environment, kind teachers, natural materials, and plenty of outside time — has one big shortcoming in my view.  There are no books in the classroom.  No. Books.  It’s a philosophy difference, I suppose.  Their view is that children should play for the first six years, and book learning should come later.  My view, where it differs from them in this one point, is that reading is the key to lifelong learning.  Books are the windows to different cultures, different ideas, and different perspectives on the world.  Or the many worlds out there beyond our own.  Once a child learns to read, all those windows to the world open up and become accessible.  From there, he needs only to learn the value of hard work and focus, and he can go anywhere.  (Just ask his parents, a public school kid from Mississippi and one from rural Illinois, who somehow ended up in the nation’s capital at Big Jobs.  We didn’t exactly have access to all the perks that the Barrie School and Sidwell Friends offer, but we read voraciously, set our goals high, and achieved them.)

Books are essential, in my view.  Even before a child learns to read, he is active in the choosing of books and stories (as any mom of toddlers can attest), and this self-direction is incredibly important.  He chooses what he wants to learn about (trucks, planes, nature, or that little gold bug in the Richard Scarrey books), and, with our help, he can hear about it once or a thousand times.

Reading is the cornerstone of so much.  Our county kindergarten recognizes this, requiring children to know their letters BEFORE admission to kindergarten, and encouraging reading BEFORE first grade even begins.  But this Fancy Preschool discourages it in favor of learning by doing.  Which, as a scientist, is also exciting, but not at the expense of books.

The preschool search is just the first in a series of Big Decisions About Education that all parents have to face, but it’s not an easy one.  Personally, I’d really rather skip the drama and educate my babies at home for a few more years, doing crafts with them , taking nature walks, making our own fun and games, reading the classics, making up stories, playing outside, visiting museums, and generally having adventures with other moms at home and their kids.

But, in this world of such heavy focus on testing and paper achievements, I worry … am I leaving my child behind?

This post originally appeared at DC Metro Moms Blog, as part of their Focus on Education.


29 Responses to Preschool

  1. No books? That would be a deal-breaker for me as well. It’s not that I think that preschool children should spend their entire morning reading, but they should be able to choose a book and curl up in a comfy spot when they are so moved.

  2. Amanda says:

    I think you’re wise to have doubts about the non-reading preschool. My kids have gone to a relaxed, playful, church-run preschool. The school does have storytime and many books in the rooms. I have also always read to my children. Now that my son is in first grade, I doubt he would be doing as well as he is if we had not given him a love of books.

  3. juliepippert says:

    Ummm…books, pretty crucial. My two year old sleeps with hers.

    You outline really well the struggle I think many of us face and grapple with.

    I believe in providing children with a good environment…the one that works for them. They have such curiosity and interest that I think most thrive in a mix of unlearning and gentle direction.

    Okay let me try to be short winded here while sharing personal experience. LOL

    I typically have a laid back approach to this. Let kids be kids. When we moved, I got caught up in the sort of Don’t Let Your Kid Get Behind concept. So we enrolled Patience, then 3, in an alleged Montessori school. We now call it the bootcamp. I mean, they are kids, not Very Small Adults.

    I’ll spare the anecdotes but we all learned a painful lesson: emotional development (EQ) trumps intellectual development.

    So, we dialed it back about fifty notches and found a nurturing preschool program. My daughters learned (learn, one still there) a lot there, as they needed, while, more importantly, developing social skills.

    I chewed my fingernails to the quick worrying about sensitive, slow to warm Patience in public school all day kindergarten. The first time she ran into mean girls? She shrugged, walked off, and joined her Nice Girl friends.

    I nearly cried in relief.

    She went to the right preschool and got the BEST education: good self-esteem.

    The academics? She’s bright, it will come, and you can always add challenge if needed.

    Can not replace the value a good nurturing program provides, though.

    Just my very humble opinion.

    Good luck with choices!

    Using My Words

  4. coolbeans says:

    I want my kids to have books and I would be suspicious of any classroom that didn’t offer a variety.

    However, I’m not a fan of pushing kids to read by 1st grade. I don’t think it’s making our kids better learners or better students. I think introduction to letters before kindy is great, but a kindergarten that required my kid to know his alphabet before the first day of school is too much for me.

  5. No books in the classroom would have been an absolute turnoff for me. I sent all four of my daughters to parent cooperative nursery schools that stressed creativity and play. I promise absolutely that you are not leaving your child behind. Learning to love books is infinitely more important to a preschooler than learning her letters and numbers.

  6. Mel says:

    It’s a really hard decision. We’re keeping the twins out of school for now because we can’t find a place that matches our needs. My ideal would be a school that meets two or three days a week in the morning and parents can come too 🙂 See–not really the norm for here.

    I think a lot of our decision is coloured by the fact that I taught at a fancy D.C. private school for many years (one mentioned in your post!) and I just don’t think the curriculum at some of these schools is as good as what I can do at home (and I come from a unique position that my mother is an early childhood specialist so I have access to games/toys/art projects). So much of it is dependent on the teacher and private schools have varying standards. Two kids in the same grade but in different classrooms can be receiving a completely different education (depending on the set-up of the school).

    A few of us were actually talking about starting our own informal school that would rotate houses month by month. One parent would be in charge of art projects, another would do stories/reading, another would do number projects. And we would have a long play time built in to the morning. We could meet once or twice a week. It was the best solution I could come up with that would allow me to stay with them (you’re right! Once they hit 5, they’re off to kindergarten. This is my only chance to have them at home) but not have the burden of being entirely alone in educating them. Plus, they would have a bunch of playmates twice a week.

  7. My husband and I were talking about this just this morning. My daughter has been in daycare since she was 16 months old, and my son since he was 6 months old. But starting in January, I will be working from home and they will be home with me full-time. Although my daughter starts kindergarten in Sept 09, I am not sure if I want her to be back in preschool only 9 months after I finally get to be home with her.
    She is very intelligent, and I know I am capable of teaching her letters, numbers, etc. I wonder too if I am somehow going to deprive her by keeping her home though. I try to rationalize by saying that she has certainly already gotten her social skills down after 2 years in daycare, so she doesn’t need that exposure as much as she needs me! Its such a tough choice to make.
    I agree though that once she starts kindergarten, I will have missed my chance to have her home with me…so there is another reason to have my own “pre-school” in my house. Actually, the home pre-school that Mel mentioned would be the perfect idea in my opinion!
    It’s never easy to make these decisions, but I have to say that I don’t think it would do either of our kids any long-term harm to be home with their mothers a little longer!

  8. Nicole says:

    A really nice post. While preschool in general is important, I think for two well educated parents who want to do the best for their child, it’s not so critical. Regarding the books, it’s a bit odd I’d say, but depending on how long your children would be there may not be a deal breaker for me. Mine were in preschool a lot of the day as I worked, but if they had been say 3 mornings a week or something, I think they would have got enough “reading” at home.

    I heard two interesting things from some parenting talks I went to. One was that a love of reading is the absolute best way you can prepare your child for school, and to do well in school. The other was once a child learns to read they see the world in a whole different way. I think some schools are forced (by NCLB) to teach reading before kids are ready -mine are exposed to lots of books, and we are avid readers, but my older one just started K and I have no problem with him not reading, even for another year. Of course as a proud mommy I love when he sounds out and recognizes words, but I try not to make that seem to be the goal right now (of course dad does that).

  9. deb says:

    I have awarded you with an Inspirational Blogger Award, you can stop by and pick it up.

  10. ella says:

    Books are essential in my view too. I disagree with children learning to read too early but having books available is a different thing entirely and however much I read with them at home, I don’t know if I could consider a school without books. I think John Holt also argued that young children use books to familiarise themselves with letters as a precursor to learning to read.

    I’m wresting with the whole homeschool vs school thing at the moment but one thing I would definitely say is that testing and paper achievements are not the same thing as learning and if you did keep your babies at home for a few more years you would not be doing them any disservice.

  11. Jenster says:

    I agree with you about the books. Books open so many doors and it starts before they ever get to preschool. That would definitely be the deal breaker for me.

    Here’s my four cents on the preschool thing. By the end of kindergarten the only real difference preschool has made is that some kids already knew how to behave in a school-type setting. Which is great. But academically it’s not going to be a huge benefit. The kids may learn their numbers and letters and all, but they’re just going to relearn them in kindergarten.

    This may sound like I’m against preschool. Quite the contrary. I think preschool is a wonderful social learning environment for young children and that DOES benefit them when kindergarten starts. I wouldn’t trade my kids’ preschool years for anything. And I’m an assistant at a preschool.

    I think in the grand scheme of things it’s not going to make a huge difference what you decide to do. Just go with your gut – whether it’s the private preschool, the more relaxed preschool or no preschool. Your kids are going to do fine whatever you decide.

  12. Danielle says:

    You are not leaving your kids behind. I’m a first grade teacher with a degree in Early Childhood Education. Kids do not need to be in “school” before they enter Kindergarten if they have been taught some basic skills. You read with your kids. You are teaching them that books are important, how to hold a book, which way to turn the pages and I’m sure that you talk about letters. Kids need to be able to socialize with other children. Your children have that already. Yes, it’s outside of a classroom setting but they are already learning sharing, taking turns and the other skills that they will need. They are learning math. You count with them. You are teaching writing. Fine motor skills are the greatest prerequisite to writing. You do this with your kids by doing crafts, coloring and picking up little things. You are doing all of the things to make sure that they are not “left behind.”

    Early Childhood Education is imperative in the cases where the above skills are not being taught or used at all. As an educator, I have had many students that walk into the doorway without ever having held a pencil or scissors before. They were never read to and have never been around books. These are the children that are being left behind and these are the children that NEED to go to school before they get to an elementary school.

    You are doing all of the things that you need to do to make sure that your children will do great in school. Your genes don’t hurt either. 🙂

  13. Veronica says:

    I agree with books. Kids need books, they need to be able to choose the books they want to read.

  14. Danielle says:

    I wanted to add that I do not feel that children are “harmed” by going to school before elementary school.

    I just wouldn’t stress about it hurting them if they stayed home for those few years that they are really just little children.

  15. canape says:

    i didnt have books in skool and im doing just fine. you dont need no books for sum good learnin.

  16. Do yourself a favor and seek out the writings of turn-of-the-20th century English educator, Charlotte Mason.

    Her writings are pretty extensive, so maybe look up the Clarkson’s Whole Hearted Child instead. Or even better: For the Children’s Sake by Susan Shaeffer Macaulay.

    BTW…Canape’s comment above mine is crackin’ me up!

  17. Becky says:

    I didn’t do the pre-school thing, neither did my sibllings. We had tons of books as kids – my sister did not send her kids to preschool either – my sister kept them home as long as she could, playing, learning, reading (They LOVE books) …much the same way you are, WhyMommy – and the kids turned out great – not left behind. My oldest nephew got a full scholarship to Carnegie-Mellon, and my younger nephew is mulling his choice of Princeton or MIT…

  18. Jennifer says:

    Interesting. No books, huh? I’m surprised by that. I suppose I understand their premise, but having access to books is vital. Looking at pictures, turning the pages, seeing print…

    Good luck with this decision.

  19. Jenn says:

    It’s not the paper achievements that matter.

    Given the choice of being with you or possibly missing out on the Harvard’s of pre-schools, I bet your kids would choose you.

    The way that you love them will give them more then any classroom ever could.

  20. Susan K says:

    No books?!?!!? I can’t believe it. Play is great. Play is important. But books. Critical. My just-turned 2 year old demands books. Several a night before bed. YES, she has opinions about which ones we will read. YES, she often wants more than I am williing to read her. She sits and listens. To sometimes quite long books. She gets excited at book sales to buy more. She takes them from her sister.

    Find another daycare. Forget about “preschool”. Forget about the learning mill. Daycare is fun because it opens the kids up to new and different experiences – things you can’t or wouldn’t think to do. Don’t send them full time. That way, you can get the best of both worlds.

  21. imstell says:

    I am shocked by the lack of books. Our most beloved preschool teacher told us words I will always cherish, that preschool was not “bootcamp for kindergarten.” I agree that it is a time for playing and learning to socialize. However, it is also a time to learn that school is about education. Books equal education. Do they not have Story Time at that preschool? Is there no quiet time spent sitting alone thumbing through a picture book? Do they even call themselves educators?

  22. Boy can I relate to this post. I went through that with my DS. I ended up choosing a parent participation lab school at a local college. we also attended a playgroup once a week at the local Waldorf school during that time…which of course…featured no books. It turned out to be a nice mix.

    The developmental/emergent preschool my DS attended focused on pre-academic skills, not early academics…which is a bad word in those circles
    (Gessel Institute/REI circles). I found the experience wonderful. moms had to work in the classroom once a week and take a child development class once a week. The degreed teachers modeled parenting skills and with moms in the classroom every day it became like family. I miss it.

    The good news is he had the chance to play, dress up and make things and build while gaining skills that have made him kindergarten ready without sitting at a desk and reciting ABCs

  23. whymommy says:

    Excellent comments, thanks! I’ve really been wrestling with this lately. Of course I want to hold on to my babies for as long as I can (given my situation, but also, doesn’t every mother?), but I want them to have other opportunities to learn and grow as well.

    Just as an aside, the fancy preschool that I mention above (and didn’t name for googling purposes; books aside, it is a fantastic and magical place) is in the Waldorf tradition. It’s a coherent philosophy of natural play for the young child and well worth a look. But. . . there are no books for the kids 6 and under.

  24. sherry says:

    I think books are essential…but if the school has everything else going for it and you like it, books can be found and sought out through other venues.

    By the way, stop by my blog and get my email address. You’ve won a giveaway and I’ll be needing your home mailing addess!

  25. Emily says:

    I find a dichotomy between books and playing sort of odd. My kids view reading as a fun activity, rather on par with playing.

    Choose a preschool that will respond to your concerns. This is the time for kids to learn the social skills they so desperately need. Things WILL come up (visit my place, starting back a week and a half ago, if you want an example of what will come up and how the right preschool is essential in dealing with those things). What you need is a school that will nurture.

    Trust me — it’s been an emotional couple of weeks…

  26. Sacred Harvest says:

    Funny, I don’t have kids but I am exposed professionally to how over-booked they are in the high acheiving modern world. Just today I posted about my own personal experiences growing up running wild in a small town and how I would not trade it for anything. The needs really vary for each kid. You’ll know when you see how it works for your kids – they will let you know in one way or another.

  27. kgirl says:

    This makes me feel much better about the preschool we just chose for Bee – it’s private, but neighbourhood oriented, and not priced out of range for a diverse group of children. And there’s books. Lots of ’em.
    And I had to get past that ‘hold her close’ urge before signing her up, too.

  28. Kristen says:

    I’ve never heard of such a thing. I also think free play is really important in the early years. I think the later the better with strict schooling, but books are essential for life-long learning, and I don’t think kids can ever be read to too much. I’ve been reading to my kids since they were itty-bitty and I’m teaching phonics to my five year old and he’s doing very well. He’s very excited to be able to “read by himself”. Playing comes easily to kids, but reading needs to be taught from the get go. I suppose you could always consider that school but just make sure to get in lots of reading time with the kids at home!

  29. […] the Moms Club acquaintance from several years back who I ran into at the Fancy Preschool open house.  She didn’t recognize me a bit, and I felt some desparate need to jog her memory, […]

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