I worked full time until my son was 3 and a half years old so he was in a great daycare. He had a whole little social orbit there, with kids he’d known since infancy and teachers who were part of his daily life. He loved playing with his friends at school and during playdates so, when we decided I would stop working, my husband and I knew that C would need a place to be with kids. Staying in full time daycare wasn’t logical or financially feasible so I set about finding him a preschool.
The DC area is awash with very fancy education options for little kids. You can send your child to language immersion programs, classical or modified Montessori schools, top-flight private schools like the famous Sidwell Friends School or a host of others. My research on schools revealed that people pay as much as $20,000 a year for PreK programs around here. I was astonished. And turned off, frankly.
I was more in the market for a school that met the criteria of “has a playground where he can run around with other kids.” Like I say, he was 3 and a half at the time so I didn’t much care about academic rigor. I wanted a place where he could make friends, continue learning about sharing and taking turns, and have kind teachers who read him stories and encouraged his imagination. I don’t want or expect preschool to be a flash-card jungle of accelerated literacy and numeracy curricula. I just want it to be fun.
Turns out it’s a good thing that I wasn’t expecting preschool to be a major academic stepping stone for my son because studies show that the benefits of preschool on kids from advantaged families are minimal compared to the benefits to kids from disadvantaged families.
According to Slate:
Research suggests that preschool only benefits children from these disadvantaged families (in particular, families that are below the poverty line, whose mothers are uneducated, or who are racial minorities). This could be because preschool acts as a kind of “equalizer,” ensuring that for at least a few hours a day, these kids get the same high-quality interaction with adults as more advantaged children do, which helps to even the developmental playing field.
In other words, if you’re already the kind of parents who is researching different preschool philosophies, touring preschools before picking one for your child, and weighing the benefits of various programs on kindergarten readiness, chances are your kid is already in a good place developmentally. Preschool will be a good experience but won’t be a make-or-break period of early education. But for kids who are in families where adult-kid interactions are less rich, preschool can fill in a lot of gaps that their home environment leaves.
So, if preschool as a whole has a measured impact based on a child’s home life, does preschool philosophy change the equation? Not really, according to the research. Again, from Slate:
So if preschool doesn’t really matter for advantaged kids, then the type of preschool matters even less. Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Catholic school? Might as well flip a coin. Some approaches may, of course, be a better fit for certain personalities: Waldorf schools, which teach through imitation and imagination and don’t ever give tests, might mesh well with artistic children (and anti-vaxers, since Waldorf schools have an astoundingly low vaccination rate); the Reggio Emilia approach is a project-based philosophy in which children spend days, weeks, or even months exploring a particular topic, like seashells; and the Montessori method teaches skills through the use of special manipulative materials, perhaps good for an engineer-to-be (though I’m not sure any parent knows what kind of to-be their kid is at age 3).
Some research shows that classical Montessori (as opposed to supplemented Montessori) does give kids an academic advantage, with kids showing better memory, reading, planning and and vocabulary but those advantages may be lost over time as other kids catch up.
The preschool we finally selected for our son is a co-op school with a play-based curriculum and lots of great enrichments like music, drama, and Spanish. His first year was spent playing, singing, dancing, painting, and hearing stories. Now that he’s in the PreK class, they do all of that plus spend time working on writing skills, learning numbers, and studying different countries tries around the world. The community of the school has been good for both of us, with us making friends with kids and parents alike. The program won’t turn him into an academic savant but it accomplishes what I most wanted all along: for him to have fun. And I don’t need research to tell me that fun is important for all kids.
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