by Jackie Semmens
“Do you want to stay home from preschool tomorrow, honey?” I asked my son. ”Grandma is here, and we can spend the morning playing with her instead.”
“No!” he answered emphatically. “I have too many important things to learn!”
I chuckled. It takes a lot to convince my son to miss a morning spent with a grandparent, but if anything can, it’s preschool.
A few months ago, I had been wavering on whether or not to send my oldest son to preschool. What was he going to learn that I couldn’t teach him at home? He knew most of his letters and numbers, and I figured he would pretty easily pick up the rest by the time he reached kindergarten. I exposed him to a wide variety of activities – hiking, music hour, trips to the science museum, art, and of course, reading plenty of books.
Ultimately we decided to enroll him in a small, affordable preschool close to our house. “If he doesn’t like it, we can always take him out,” my husband reminded me.
So what can a children learn at preschool that they can’t learn at home? And is it really so important that they learn it before kindergarten? I decided to start looking into the matter, and as it turns out, children can gain a lot from a quality preschool experience. It’s also critical that the learning happens early.
As parents, we tend to be concrete thinkers, looking for measurable benefits. When I asked my husband what our son could learn at preschool that I couldn’t teach him myself, I had been focusing primarily on the academic side of the matter.
The academic benefits for attending preschool are certainly numerous. Preschool programs geared towards disadvantaged children have been shown to increase the intelligence quotient (IQ) by an average of eight points. Preschool also prepares children better for kindergarten than their peers who did not attend.
Preschool is about more than playing with blocks; it’s about gaining the building blocks needed for academic success down the road. A multi-state study of children who attended a state preschool found that kids in preschool programs had stronger vocabularies, improved math abilities, and better print awareness, setting them up for success in elementary school.
But that still wasn’t enough to convince me. I had heard critics of preschool point out that the early academic boosts wear off by mid-elementary school. Looking into the matter, I discovered that, while some studies suggest that boosts to IQ fade out by third grade, many of those studies were methodologically unsound and could also be attributed to teachers having to play “catch-up” with children who didn’t attend preschool.
But the real benefit to preschool lies in the “soft skills” that children develop, in addition to the academic ones. Our brains are at their most malleable and impressionable in early childhood, and by developing social abilities at this age, children gain skills that will follow them for the rest of their lives. By interacting with other children outside of their typical home environment, preschoolers learn to socialize with other children their age, manage stress, and problem solve.
Learning how to “play nicely with your friends” is perhaps the most important skill that preschoolers develop and the one I have the hardest time teaching at home. While my son has a younger brother and we play with other children frequently, I couldn’t provide him with an environment where he would have to independently learn to share, compromise, and follow directions from people who weren’t his parents.
These soft skills are best learned in preschool, and translate to success in the workforce down the road, according to Noble Prize-winning economist James Heckman. Decades after attending a preschool program 1960s, the kids in the study were employed more, had higher salaries, got sick less often, and also went to jail less often than those who didn’t attend preschool. The earlier kids learn to cooperate and resolve conflicts with each other, the better.
These benefits were all starting to sound pretty enticing. But a part of me was still skeptical. Most studies about the benefits of preschool focused on inner city, low-income children. We are college-educated, middle class, and live in a small town.
I had read headlines proclaiming, “If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need preschool” (an argument that assumed disadvantaged families weren’t even bothering to research preschool, which sounded a bit presumptive to me). But I was curious if a middle class child like mine would actually gain anything from attending.
While low-income children see the most progress from attending preschool, middle class children benefit as well. These children, just like low income children, gain pre-reading skills, social-emotional skills, and even see an increase in lifetime earnings. Perhaps most interestingly, a multi-state study showed that all children gained increased listening and comprehension skills when they were in a classroom with greater income diversity. Treating preschool as if it was something only for disadvantaged kids means that everyone misses out.
In the end, we decided to send our son after seeing how bored he got on the days that we were stuck in the house catching up on chores. I figured my younger son would benefit from a little one-on-one time with mom as well. The best part has been seeing how much he enjoys preschool, spending time with his friends, and seeing his teacher.
Like he says, he doesn’t want to miss out because there are too many important things for him to learn. Having done my research, I know he is right.
by Kathryn Trudeau
Blink once. That’s about the time it takes for your newborn baby to be picking out his back to school shoes and a Paw Patrol backpack for preschool. Preschool is a big milestone for any three- or four-year-old, but in some places the hyper focus on preschool does actually begin in infancy.
Some preschools in big cities such as New York City have cutthroat application processes, wait lists, and tuitions as high as college tuition. It may seem silly to fight so hard for a spot in a preschool, but there is an underlying truth. Kindergarten readiness is important.
Little children are sponges in what they can absorb. What children learn at this age affects them on many levels: academically, socially, emotionally, and physically. But despite the sheer importance of preschool, a good preschool education does not need to be stressful, expensive, or elusive.
In fact, you don’t even have to leave your home! If you have a little one nearing preschool age, keep in mind these four benefits of preschooling at home.
Even if you don’t plan on homeschooling your child throughout elementary school, choosing to do preschool at home has one huge advantage: you’re in control. As the teacher, you plan your child’s day, what your child eats, and what technology she is (or isn’t) exposed to. Being in control also means you’re in control of what your child doesn’t do.
My son regularly requests to work in his math workbook. I never try to force it on him. Rather, I let him lead. I doubt he would get such a personalized, one-on-one approach with this specific interest in a traditional preschool. Being in control means I can focus specifically on my son, his interests, passions, and unique skill sets.
One morning, as I sat at our school table, I watched my preschooler as he colored a picture of different plant parts. I was explaining to him how plants grow, their need for water, and how sunlight helps them to grow. My toddler took a green crayon and said, “Help brother. Me help brother.”
At the moment, I thought it was sweet and how great it was that he was sitting so nicely. Then it really hit me. When we “do school” we have routines, and one habit is that my two boys always sit next to each other. My toddler doesn’t have to sit there; he has a whole room of toys to play with, yet he chooses to sit next to his brother.
As we venture into homeschooling, I am continually made aware of just how much their bond is strengthening. They are friends, companions, buddies…and sometimes partners in crime. You know how much a toddler loves someone if they are the first name called upon waking up. How lucky I am to help my boys learn how to love each other! Even if you end your homeschooling journey after preschool, that extra year of sibling bonding will take them far into their lives.
I’ll be the first person to admit that when my husband and I committed to homeschooling, I panicked. The question “How could I teach a child to read?” quickly turned into “How will I be able to teach Advanced Algebra IV?” Clearly, I was in panic mode.
The thing is this: teaching preschool is easy. It’s an extension of what you’re already doing as parents. Parents teach colors, shapes, animals, manners, and preschool is no different. Preschool is about “kindergarten readiness,” not learning to read chapter books or multiplying fractions by age five.
In fact, some studies indicate that such rigorous “academic” studies do not really benefit the littlest learners. Interestingly, the age of compulsory attendance in Finland is seven. Prior to that, their preschool is all play-based. Play-based learning is easy on mom and amazing for the kids. Without strict expectations to learn to read by age five, children have the freedom to explore their world and learn through creativity.
This type of learning fosters a rich way for children to focus on their own personal and social development. Reading books to your child, playing imagination-based games, and teaching basic life skills (things like eye contact or greeting someone when they come over) are all easy things to do.
It’s important to remember that just because an experience is categorized as play doesn’t mean it’s not an educational experience. A walk through the zoo is fun and opens up a whole new world to children. Making play dough cars can quickly become a counting game. I learned through experience not to overthink or overcomplicate preschool.
When I tell someone we homeschool, you can bet they will make some comment about socializing. Socializing with peers is important for any human in any age group. Humans are social animals. It’s why moms join mom groups, why men attend poker nights, and why Grandma never misses Bingo. Likewise, our kids need socialization, too. But there’s no rule that says it has to happen at school.
My son has regular play dates with friends and attends a weekly gymnastics class. He also regularly sees extended family. He is one of the most social people I know, and he is definitely more social than many adults. Chatty Cathy (as I sometimes call him) does not lack socialization because he preschools at home.
The educational decisions we make on behalf of our children are not to be taken lightly. No matter which route you choose, there’s nothing quite as rewarding as feeling validated in the choice you do make. For me, it’s hearing my preschooler excitedly say three little words, “Let’s do school!”