On Psychology

Jewish World Review March 30, 2000 /23 Adar II, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

Preschool Not A Must for Academic Success

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q: The deadline for enrolling our son in a pre-school program starting in the fall is fast approaching. There are two highly regarded preschools within a mile of our home, but the two have different philosophical approaches.

One of them has somewhat of an academic approach, teaching children mastery of the basics, such as numbers and the alphabet. The other rejects this kind of teaching in favor of "developmentally appropriate" learning.

One example given by the latter preschool of developmentally appropriate learning is that all ages (2 through 4) follow the same themes (for example, holidays, family, etc.), but the difference might be that a 2-year-old will be given a triangle to color related to the theme, a 3-year-old will cut out a triangle that has been traced on a piece of paper, and a 4-year-old will be asked to trace and cut a triangle out of the paper himself.

Our son, who will be 2 1/2 in the fall, has been cared for full-time by his mother and shows signs of being exceptionally bright. He speaks in beautiful complete sentences, knows the alphabet, and can count, although not always accurately. On the one hand, he seems ready for academic learning; on the other hand, we're not sure that kind of approach is appropriate at his age.

Econophone Is preschool at 2 1/2 years vs., say, 3 1/2, the right thing to do? We feel it might be good to involve him in other things before the expected birth of his new sibling. What advice do you have for us?

A: To preschool or not to preschool, that is the question. And if so, what type?

There was a time in America when most children did not attend preschool. Sure, many parents enrolled their children in "nursery school," but usually that was only for a couple of hours two or three times a week. The point of nursery school was to help preschoolers learn to get along with other children and give mom a few hours of free time.

Today, there seems to be an increasing sense that attendance at preschool is necessary in order for children to grow up to become competent kindergartners. But there really isn't any evidence that this is so, at least not for the typical child growing up in a good-enough home environment.

Certainly, children who live in poverty or who suffer from a biological condition, such as mental retardation, autism or language delay, can benefit from a preschool environment -- such as Head Start, for example. For the typical American child, however, preschool is neither a necessary nor a sufficient precondition for later academic success.

Trakdata What is needed to ensure children arrive at school ready to learn is four things: First, children need to be healthy so their natural abilities can grow and mature. Second, children need to have developed a sufficient degree of emotional maturity and self-confidence so they can take on new challenges and lessons. Third, children need to have developed good language skills so they can ask and answer questions and take part in group discussions. Finally, children need to have developed good social skills so they will be able to get along with other children and follow directions given by adults.

Notice that I did not include academic knowledge, like knowing the ABCs, in this list of things children need to be ready for school. That's because young children learn best not through academic drills, but by exploring the world. Teaching academic subjects too early, rather than ensuring future school success, may only discourage a child's natural desire to explore and learn.

Notice also that there is nothing on my list of things children need to be successful in school that can not be acquired outside of a preschool setting. Indeed, loving at-home parents who provide their children with myriad opportunities for exploring the world will be just as effective in helping their children prepare for school than even the highest quality and most prestigious preschool -- and perhaps even more so.

This doesn't mean I think that preschools are harmful to children. There's nothing wrong with a preschool experience so long as that preschool does not so overly emphasize the acquisition of academic knowledge that the 3- and 4-year-olds in its charge spend their days reading flashcards, completing addition work sheets and being drilled in spelling.

Nor do I mean to imply that parents should be fearful of their children developing academic skills before school entry. There's nothing wrong with children developing academic skills prior to kindergarten, so long as they are not pressured to do so.

In your particular case, your son appears to be developing just fine -- a testament, no doubt, to your work as loving, involved parents. Enrolling him in preschool is certainly not necessary for his continued positive development.

In fact, I would not advise enrolling a 2 1/2 year old in anything more than a few hours of a preschool experience if, as in your case, there is a parent available at-home to take care of him. Moreover, given that your wife is expecting your second child, enrolling him in preschool at this time might fuel fears that he is being displaced by a new sibling.

My advice is to wait and then choose a part-time preschool experience that emphasizes developmentally appropriate activities over academics. Remember, 2-, 3-, and 4-year-old children learn more by pretending to fix the pipes, build a house, cook dinner, or be a policeman, doctor, mommy, or daddy than they will ever learn from preschool reading lessons.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn