The ongoing debate over the need for pre-k tends to take a “baby and the bathwater” tone which has proponents on one side saying it should be universal and even mandated with opponents on the other side saying it is basically glorified babysitting and tax dollars could be better spent elsewhere. As is the case in most of these situations, the truth lies in the middle and not the fringes of the argument. Can Pre-K benefit kids? Absolutely, the data is very clear. Should every kid be mandated into a Pre-K program? No. Many families are doing a great job preparing their kids for school and have access to resources where socialization and learning are taking place.
Let’s set the arguments and politics aside and talk about how and why pre-k could become a critical element of the educational system.
Consider these 5 points:
Learning to Learn – the ability to teach our little ones to learn to learn dramatically increases our ability to teach them to love to learn. Watch a preschooler’s eyes light up when he picks up a picture book and someone takes a few minutes to read it to him. Watch a little girl sit spellbound as she listens to stories and sees the pictures. There is an innate curiosity in every child and if that curiosity can be harnessed and pointed towards reading and math at an early age, they will struggle less with both later.
Learning to Listen – just as importantly as learning to read is learning the incredibly important skill of listening. It is not in a preschooler’s nature to stop and listen for instructions and follow instruction. Even at home, a preschooler often has to be told multiple times to do a simple task. Now complicate that task by adding in 15 more kids, each with their own set of listening issues, and you can see how kindergarten can become a full time “teaching to listen” rather than “teaching to learn” environment. Preschool is a terrific place for kids to learn to listen to and follow instructions in a group setting. Many parents will say that they are teaching their kids these skills at home, and that is fantastic. However, if you do not have an extra 15 4-5 year olds at your house, you cannot replicate the environment your kids will have to learn to listen in at school.
Learn to be Independent – this is a hard one for many parents to come to grips with. Most parents want their little ones to need mommy and daddy and are worried about sending them off into the world too early. Please consider this: no one can replace mom or dad but mom and dad, and even multiple siblings, cannot replicate nor duplicate the social structure that your little ones will need to adapt to in school. They will need to learn to sit down by themselves, listen when told to do so, complete work on their own, and be self sufficient in regards to bathroom, eating, and self grooming skills. A preschool type environment places an emphasis on independence in a group setting.
Learning to Play – playtime is one of the most important aspects of a good preschool. Playtime is when sharing and consideration and manners are not only taught but also applied. Learning to play with others in a group setting is an incredibly important step in learning to learn with others. The ability to collectively share imaginations, share toys, play both organized and non-organized games, and interject in the group dynamics is foundational stepping stone to academic success. Playing is a preschooler's way of expanding and engaging their imagination and when that can be shared both expressively and receptively then the next step of learning to learn as a group is so much easier.
Basic Learning – there is a fallacy that pre-k should be an academic learning environment. If a pre-k focuses primarily on academics then it is not likely to be successful. However, if a preschool program focuses on socialization and then uses academic lessons as an adjunct to the socialization process, the outcome will be a more academically prepared kindergartener because of exposure to academics. Good pre-k is more concerned with teaching little ones to be ready to learn, not jumping straight into the academic learning. But when the first is achieved, the second will follow.
The pre-k argument is like most others. There are those on both sides that have valid points, but they let the vitriol of their stance overshadow the validity of their arguments. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, let’s acknowledge that little ones who learn to love to learn and learn to be a part of a group are going to do better with academics. Let’s also acknowledge that exposing little ones social and emotional and developmental skills within the construct of a group will do better in a classroom. Pre-k can and should be a terrific addition to the academic milieu but only when the intent is to prepare little ones to learn. Government provided babysitting is not a benefit. School based interpersonal and group skill teaching is a benefit that cannot be overstated.