Since When Should 4-Year-Olds Spend 6 Hours A Day In School?

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
full-day pre-k
Angela Waye / Shutterstock

I live in the New York metropolitan area, and just a few years ago, our mayor, Bill de Blasio, unveiled a brand new program for children of pre-K age called “Pre-K for All.” It promises just what it sounds like: a full day of pre-K for all 4-year-old children in the city.

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On the surface, it seems like a pretty great idea. It’s 100% free, all the programs are taught by certified teachers, and every child is guaranteed a seat in a program. Some of the programs are offered in public school buildings, and others are offered at community sites like preschools and churches.

The problem is, all the pre-K programs that are offered are full days — as in 6 hours and 20 minutes of school instruction five days a week. There are no half-day options, like there were just a few years ago when my older son was in pre-K. And because there are so many free pre-K options out there, there are almost no private schools offering half-day pre-K options as an alternative.

Now, I know that for many, many families, a full-day option is a godsend. For working parents especially, full-day pre-K saves a ton of money in childcare costs. I also know there are many kids who thrive on a busy school-like environment at that age. For lots of kids, the extra instruction gives them an academic advantage as they enter kindergarten. In fact, a study that recently came out about the Pre-K for All program showed just that.

So why the heck am I bringing all this up?

Well, first for a pretty selfish reason: Full-day pre-K was not what I wanted for my current 4-year-old. Five years ago, when my older son went to pre-K, parents still had the half-day option. We knew right away that we preferred a half-day program. Six hours of classroom time seemed too much for such a young child.

I was a stay-at-home mom at the time, so it was easy for me to pick him up after two and a half hours, and keep him entertained for the rest of the day. In fact, the remaining hours of that day were usually a special time for us. We went to the playground, read books, and did art and science projects at home. It felt like a good balance of learning how to be in a school environment, learn some socialization skills, and still have enough time left in the day to just be a kid.

When I found out that full-day pre-K was the only option for my younger son, and that there no private programs in the area offering half-day pre-K, I was totally flabbergasted. My younger son is on the young side even for pre-K and would be starting the program when he was still 3 years old. I felt that all that time in a classroom would be overload, and just not appropriate for where he was developmentally.

But I didn’t just worry about my son. I worried about how it might affect all the kids in my community, and — if it was a trend that caught on elsewhere — what it might mean for toddlers all over.

Obviously, pre-K is not exactly the same as elementary school. The children are not expected to sit at desks and do work all day. Creative and educational play is emphasized in many of the programs.

But they are expected to listen to their teachers, obey rules, and move from one activity to another on a certain schedule. Basically, however you look at it, they are expected to participate in a school-like culture for a great number of their waking hours.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s a lot to ask of children who are so young. There are only so many waking hours in a day, and children that age need at least a few hours to just be children — more than just a few hours, actually.

They need time to don a superhero cape, jump on furniture, and collapse on the couch for a nap. They need time to run around in the backyard or in a park, without rules and without having to deal with sharing or respecting another kid’s personal space. These are all great skills to learn, obviously, but kids also need time to not be thinking about this sort of thing.

What if your child is easily overstimulated by that many hours of tight structure and socialization? What if six hours a day in a classroom results in epic after-school meltdowns for your child? What if you feel equipped to provide the basic academic preparation appropriate for three- and four-year-olds?

Yes, full-day programs are a godsend for many families, but what about the families for whom it doesn’t work at all? Shouldn’t other options exist? And if the half-day pre-K has disappeared in NYC, is that what’s going to happen all over the country?

When I interviewed pre-K facilities to possibly send my son to, I was told over and over that full-day pre-K is necessary now because kindergarten has become as academically oriented as first grade, and so our kids need to be prepared.

But is that something to be happy about? Is that what we want for our kids? Should we stand by and accept that high-level academics are being stressed at such early ages, and valued over things like creativity and free play?

What do our small children need most, and what will the effects of all this be? Studies have shown that delaying the start of school actually reduces problems like hyperactivity and inattention. Are experts keeping things like this in mind when they push up the age that formal schooling begins?

We ended up finding a full-day pre-K that is letting us take our son home early. I pick him up right before lunch, and it is working out well for us so far. He may eventually spend the full day there, but he’s not ready yet, and we are doing that transition on our own timetable. I am grateful to have this option.

As far as I’m concerned, the mental and emotional health of our children should take precedence over their academic achievements. And I’m really worried what these seemingly impossible standards and emphasis on structured schooling mean for our communities, for our country at large, and most importantly, for the kids themselves.


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