“Is he in school yet?”
I’ve been getting this question ever since my 2-year-old could walk. It comes from everyone: moms making conversation at the park, inquisitive nannies, relatives I haven’t seen in years.
Why are people obsessed with whether my little pipsqueak is going to school?
I have no real position on the subject of preschool: whatever works, whatever makes everyone happy is the answer. I totally get that many families need to put their little ones in full-day preschool because of work commitments. I also know that for some families, preschool is just not affordable. For families who choose to do it, preschool can be fun for children and a nice break for their parents. We sent our older son to preschool, and it was a wonderful experience.
But I do have a problem with the idea that toddlers and young children need formal schooling – that if you don’t start early, you are doing your children a disservice, even setting them up for future educational failure.
So I’ve been asking myself: Why the rush toward a school environment? Is there something I don’t get? I know that many toddler programs try to lure parents in by guaranteeing some kind of educational atmosphere for their little tykes. When my older son went to preschool, they gave out little progress reports, and a full report of his educational milestones by the end.
I call bullshit.
What are toddlers and preschoolers supposed to do all day? Crawl around the yard looking for ants, and pinching them in their little fingers – this is called science. Run around half-naked “counting” the dandelions – this is called math. Ransack the library, knocking everything down until the book with the giant red truck on the cover is revealed – this is called reading.
It’s not that I don’t intentionally teach my kids, or that kids can’t learn in various environments. If they show interest, I happily teach them shapes, letters, numbers, and reading at early ages. And both my kids have shown interest, so that’s fun. But lot of kids have no interest in formal learning at young ages, and that’s cool too.
I have sat in rooms full of 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds, and let me tell you, when they are all together squirming around on the carpet, throwing plastic French fries at each other, no one is going to learn much. Any kind of organized learning at that age is going to happen one-on-one, through hands-on experience, or osmosis.
Preschool is certainly a great, fun way for kids to learn to socialize with one another. But it’s not the only way to do that – playdates meet these same needs, and children learn simply by exploring the world around them, being read to, talked to, and having time and freedom to absorb it all.
I have the luxury of being a (mostly) full-time mom, so I can take things slow in terms of schooling. My son will be three this fall, and I didn’t sign him up for preschool. Unlike my older son, he just doesn’t seem ready yet (he’s also half a year younger than my older son was when he started). We will certainly keep busy, including regular activities involving other kids. And I’ll want babysitting breaks to keep myself sane (thanks, Mom!).
Mostly, I’m going to enjoy the freedom that unstructured time allows him. I’m going to watch him learn in his own way, at his own pace. I’m going to teach him all about numbers and letters and books if he seems interested. I’m going to teach him about kindness, love, and friendship.
If he shows interest (and if it fits into our budget), I might enroll him in preschool at some point. But I won’t push him into it, and I’ll have realistic expectations of its purpose. I know that preschool can be an enriching experience, but I also know it’s entirely optional, not a mandatory part of a child’s educational program. Discovery, learning, and play time with other kids can happen without a formal school. I hope more people will realize this, and recognize the countless wonderful, valid ways that children can blossom and grow.