Once toddlers start grasping language and basic social skills, many parents begin wondering whether enrolling them in preschool is a good idea. Unlike childcare centers, which take little ones as young as infants and run as yearlong programs, preschools focus primarily on early childhood education (think colors, ABCs, and numbers) for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Most are part-time programs — lasting for a handful of hours per day at most — and run during the school year. Several states fund universal preschool programs, which are free of charge and tend to attract families from disadvantaged communities. (About 29 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program in 2014, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s report, The State of Preschool 2014.) But many states don’t, forcing parents to pay for private preschool or forgo it altogether. Depending on where you live, private preschool can be expensive, prompting parents to consider if it’s even worth it. We know preschool isn’t legally mandatory, but is it necessary for achievement? Will kids who opt out be worse off than kids who opt in?
What the research shows
There’s no shortage of research on the benefits of preschool. It not only gives kids an introduction to the school environment they will be a part of for the better part of two decades, but also provides opportunities to develop social skills, among many other benefits. From learning how to wait your turn to knowing the days of the week, preschool programs can provide plenty of useful education. Well-designed programs have been known to provide long-term success in school, including better test scores, lower chances of grade repetition, and higher educational achievement overall.
But a growing body of data suggests that preschool benefits children from disadvantaged families perhaps even more than it benefits others (in particular, families that are below the poverty line, whose mothers are uneducated, or those who are racial minorities). “This could be because preschool acts as a kind of ‘equalizer,’ ensuring that for at least a few hours a day, these kids get the same high-quality interaction with adults as more advantaged children do, which helps to even the developmental playing field,” Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote in Slate.
The U.S. government is so convinced that preschool is important that it launched Head Start in 1965. The federal program for children from low-income families administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began as a key part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.” The idea was to boost overall academic achievement while closing the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged kids.
But what if your child is not disadvantaged? A study on 600 pairs of twins found that preschool can in fact help reduce the early achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged kids, but if your child falls into the former group, preschool may not matter quite as much in the long run. However, if your child is at all disadvantaged, that leg up can make a difference in how prepared they are for primary school and how well they perform.
What the experts say
“There’s increasing evidence that children gain a lot from going to preschool,” Kathleen McCartney, PhD, professor of education and the former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told Parents magazine. “At preschool, they become exposed to numbers, letters, and shapes. And, more important, they learn how to socialize — get along with other children, share, contribute to circle time.”
Amy Lipe Palmer, a preschool teacher in Little Rock, Ark., agrees. “The academic gains that children who attend preschool gain are almost superseded by the gains in social skills and school expectations. Acquiring these skills early sets kids up for future academic success,” she tells Yahoo Parenting.
The question of whether preschool is necessary, however, may be dependent upon the learning opportunities and exposure a child would gain if they were not enrolled in a formal preschool setting. “Unfortunately, many parents are working full time and unable to devote sufficient time to nurture and support the learning necessary for a child to enter school ready to learn,” Byron Garrett, chairman of the National Family Engagement Alliance and former CEO of the National Parent Teacher Association, tells Yahoo Parenting. “All too often low-income students bare the burden of limited exposure, a lack of learning opportunities and an expanded vocabulary.” When they enter school without this level of preparedness, society ends up paying for remediation and other services for these students at no fault of their own.”
“Preschool is vital for many children not primarily because it provides academic preparation for elementary school, but because it provides a nurturing environment where they can play while their parents are working,” Mike Lanza, author of Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play, wrote in the New York Times. “Play is what they need to develop their motor, social, emotional and intellectual skills, and they need to do it with minimal interference from adults, within a nurturing environment.”
What the parents say
“The early years are the most important years; did you know 80 percent of the brain is formed by age 3? Yet we continue to only fund education for K-12. Until we as a nation get serious about our youngest learners, we will not have real progress in education.” — Lisa Falduto, Stevens Point, Wis.
“Yes to preschool! Kids learn so much more than academics.” — Jeanette Cady Killip, Littleton, Colo.
“Neither of my girls went to preschool. They were home doing fun, age-appropriate things with me and my friends with similar-aged children. They are 12 and 15 now, in their school’s gifted and talented programs, both have high GPAs, and very satisfying, active social lives. I don’t see how it could have benefited them further to have gone, but I do feel that kids without the availability of a caring, high-quality daycare provider could benefit from preschool.” — Katherine Kollman, Gardiner, Maine
“Birth to three is definitely the height of opportunity for the child to absorb knowledge. Language, vocabulary, concepts, music — the list goes on. Socialization after 18 months is necessary, but not necessarily in a preschool setting. With some families, preschool is contributing to these in addition to the learning that is going on in the family. So if you can afford preprimary school, yes, it’s a good idea.” — Darlene Wilson Shue, Fort Worth, Texas
“I think preschool helps kids get those social skills and behaviors for the school environment well established before kindergarten. Honestly, kindergarten today is more like first grade used to be — everything is bumping down a grade. (I am a mom and a kindergarten teacher, and I can immediately tell on the first day of school who went to preschool and who did not.)” — Jennifer Lavender-Scott, Detroit, Mich.
The bottom line
Few people are against preschool, but not everybody embraces it as necessary for achievement, both in the short and long run. If your state provides universal preschool or you can afford it on your own, there are certainly plenty of studies and experts that point to its many benefits. But if you decide to forgo preschool altogether, that doesn’t necessarily mean your child will somehow suffer or fall behind. Disadvantaged children, however, seem to stand to gain the most benefits from preschool. If your child falls into this category, it may be worth inquiring whether your state offers free preschool programs if you can’t afford it on your own.