I recently had the opportunity to visit a Richmond-area preschool and day care center. The classrooms were spotless — not a chair, table or rest mat was out of place. The walls were decorated with child-friendly colors and filled with pictures of students and their artwork. The staff was very friendly and approachable. The curriculum and detailed schedule were displayed prominently. Parents walking into their child's classroom would know exactly what their child would be doing that day and when they'd be doing it. The director was better than just a good manager; she was an energetic, intelligent individual who was committed to the well-being of the staff, the children and their parents. By every standard it was outstanding — the facility, staff, curriculum and management.
And yet I walked away sad. Sad that nearly a generation of young children is growing up in a “school” with a rigid structure with seemingly every waking moment planned and plotted. Sad that the overarching goal for their very young lives is educational rather than relational. It seems nobody gets a few years just to play and be a kid anymore. There was a time when school readiness was the job of kindergarten. These days children arrive at kindergarten ready for school, with an understanding of not only their numbers and letters, but also the whole system and process. But are they truly ready, or simply well programmed?
The preschool years have a purpose beyond the classroom, and growing up is about more than just the information in a child's head. It's about more than his or her performance on a test, paper or project. Those few short years are for exploring, creating, imagining and pretending. Ages 2, 3 and 4 offer an opportunity for learning to self-structure in an unstructured environment, behave without reward and self-entertain without special activities and outside instructions. It's also the time to misbehave and test limits and learn that there are consequences to bad behavior and poor choices, all occurring within the safe limits of parents' reach.
“We're all sad, and we're a little worried … we're sad about something missing in childhood,” psychologist and author Michael Thompson said on the “Today Show” in November. Temple University psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek agrees. “Without ample opportunity for forms of play that foster innovation and creative thinking,” she argues, “America's children will be at a disadvantage in the global economy. Play equals learning. For too long we have divorced the two.”
I would take it a step further: The early years of a child's life are a time for cementing the relationship between parent and child. Those pre-kindergarten years offer a window of opportunity — it's when a parent earns the right to be heard by his one-day adolescent son or daughter, when children begin to learn they're not the center of the world. The battle of wills that can take place between a preschooler and an adult is surprisingly powerful, and for good reason. This battle sets the whole framework for a child's perception of himself in relationship to his peers, his parents and other adults. It's also the battle where a mom and a dad earn the respect that they'll desperately need when that same child starts on the rocky road of adolescence that's lurking just around the corner.
The day I visited the preschool, I happened to be there when a mother arrived to pick up her toddler. The toddler didn't know the room was lovely, that his teacher was excellent and his curriculum was the best available. All he knew was that the most important person in his world was back, and that's all he needed. I know that in today's economy many parents have no choice. Their survival means they must work, and work means their children must be in day care. But I wonder if it's possible to be counter-cultural in the process. Is there a way to make childcare a little less educational and schedule-driven, and maybe just a little more playful and child-driven? Is there another approach, one that's more open to the real work of kids?
A lot happens in those early years that goes beyond classroom and curriculum. Unstructured play forces children to learn the value of compromise, how to deal with others who are different from them, the social consequences of treating others unfairly and vice versa. And it extends beyond just the preschool years. At every step of the way children are forced into structures with increasingly less unstructured play time. Even after school children are immediately thrust into more structure — the legions of organized youth sports attest to the virtues of play under the watchful eyes of Little League coaches, with the rules set in stone. It's always better to be on the ball field with freshly painted lines and adult supervision, the thinking goes, than down the street playing stickball.
But these same children will get out of college one day and still have the work of the preschool years to do — only the play will be more dangerous. And perhaps one day a whole generation of parents will find themselves scratching their heads, wondering why their children cannot grow up after receiving the best education available. S
Janet Neal is a native Richmonder, former high school English teacher and mother of four.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.