“Listen, you can’t turn back the hands of time. Once they enter kindergarten, they can’t have the window of opportunity any longer. It’s too late.”
Parent and creator of Brainy Baby, Dennis Fedoruk, says what every anxious parent feels. Babies learn sign language and listen to classical music. Mothers enroll infants in Broadway Babies; toddlers take I.Q. tests. An industry of DVDs, games, and pure junk cater to parents fears. As one writer put it, “if the child isn’t launched on the route to super-achievement in the first years of life, he or she will be doomed forever to mediocrity or worse.” Nervous parents inventing infant professionals–making a three-minute egg in one minute–do so to gain that extra step over other anxious parents who want their kids to be high-achieving and high-earning adults.
After Baby Einstein comes preschool. And more angst over which is “best” for Tiffany or Sage. Ideological struggles erupt in families over which preschool to attend– one where three year-olds learn to count, identify colors, and memorize the alphabet or one where young children spend time being curious? Should preschool be boot camp for kindergarten or a place where very young children, as Alison Gopnik put it, “be allowed to explore, inquire, play, and discover?”
Surprise! None of this ideological see-sawing about the content of preschools is new. Over the past two centuries, child-rearing experts have advised Moms to be strict and permissive, parent-centered and child-centered. Since the invention of nurseries and preschools decades ago, a similar back-and-forth movement between hard and soft approaches have occurred. And don’t forget Amy Chua’s recent paean to “Tiger Moms.” Preparing toddlers for the cognitive demands of schools or developing the whole child (and, yes, mixes of both) have had their champions again and again. And school reform agendas feed into these ideological skirmishes over how best to raise and school children.
Currently, national fears of being outstripped in global economic competition have spilled over public schools with a reform agenda that places primary attention upon standards, testing, accountability, and charter schools. That agenda has trickled down into both public and private preschools.
*Preschool charter schools have been established.
*There are accountability standards for preschools.
But not to all preschools. Progressive ones looking to develop the “whole child”–a phrase that prompts snickers if not ridicule in many educated elite circles–flourish below the radar. Such schools are, in this climate, mostly private. See here and here. Some, however, are public. Many parents are caught in the tangled dilemma: “If we give them barbies/GameCubes/television/Play Stations they want and we can afford, will they become too slack, glazed, and lazy to get into Harvard?”
Can research settle what are the best ways for preschoolers to learn? Hardly. Evidence seldom convinces ideologues either about the size of government, the best diet, or the content of preschool activities. The National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC), for example, lays out the research, benchmarks for development for young children ( see KeyMessages), and cautions about use of technology with preschoolers (see statement PSTECH98-2). NAEYC anchors the progressive side of the preschool ideological see-saw. In the present political and economic climate, however, they are lightweights compared to well leveraged state and federal policymakers worried about the nation’s weak performance on international achievement tests and civic and corporate leaders who press for cognitively-driven preschools where direct instruction in knowledge and skills give young children a running start in the race through the grades and into college. Add in most parents who gnaw their nails while buying Brainy Baby.
The earnest move to universal preschooling for children endorsed by both civic and corporate leaders, business groups, and educational associations as national investments in the future wealth of the nation and supported by longitudinal studies (e.g., Perry Preschool, ABCedarian (see Campbell.et.al, etc.) has become politically acceptable and, as monies become available, will be established. But the content and direction of preschools will again be influenced by the ideological fervor of those wanting boot camp instruction to prepare for school and those wanting more curiosity and play rather than a brain on a stick. So it was and so it shall be.
Maybe not. If neuroscientists have taught us anything about the brain and learning it is the plasticity of that three pound organ. Sure, months in the womb and infancy are important, even crucial to emotional and cognitive growth but toddlers, children, youth, the middle aged and elderly are constantly learning. Whichever preschool ideologies are dominant at the moment and whatever child-rearing experts preach, learning in and out of school never stops as we age. Will such knowledge disintegrate parental angst? So far, it hasn’t.