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The Answer Sheet

By Valerie Strauss
Monday, November 9, 2009

Parental anxiety is ruining playtime

It is well known that many preschool parents have become super-anxious trying to give their kids a leg up on kindergarten, but I didn't realize just how nutty things had become until I talked to several dozen preschool program directors.

What child development experts know is that youngsters best learn the fundamentals of literacy through well-designed play. But lots of parents don't understand that. Here is what's going on in the preschool world of the greater Washington region and, I have no doubt, in other places across the country as well.

Parents are:

-- Begging school directors to let their 1 1/2 -year-olds into programs for 2-year-olds because Danny and Olivia are so incredibly advanced.

-- Demanding to know why their 2-year-old isn't being given the alphabet to copy over and over and memorize.

-- Afraid that any services their child needs, such as speech therapy, will go on the youngster's "permanent record" and harm their chances of getting into a private school.

-- Enrolling their 3-year-olds in so many activities that the kids are falling asleep on their preschool desks.

-- Buying toys for 2-year-olds that are labeled for older children.

I learned this after some preschool directors called me when I wrote several weeks ago about how academically oriented kindergarten had become -- complete with test prep and homework, but no recess.

(One reader, raynecloud, responded to that post with this: "This story makes me thankful we're currently living in Europe. My 4-year-old just started in kindergarten equivalent, and, while they are learning to write, it's primarily about learning through play, making friends, and running around in the attached-to-classroom outside play area whenever they want throughout the day, plus three scheduled half-hours of outdoor play over the wider school grounds. My son loves it!")

The preschool directors wanted to discuss the worsening anxiety they see in parents who recognize that children are being required to read and write in kindergarten and want to make sure little Johnny and Joanie stay on track -- whether or not they are developmentally ready (and lots aren't).

"It's not that we don't think learning is important," said Mara Bier, director of the Early Childhood Development Area of the Rockville-based Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. "We do. Where we disagree is how that is achieved."

The partnership runs dozens of preschool programs for thousands of children of all faiths in Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District -- and many of these directors see parents getting ever more anxious. Directors of other preschool programs at churches and civic organizations echoed the observations.

There is solid research on the benefits of well-designed play that teaches kids to ask questions and find their own answers. Unknowing parents see their kids playing at a water table and think they are wasting their time.

"I don't blame the parents," said one preschool program director. "In public school kindergarten, the kids better hit the ground running. These pishers are supposed to write three- and four-word sentences."

The reason for all of this is No Child Left Behind, which has pushed curriculum down into the earliest grades and put the focus on high-stakes standardized tests that start as early as third grade.

That's why the preschool directors I spoke with (who did not want to be identified because, obviously, they didn't want their students' parents upset) said they have great sympathy for the parents.

"I've had parents sit and agree with me," said one. "They say, 'I know you are right, but I can't do it.' "

What they "can't do" is stop pushing so hard that they kill the joy of learning in their children before second grade.

People!

However super-educated you are, I am going to bet that most of you don't have a degree in child development.

This is the only time your child has to be a child!

Can you at least wait until your child gets into first grade before you start driving him or her academically crazy?

What have been your experiences with preschool? Do you sympathize with parents like the ones described above?

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