As a resident of the D.C. suburbs, I live in some respects between two worlds. On the one hand, I've worked downtown for years and been (at times) thoroughly absorbed into the fancy-happy-hour, out-with-colleagues, traveling-on-expense-account world that treats preschool admission as Baby's First Accomplishment and applies for a spot before birth. On the other hand, I've found an utterly fantastic group of moms here in the suburbs who appear to be more relaxed about the whole affair, and who have had wonderful results with their kids at neighborhood co-ops, preschools at nearby churches and temples, and the public kindergarten.
Personally, I'm torn between the whole must-get-into-the-best-school flurry and an overwhleming urge to just keep my kids at home and close to me, protected somewhat from the suburban stress and testing merry-go-round. They're going to be in school for a long, long time. Twelve years for a high school diploma. Four more for college, and if they want to go on for graduate degrees like their daddy and I did, we're talking easily 20 years or more. Should I really add on to those years with a high-stress preschool?
I've been visiting preschools this week, and it's hard to find a good fit.
The one that I was so incredibly certain would be a good match for us -- home-like environment, kind teachers, natural materials, and plenty of outside time -- has one big shortcoming in my view. There are no books in the classroom. No. Books. It's a philosophy difference, I suppose. Their view is that children should play for the first six years, and book learning should come later. My view, where it differs from them in this one point, is that reading is the key to lifelong learning. Books are the windows to different cultures, different ideas, and different perspectives on the world. Or the many worlds out there beyond our own. Once a child learns to read, all those windows to the world open up and become accessible. From there, he needs only to learn the value of hard work and focus, and he can go anywhere. (Just ask his parents, a public school kid from Mississippi and one from rural Illinois, who somehow ended up in the nation's capital at Big Jobs. We didn't exactly have access to all the perks that the Barrie School and Sidwell Friends offer, but we read voraciously, set our goals high, and achieved them.)
Books are essential, in my view. Even before a child learns to read, he is active in the choosing of books and stories (as any mom of toddlers can attest), and this self-direction is incredibly important. He chooses what he wants to learn about (trucks, planes, nature, or that little gold bug in the Richard Scarrey books), and, with our help, he can hear about it once or a thousand times.
Reading is the cornerstone of so much. Our county kindergarten recognizes this, requiring children to know their letters BEFORE admission to kindergarten, and encouraging reading BEFORE first grade even begins. But this Fancy Preschool discourages it in favor of learning by doing. Which, as a scientist, is also exciting, but not at the expense of books.
The preschool search is just the first in a series of Big Decisions About Education that all parents have to face, but it's not an easy one. Personally, I'd really rather skip the drama and educate my babies at home for a few more years, doing crafts with them , taking nature walks, making our own fun and games, reading the classics, making up stories, playing outside, visiting museums, and generally having adventures with other moms at home and their kids.
But, in this world of such heavy focus on testing and paper achievements, I worry ... am I leaving my child behind?