In the past, parents began discussing "preschool" when their children turned two or three. Today, new parents are frantically talking to neighbors, asking experienced friends, and visiting local preschool facilities to get their newborns on a waiting list for the most advanced and respected preschool. How can parents determine what preschool program is best for their child? Furthermore, is it even necessary?

Many studies support that the first five years are the most important years in a child's life. Therefore, establishing a positive attitude toward learning during these early years is critical. However, this can occur either in a quality preschool program or in the comfort of your own home.

What Are the Experts Saying?

Parents today feel increasing pressure to prepare their children for a highly competitive, technology-driven society. They feel that if they start earlier, their child will enter elementary school better prepared. However, many physicians, child psychologists, and child development experts disagree. In fact, they believe that rushing your child in the area of formal academics can actually be harmful.

Dr. David Elkin, Professor of Child Study and author of several books pertaining to the issue of formal education for preschool children, comments, "No authority in the field of child psychology, pediatrics, or child psychiatry advocates the formal instruction, in any domain, of infants and young children.

"In fact, the weight of solid professional opinion opposes it and advocates providing young children with a rich and stimulating environment that is, at the same time, warm, loving, and supportive of the child's own learning priorities and pacing. It is within this supportive, nonpressured environment that infants and young children acquire a solid sense of security, positive self-esteem, and long-term enthusiasm for learning." Elkin is not alone in this belief; he shares the opinion of several other experts in his book, Miseducation—Preschoolers at Risk

The late Dr. Benjamin Spock, famed pediatrician and author, recommended leaving academics to a later age. "The philosophy of the American nursery school movement, which carries children up to kindergarten, never included the three R's. I firmly agree with this philosophy. In fact, it emphasizes that its only concern is with the physical, emotional, intellectual, and social aspects of development, which come before schooling. There are separate stages of development when each skill can be most readily acquired, and trying to hurry through them could easily misfire. In fact, experiments done years ago indicated that children who began reading at seven developed fewer reading problems than those who started at six."

Another well-known pediatrician, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, concurs with this view, "The human infant is amazingly capable of compliance. He can be shaped to walk at nine months, recite numbers at two, read at three, and can even learn to cope with the pressures that lie behind these expectations. But children in our culture need someone who will cry out, 'At what price?'"

The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care has emphasized that a child’s early experiences affect both the structural and functional development of the brain. Early experiences, whether positive or negative, can have long-term consequences for both the child and the family. These effects are magnified for children from disadvantaged situations. It turns out that the quality of early experiences is most important; high quality experiences can be provided in the home or outside. In a more recent publication, the importance of play has been emphasized—"play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth."

Clearly, the current consensus is that formal academic instruction is best left to the later years; young children should be given plenty of space in their early formative years to progress at their own pace. As Trisha Gura pointed out in a 2005 report in the prestigious journal Nature , most of our current understanding of childhood education at all levels is based on expert opinion rather than an understanding of the neuroscientific basis of learning. New studies—some currently underway—may someday show that specific preschool activities can enhance later learning. However, since such scientific results are far in the future, common sense and the advice of experts should help us plan for the education of today’s preschoolers.

How Do I Determine If My Child Needs Preschool?

To decide whether or not your child should go to a preschool program, begin by asking yourself a few questions:

Does your child have opportunities to socialize with children his or her age?
Yes ____ No _____

Successful socialization is learned through experience. Children need opportunities to interact with others. It is through these early opportunities that they first learn to demonstrate their independence, build friendships, solve problems, and learn to accept and respect others with varying personalities, values, and cultural differences.

Does your child have reasonable responsibilities?
Yes ____ No _____

When children go to kindergarten they are given certain tasks for which they are responsible, such as hanging their coat on a hook, keeping their desk neat, following rules, and putting toys and equipment away when they are finished. If children know what is expected of them, they are usually happy to comply, especially when they are praised for their accomplishments. Children, who are given responsibilities at home, usually adapt well to the new responsibilities at school.

Can your child separate from you when left in others' care?
Yes ___ No ____

It is common for children to experience anxiety when separated from their parents, especially during the toddler years. Separation is most successful when the parent prepares the child in advance, tells them when they are leaving, promises them they will return, continues to leave regardless of the protest, returns on time, and compliments the child for taking a "big step." If the separation brings about a prolonged emotional outburst, regression of earlier habits (thumb sucking, biting nails), or negative physical symptoms (stomachaches, diarrhea, and headaches) the situation is too stressful for the child to handle. They need time, consistency, love, and support to help them adjust to the situation.

Do you have the opportunity to spend quality time with your child?
Yes ____ No _____

Quality time is probably the greatest asset you can give your child, and sometimes the most difficult because the demands of other family members, work, and other circumstances may interrupt your plans. Be honest with yourself, and evaluate whether or not your schedule and temperament allow you to have the time, patience, discipline, and enthusiasm to give your child a solid foundation that will prepare him/her for kindergarten.

Has your child been exposed to "worldly" experiences?
Yes ____ No _____

These experiences don't need to consist of international travel. Trips to the library, post office, grocery store, bakery, and fire station are beneficial to a preschool age child. These experiences expose them to the world around them, which stimulates their curiosity. As their curiosity is stimulated, they ask questions. It is through the response to these questions that they discover the joy and excitement of learning.

If you answered yes to most of these questions, it is likely that your child will be prepared for kindergarten without the aid of a preschool program. If you answered no to most of these questions, your child will probably benefit from attending a quality preschool.

The most important factor to consider is that your preschooler develops a healthy attitude toward learning. If this is demonstrated and encouraged by parents and/or preschool teachers, the child will have the most important tool they need to begin their formal education, one that may last a lifetime.