When my children were young, I didn't give too much thought to preschool. I knew that Scott (four) and Michelle (two) were soaking up information about the world at a rapid pace. I knew they didn't need to go to preschool for information about colors, letters, numbers, or for arts and crafts experiences. It wasn't that I was opposed to preschool - it just didn't seem necessary.
Then we moved to another state, and found it difficult to meet new friends, especially for Scott. It seemed that all the four year olds were in preschool, so we finally decided to enroll too. Many programs were already full (it was October}, and others were far too expensive for us, but I was pleased to find a preschool willing to have me trade my work as a teacher's helper for Scott's tuition. An added benefit would be avoiding the separation for Scott, especially so soon after our move.
The teachers were warm and gentle with all the children, and they offered a variety of activities. Gradually, though, I became uneasy as I watched Scott in this setting. One incident in particular helped clarify my thinking about why he was in preschool and what we were expecting from the experience:
We had arrived a few minutes early to help set up, and Scott settled down near the blocks and trucks. As children came in, some joined him and they worked together. After about ten minutes, the teacher called to start the day: "Come to circle time, please put the blocks away now." Scott was crushed. The teacher gently and patiently led him to circle, but he did not, could not, participate.
Rethinking the Preschool Decision
Scott's behavior in preschool was so much a part of his character that I wondered how he would adjust. Would the teachers think he was uncooperative and too stubborn to participate in the activities they had planned? As I thought about the incident I realized that he had been paying attention, intently, to what he wanted to do (building and playing with other children). He simply did not want someone to insist that he stop paying attention to something he was interested in, and pay attention instead to something else (however creative, fun, or interesting it might be). Fred and I began to ask ourselves, "Do we really want him to adjust?"
We remembered the time when Scott was around three years old, and I had given him a pair of scissors for the first time:
Sitting in his high chair, he watched intently as I cut up some paper. When I showed him how to hold the scissors, he spent some time just watching the blades move as he opened and shut them. Although his initial attempts to cut paper just bent it, he kept trying. After an hour or so I tried to insist that he stop for lunch, but he resisted fiercely, and it was two full hours before he stopped.
There were many times when we had observed him working intently for long periods of time to master a skill, or playing with intense concentration. Another incident came to mind when Scott let us know just how much he valued his projects:
Soon after his fourth birthday, he awakened at 3 a.m., sobbing uncontrollably. After about ten minutes, he calmed down enough to tell me what was wrong. Earlier that day, he had been building a Tinkertoy house when I had to interrupt him to go to the grocery store. Reluctantly, he came along, and then forgot to finish the house when we got back. Suddenly, at three a.m., he had remembered. He wanted to go downstairs (not by himself, of course) and finish the house. I think he was angry at me for interrupting him, angry at himself for forgetting to go back to it, and angry that I wouldn't go downstairs with him right that minute. At the time, half asleep, I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry, so I went back to bed and asked his Dad to go talk to him. (Laughing about it later with my mother-in-law, she said: You can look at this as stubbornness or as persistence. Persistent people get an idea and stick with it in spite of obstacles. They get things done.)
Fred and I decided that whatever benefits there were to preschool didn't outweigh what we saw as harmful adjustments for him. We valued his ability to concentrate on a task he had set for himself, and wanted to be sure that he continued to have enough time in his days to pursue his interest in that manner. The interruptions that were inevitable in a group (everyone had to gather together, go outside together, eat together, and leave together) were just too painful for Scott. We asked ourselves some questions: "Do we want to force him to change his long attention span, to break his intense concentration? Is there really so much value in being willing to move on to something else because you are told it's time to? Is the group experience that important for him? Is this the only way, or the best way, to spend time with friends?" Our answer to each of these questions was "no". With a renewed appreciation for our time at home, we withdrew Scott from preschool.
As Michelle grew up, we decided that we didn't want her to go to preschool either. Some of our reasons were very similar to the reasons for taking Scott out. In some ways, however, she would have found the adjustment easier, and that was, paradoxically, one of the reasons we didn't want her to attend. She had her own wonderful ideas for projects, crafts, drawings, play "soups" in the back yard, silly rhymes, and chants. We knew that it would be easy for her to accept the activities offered at preschool and to enjoy them. It seemed that it would be too easy for her to lose her own individuality and independent thinking by attending preschool. We thought that the group activities and gatherings we were already going to were enough for her early years.
Living and Learning at Home
We did occasionally find ourselves reassuring people neighbors, relatives, or friends -- that our children were learning about letters and numbers. We knew that we didn't have to "teach" them in any organized fashion. With so much printed matter around -- books, magazines, cereal boxes, the comic pages -- our children's curiosity would lead the way. For example, one afternoon, we visited a cousin in the city. Scott spotted a letter 'W on a sign -- then another, and another. I don't think he saw much of anything else, but his focus was intense, and his delight contagious. He danced down the sidewalk, spotting "W" everywhere -- lit up on neon signs, on manhole covers, and on building signs high above us.
Out and around on walks and errands, we saw our community at work. We talked about what things were used for, how things worked and why people were doing what they were doing. We stopped often: to trace the pattern of wrought iron railings, climb rocks, pick up seeds, slide over marble floors, and feel the running water in a ditch during a rainstorm. We watched people at work: repairmen fixing an escalator, the librarian repairing books, a backhoe operator digging a foundation.
When Scott and Michelle tried to share the events of the day with their Dad, I realized how much I was needed to put their experiences in comprehensible sequence and detail. The things we did in the morning sometimes seemed distant memories by supper time, and they needed prompting on what they had seen and done. It helped that I had shared their morning and could gently help them relate their story.
Scott and Michelle had time to play together for hours, and they developed their own special games. While I worked in the yard, they examined worms, constructing a "worm town." They spun each other on the swing and rocked on the teeter-totter until they flipped off, laughing together. One of the routines they invented for themselves was to ride their Big Wheels around and around on the deck while I fixed supper. One would remind the other, and poof! -- they were out zipping around for an hour or more.
Gradually, I found other children who had time to play. For example, I joined a babysitting co-op, and traded sits often with a family with a four-year-old girl (Mary) and a two-year old boy (Adam). Michelle and Adam developed a close and long-lasting friendship. Scott and Mary, on the other hand, had different interests and very different styles of playing and communicating. In a larger group setting they most likely would have ignored each other because each could have found other friends. A couple of times a week, however, they were together for several hours, and although they struggled at times, they learned how to play together. When people asked me how I expected my children to become "socialized" I offered this experience as an example.
Several other moms and I organized outings to places where programs for groups were offered: nature centers, children's theaters, museums, historical sites, skating lessons at the rink. We needed a minimum of twelve to fifteen children to qualify for most group programs, and it was usually easy to come up with the minimum number of participants.
Examining our assumptions about children and learning
The prevailing opinion in our culture seems to be "of course, children should go to preschool." What if we all stopped to ask ourselves some questions: "Is this an experience my child needs? What adjustments will my child need to make? Are the adjustments good, or necessary?" Regardless of how we answer the questions, we will have come to understand our own children better.
There is a lot of information available about "choosing the right preschool for your child". Thinking about our children's personalities and learning styles is always recommended as a first step. To back up a step, we might ask "Is any preschool right for my child?" I know some children who are so active that "Outward Bound" would meet their needs better than a preschool. They're delightful and adventurous when physically challenged, but have a hard time sitting still for long. Is it really necessary for them to learn to sit still at age three, or four?
Are we looking to develop their unique strengths and abilities, or to be sure they "measure up" to average skills in all areas? Would we be comfortable with a child who doesn't give a hoot about learning the words to "Baa Baa Black Sheep," but who loves his rock collection so intensely that he picks a few favorites to sleep with each night? Are we willing to do something "different" with our children? Instead of going to preschool several mornings a week, we could spend our time on hikes, at the park, following our children's passionate interests.
It's easy to feel defensive when choosing not to send your child to preschool. For some reason, lots of people feel free to question a parent's decision, to assume that a child will "miss out" on some great experiences. It's hard to know how to handle others' comments, especially since they're often made in front of the children. I tried to be light-hearted and positive, saying something like, "We are having a great time at home and with our friends, and we are learning a lot." When asking these kinds of questions, I found that most people didn't mean to be rude; it's just that they questioned anything out of the ordinary.
Eight years later
Scott is twelve now, and Michelle is ten. They both participate in a variety of group activities and sports (and no one ever asks them if they attended preschool). They have had extended periods of time to play, to dream, to work on their own projects. This kind of time, and the freedom to be creative and independent, is something Fred and I value highly, so the decisions we made about preschool still seem right to us.
In raising children, each of us is faced with many decisions. We must be willing to trust our own observations and intuition, especially when we choose to do something "different," Each time we stretch ourselves in trying to understand our children's needs, and in trying to imagine all our options, we learn, and our confidence grows.
©April 1993, Cathy Myers, All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published in the April 1993 issue of Welcome Home, the journal of our nonprofit organization Family and Home Network. Cathy is executive director of FAHN. Her children are now adults, each running their own creative businesses. Her daughter is the mother of two little boys who are living and learning without school and with lots of time for play, exploring nature, and exercising their muscles, imaginations and curiosity. Her son and his wife are the parents of a lively toddler, and they've arranged their paid work hours at different times so they can provide most of the care of their son themselves.