In all of the debate in the city and state over expanding prekindergarten access, I’ve heard lots of talk about how pre-K provides a good academic foundation for children and makes life easier for parents to work. My husband and I know that’s true: As two employed parents without hired help or full-time help from our parents, we rely on daycare to keep our kids safe and engaged while we work. But there’s a lot more that early schooling can offer families, including insight into child development, strategies we can try at home, and a dynamic social atmosphere for our kids during the day.
Pre-K — actually the full-day, start-young version of it, or daycare, in our case at Manhattan Kids Club in lower Manhattan — has been one of the most positive experiences in the life of my family, and it would be wonderful to see other families have the same opportunity even if they can’t pay for it as we have.
We have profited tremendously from having professionals involved in the rearing of our children. From the introduction of positive discipline (urging “walking feet” instead of commanding, “don’t run”; “inside voices” instead of “be quiet”) and structured learning, to reminders about shots and doctor visits, there is a regular feedback loop between us and our kids’ teachers. More often than not, teachers take the lead in reminding us about changes that are developmentally appropriate, and they have often been the first to implement those changes with positive effect.
I remember well when the head of the school called a meeting for parents of 4-year-olds when our oldest was that age. “How many of our kids were dressing themselves?” she asked. Not one parent raised a hand.
“Well,” she said, “they put on their own shoes and jackets every day at school, and if you encourage them, I know they’ll be dressing themselves at home within a matter of weeks.” And so it was. Our kids were ready — we just needed help to realize that.
My husband and I also appreciate the social aspect of daycare. Whenever we’re there, we can see how our kids learn through play with others and how they are encouraged to solve conflicts when they arise.
Sure, sometimes they pick up something we could do without, or share something they shouldn’t (our own son famously enjoyed telling his friends that Santa Claus was make believe), but much more often, they have been inspired and encouraged by the talents of others.
It starts with the sippy cup — the first kid who can use one pulls the others quickly along — but it goes right on to real meaningful learning. One child builds a tower of blocks and the others join in and create a full, complex fortress.
At Circle Time in the morning, the kids are excited to “show and share” something that starts with the letter of the week with their friends. Right now, we are the midst of a paper airplane craze, which builds motor skills, conceptual thinking, and an understanding of aerodynamics, and the kids are having a blast.
In this very communal setting, we’ve also all benefited tremendously from the diversity of kids and families and traditions, something so special and unique about New York.
From observing my kids’ daycare, I know that creating and supervising a diverse class of children isn’t easy, and it’s important that staff-to-child ratio in public pre-Ks be high enough to keep the social interactions positive. And I might add that in our experience, teachers are responsible, loving, and integrated into a strong structure; not all of them have a formal degree.
Some parents balk at the idea of daycare or pre-K, and we recognize that there are other positive choices. But we believe, as Hillary Clinton said many years ago in “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child,” that childcare does not need to be a solitary endeavor nor limited to close family.
To the contrary, we think that in the atomized world in which we live, the community of peers, parents, teachers, and administrators who love and care for children enriches all of our lives and strengthens our own bonds with our kids.
I am very hopeful that pre-K, which we have been so fortunate to enjoy, will be an option for many more New Yorkers and their children in the near future. But it needs to be done right. Getting first-rate administrators to play a crucial role in this huge undertaking of structuring and scaling the pre-K option is paramount. They know what it takes to deliver outstanding early childhood care, and their wisdom, in close sync with the voices of parents, needs to be harnessed immediately.