Theoretically, I know a lot about school choice. I know a lot about the importance of play-based education in early childhood. I know a lot about privilege (and I am privileged in many ways). I know a lot about building a solid educational foundation for my children’s success as learners in a formal school setting.
And then I had to enroll my oldest in preschool.
The process was arduous, a minefield of “he-said, she-said” type underground networking to find the “best fit” for my child. The playgroup moms I had come to value became, suddenly, very tight-lipped about where their children would be going. Some schools refused tours or set tour-application dates publicly but used back channels to accept applications so they would be completely full by the time the “public” showed up to tour. Some schools privileged “first come, first served”, so parents camped out hours before the start of the official application opening. Some schools said they privileged admission based on one criteria (say, geography) and I later discovered that they also gave priority to certain religious affiliations or parental professions. And very few programs fit my ideal desire for my child: a 2 or 3 half-day a week play based drop-off program whose teachers held an ECE credential.
We worked through it, though. And I’m happy about the school my child is enrolled in for the fall. But the process has left a very bitter taste in my mouth which is best captured by a luncheon I had with several playgroup moms last week. The conversation settled on preschool within the first 10 minutes and went something like this:
Mom1: What preschool did you all pick for next year?
Mom2: We were looking for a rigorous academic program, so we chose Super Special Charter Preschool, which focuses on teaching reading to its 3-year olds.
Mom1: Oh, really? I thought you were interested in a play based program?
Mom3: Why would anyone do play based at 3? Our kids need to be challenged! I enrolled my child in Super Lab School at Fantastic University. I even put our name on the list before I was pregnant to make sure we got a spot.
Mom4: Wait, before you were pregnant? You never mentioned this.
Mom3: (Innocently) I didn’t? Oh, I must have forgotten. This school is so hard to get into. We basically had to call three of our colleagues who happen to know the director to get in.
Mom2: I tried to get into that program, but it was full! Super Special Charter Preschool’s head teacher used to teach at the Lab school. At least we have that.
Mom3: Yes, we’ve got to get them prepared for the rigors of Kindergarten…
At this point, I wanted to check out of the conversation and order a stiffer drink than the mocktail by my plate. The rigors of Kindergarten? And you “forgot” to share the name of this fantastic school with us 18 months ago when we were all talking about preschool placements every time we got together? Seriously? Please put the kool-aid down!
I think these types of conversations and this type of thinking happens when critical thought gets thrown out the window. How many times had we, as a group, discussed the importance of play? Read research based articles about the importance of community in children’s lives? Shared information about the play based preschools in our area so we could maybe enroll as a group? But when the rubber meets the road, these moms threw all of that out the window and said “I will not share. I will not help other moms. I will not be a part of a larger community. I will focus on the welfare of my own child and refuse to share any information which might lead them to the preschool I want my child to go to so I can hopefully increase my child’s likelihood of getting in?”
Something IS wrong with education in the U.S. and it’s starting long before K-12. I couldn’t help but feel sad and, yes, even deceived by how the preschool question had played out in my child’s play group. I listened to the group discuss the various preschools their children would attend in the fall for several minutes before one of the moms turned to me and asked where my child would be going to school. When I told the group my child would go to a Play-Based Co-op Preschool, they were shocked that a teacher would remotely consider such an nonacademic environment for her child to attend must less actually enroll her child at said school.
They should not have been shocked. The research is clear: Play IS the work of children. We do them no favors to pretend otherwise or try to “accelerate” them with academic preschools and Baby Einstein and Time4Learning’s Preschool reading program.
I am finding it difficult, however, to maintain this path in the face of intense peer pressure to do otherwise. I can see how falling into the trap of pushing your child to do more and do it faster and sooner is so easy–it would be so much easier to “go with the flow”, but doing so would be to the detriment of my children. So, I am “staying the path”, enrolling my child in a play based program this fall. My child is only young once and there is plenty of time yet for super-structured, get with the program, academic pursuits. Providing a solid social and critical inquiry stance foundation is something I value more than being able to say my three year old can read and write.