Nursery Tales

When it came time for Kathy and Ron Redmond to enroll their three-year-old twin sons Connor and Eamonn in a local preschool, they found themselves confronted with a slew of important decisions: public or private school, number of days a week and morning or afternoon session. Then, of course, there was the gargantuan task of researching all the possible permutations to ensure the best possible fit for the boys.

And they’re not alone: Kathy recalls that preschool was the hot topic among her circle of friends, all of whom were trying to get their preschoolers into their first-choice school. “It was like going through the college application process all over again, like the world rode on our decision!” declares the Darien mom. “Particularly for mothers who stay home and don’t have much else to focus on, it can be an overriding concern.”

Happily, the boys are now in their second year in the setting that Kathy considers perfect for them: the preschool at their neighborhood school, Hindley. Touted to her as “the best-kept secret in Darien,” it’s a small program that impressed her with its nurturing and nondemanding environment. “We did apply elsewhere, but it was my hope that they’d get into Hindley because I know that the teacher-to-student ratio is very high — last year they had eight children and four teachers per classroom. It’s a warm environment for children and parents alike,” she says.

Child development experts say that the first years of a child’s life are a crucial period. The nurture and stimulation that they receive helps them to develop the social skills that they’ll need for kindergarten. It’s not surprising then that parents are turning to preschools in greater numbers than ever to get their youngsters off to a great start. But it hasn’t always been the case. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), forty years ago only 5 percent of three-year-olds and 17 percent of four-year-olds attended preschool; by 2002 those figures had jumped to 40 percent and 66 percent, respectively. The chief motivator is simply parents’ desire to better educate their children. “Although child-care demand plays some role in increased preschool participation, it appears to be of decidedly secondary importance,” NIEER says in its 2004 State of Preschool report.

With approximately 1,500 early childhood schools in the state of Connecticut (including nursery schools, day-care centers and child-care learning centers), the search for a preschool has become a multiple-choice exercise for parents. “You have a tremendous variety of sponsorship and philosophy, and within the same community there’s quite a bit of choice,” reports early childhood educator Jean Rustici, a fifty-year veteran in the field at both the local and state levels. “There’s a tremendous push to formalize what you do with preschoolers.”

With so much to consider, how do parents sort through it all? Kathy Coppola, former director of the New Canaan Community Nursery School and an early childhood instructor at Norwalk Community College, says licensing and accreditation should be first on the checklist. “Licensing is the cake and accreditation is the frosting,” she says.

A licensed school meets basic state-required health and safety standards. “But you want to take it a step further and find a center that’s accredited because they take into consideration things that licensing doesn’t necessarily cover: teacher qualification, curriculum and developmental appropriateness,” she says.

Accreditation, either by the state or by  independent organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools, is increasingly in demand. NAEYC accreditation alone is up 20 percent over the past year, which spokesman Alan Simpson attributes to several factors. “Obviously parents and families are looking for higher quality programs,” he says.

Parents should also look for a high teacher-to-pupil ratio. In Connecticut the minimum requirement for a licensed facility is one teacher for every ten children between the ages of three and five, but Coppola prefers to double or triple the number of teachers.

For two-year-olds, there should be at least two teachers for every four children.

Next, parents should identify their own needs: full-time day care for working parents or a part-time social situation a few days a week. Then they should objectively consider their child’s personality (extrovert/introvert, physically active/laid back, prone to separation anxiety/fiercely independent) and the type of environment where he or she is most likely to feel comfortable.

Virginia and Patrick Egan had an easier time than many parents when it came to this part of the equation.

“Molly and Grace don’t have special needs and they love to go out and about,” Virginia says of her four-year-old twins. They already had an inside track at Five Mile River Nursery School (operated by their church, Rowayton United Methodist), and Virginia was impressed by what she’d seen. “We had enrolled in a Mommy & Me class there one day a week, so it was a natural progression for me,” she says. “I did look around [at other schools] because I thought that I should and because Five Mile River requires a short commute from my home in Darien. That said, if I didn’t think it was a great school, they would not have gone there.” Cost was also a factor (twins are double the fun and double the tuition), but Virginia points out that Five Mile River was not the least expensive of the schools she considered. The bottom line, she says, was “that my children develop a love for school and that in their minds it’s a fun, great place to go.”

Before making a final decision, parents should visit a variety of schools to find one that matches their values and goals as a family. At the Children’s School in Stamford, for example, prospective parents are required to observe the classroom from behind a one-way mirror. “We spend that time talking about the mission of our school and our practices and principles,” says Head of School Maureen Murphy. “We focus on the environment, the role of teachers in the classroom, record-keeping and accountability, commitment to respectful and affirmative classroom language, and teacher support.”

Early childhood education experts encourage parents to look for a play-based environment for their children, preferably one with numerous interest centers allowing free movement from one to another. At Five Mile River Nursery School, centers extend beyond the classroom into the outdoors. “We’re looking at all the domains of learning,” says Director Lauriston Avery. “It looks a lot like play, but it’s very intentional, facilitated play. Creative problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills are happening here.”

In one classroom a three-year-old girl is intrigued by the science center’s resident pet frogs, one of them albino. Her teacher elicits details from her during an open-ended conversation about the critters that is rich in descriptive words. “We’re trying to draw out language from the children, but also give them opportunities to learn new vocabulary — sophisticated language that they can take with them to school and that will give them confidence,” Lauriston explains.

At an adjacent art station, materials are laid out on a worktable, encouraging the children to take the initiative on the project of the day. Down the hall, the “fours” prep for an upcoming field trip. The teacher asks them to tell her everything that they know about the circus and records their responses on a poster-sized chart. When they return, the class will collaborate on stories to give the whole experience a definite beginning, middle and end.

Outside, shovel-wielding children search for “guests” for the worm hotels they’re constructing. Other options include manipulating building blocks, climbing and swinging on playground equipment, and riding tricycles — exercises that promote critical gross motor development. “Before children can write, they have to be able to move their bodies,” notes Lauriston. “They start off writing with their whole arm and gradually work down to the fingers. Once these muscles are developed, they can start to do finer skills.”

“Overall, think of preschool as a mini–learning lab for adulthood,” says Kathy Coppola. The primary focus should be on initiating children into the routines and sequences they’ll encounter in kindergarten and beyond, from recognizing the teacher as an authority figure to “using their words,” and from taking turns to being able to take off their coat, wash their hands and use the bathroom by themselves. “When they were living at home the thought process was: It’s me and Mom and when I want something, she’s right there,” Kathy Coppola says. “But in a classroom, it changes to: It’s me, a teacher and maybe ten other children. That’s a big thing for them to learn: the idea of coming together as a social group.” Skills like these are prerequisites for learning how to read and write, she points out, and skipping them does a disservice to the child.

As for the three R’s (reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic), the debate has escalated in recent years over what place academics should have in preschool education. Preschool administrators and teachers are encountering increasing pressure from some parents caught up in the trickle-down effect: If what was once taught in first grade is now covered in kindergarten, shouldn’t the kindergarten curriculum shift to preschool?

During her four years as director of the Darien YMCA Nursery School, April Greene has met her share of what she calls “intense parents” who push for more regimented forms of academics for their toddlers and preschoolers. She usually knows within the first few minutes of an introductory tour if parents are in sync with the Y’s  program. “They want them to learn Spanish, French and computers,” she says. “I want to say to them: ‘Your children are three and four years old. If they can master getting in line, sharing a snack with their friends and being nice to each other, that’s a good accomplishment.’” Kindergarten teachers, she adds, expect children who can “sit for more than fifteen minutes, recognize letters, hold a pencil and do colors and shapes, but not recite the alphabet backwards!”

Parents who are still determined to propel their preschoolers to the head of the class, however, do have options beyond their local preschool: kindergarten prep programs such as Kaplan’s SCORE!, which offers academic tutoring for children as young as four. After a dozen years on the market, SCORE!’s enrollment nationwide has grown steadily to 82,000, with four- to six-year-olds accounting for between 15 and 20 percent of that figure.

In Darien the Kaplan facility offers parents the choice of two hours a week of the computer-based Headsprout curriculum and/or personal academic tutoring, which takes a more traditional, pen-and-paper approach to reading, writing and math. Northeast regional manager Annette Doskow reports that a “huge priority” for parents is to have their kids experience success and become confident in an academic environment. “And certainly they’re also interested in exposing them to letters, numbers and early reading and math skills,” she adds.

The push to perform has even seeped beyond school walls. “I have friends who’ve asked me if I’m concerned that the boys are not solely doing ABC’s and 123’s in a more structured academic environment,” says Kathy Redmond, who has learned to stand her ground on the subject, noting that “you really have to take your individual child into account because every child learns differently.”

This culture of hyper-parenting has imparted new meaning to the now familiar phrase “no child left behind.” It has induced some parents to enroll their children in more than one preschool, oftentimes feeding them lunch in the car between morning and afternoon sessions. Then the extracurricular activities kick in.

“I know lots of nice folks who have their kids in preschool every day and, in addition, do TumbleBees, French lessons, ballet and soccer,” says Virginia. “I think everybody is aware of the nuttiness of it, but they’re very caught up in the idea of, Oh my goodness, I don’t want my child left behind!”

It’s not only “nutty,” it’s downright unhealthy, according to psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, who has encountered this scenario in his Greenwich practice. The author of The Over-Scheduled Child and self-described “hyper-parent in partial recovery” warns that parents who think that they’re acting in their child’s best interests are often doing more harm than good. “We have this idea that we’ve got this talent that needs to be nurtured in the kids and everything has to be sacrificed for it,” he says. “It contributes to the children feeling anxious later on in life — that they’re not good enough — and it degrades moms to the role of chauffeur.”

Rosenfeld advocates cutting back on outside activities in favor of more family time, preferably while the children are still young. When it comes to preschool, choose a morning or afternoon session and consider a setting that allows  Mom to meet and interact with other mothers.

“If you feel refreshed because you’ve talked with another adult, even if you’ve just commiserated, you’re more able to parent,” he says.

Above all, keep choosing a preschool in perspective. When the first day arrives, recognize that parents and children alike will need to make adjustments. “Yes, your child is going to miss you, and yes, there are going to be good days and bad days,” counsels Jean Rustici. But “what children need to do at this age is just play, be social and enjoy going to school,” says Kathy Coppola. “Childhood is a journey, not a race. Relax, sit back, and enjoy the journey with your child!”

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