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On Universal Preschool

Whatever happened to the free year of preschool within the public school system?

By Dr. Marilyn Shatz

Her name was Mrs. Long.  She was slim, with white hair. To a four-year-old, she seemed both very old and very kind. She was the “low” kindergarten teacher at Rawson Elementary School and the mistress of two adjoining rooms, one housing a child-sized playhouse, the other a variety of toys including a set of huge blocks. Adjacent was a windowless alcove with a large table around which all the children would stand to finger paint or to play with toys in the sand that filled the table’s pit when its top was off.

Mrs. Long and “low” kindergarten were my introduction to school almost 70 years ago. Two years of kindergarten were part of public education in Hartford then—even in a lower middle-class neighborhood. My enduring memories of that long-ago time testify to how important and how happy the year was for me. There was little in the way of formal lessons. The goal of the year was mainly socialization: Teach children how to play cooperatively, how to resolve conflicts without confrontation, and how to sit quietly and pay attention during circle time. Visiting sixth graders would come each week to read to us, raising our expectations that we, too, would one day be so capable and so admirable. At the end of that wonderful year, we proudly “graduated” to “high” kindergarten, where we would spend more time on the serious matters of learning letters and numbers, as well as preparing to learn to read ourselves. In the meantime,  we had learned that teachers were helpmates, that classmates were friends, and that being part of a school community could be fun. 

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Whatever happened to that free year of preschool within the public school system? I don’t know when it disappeared, undoubtedly a casualty of some financial crisis or other. Now, only the most financially fortunate of families can pay for private, high-quality preschool; a fraction of less fortunate children attend publicly funded programs of varied quality. Yet, in the decades since my first school experience, much research in my field of developmental psychology—as well as research in education—has shown the importance of enrichment in the early years and has demonstrated the efficacy of early childhood learning for later educational success and responsibility in adulthood. Recently, the need for early educational experiences has gotten the attention of politicians. President Obama has called for universal preschool, praising several states for their programs; the city of San Antonio now provides such schooling for all its children. 

This attention to the issue of preschool is laudable, but I question whether the norm of separate preschools standing on their own is the best model. My experience of preschool in an elementary school setting prepared me, as a 4-year-old, for school.  “Grown-up” children in the upper grades were role models for us; just like our big brothers and sisters, we went to school assemblies in the auditorium; just like them, we learned songs to perform in school pageants. We were socialized not only to one another, but to the school community. That invaluable part of the preschool experience is lost when preschools stand alone. Four-year-olds do not need early training in reading and math so much as they need to learn the language and social behavior which constitute the grounding for education in a community of learning. They can best get that in an elementary school setting. 

Bring “low” kindergarten back to the public schools.

Wade George is the Director of Communications for the American Psychological Association, Division of Educational Psychology.

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