I shouldn't be surprised when people ask, "What's the point of preschool?" Prior to earning a degree in early childhood education and becoming a parent, I hadn't appreciated its true value, either.
I do now.
The whispers about preschool began before our first child was even born and we'd just moved to town.
"You've got your name on the lists, right?" my new neighbors asked.
"For what?" I asked.
"For all the preschools. They fill up fast."
What?! My baby wasn't even born!
Preschool wasn't on my radar. I was a college-educated woman who'd grown up in a comfortable middle-class family. How did I miss the memo?
I identified the closest preschool to our house -- Warren W. Cherry Preschool, a small school in a simple red brick building. As a first-time mom, the cost astounded me: a babysitter was far more economical than paying tuition for two hours Monday through Thursday at the preschool!
There were plenty of other pre-K options in town, but by the time our firstborn was old enough to start -- just before age two -- I was pregnant with our second child. A school close to the house was important, especially if my husband had the car for work.
Still, one of my greatest fears was becoming "one of those" mothers, sending my child to a private pre-K program. It just wasn't me. I'd moved to Evanston because it was progressive and inclusive, but private pre-K felt exclusive -- the antithesis of why we'd chosen to move here in the first place.
I remember going to an Open House sometime before the first day, when anxious parents like me met the teachers and checked out the environment. The woman who would become my firstborn's first teacher showed us her room, filled with vibrant art, a sink for handwashing, tables for art projects, books, a housekeeping corner with pretend food and dolls, and a narrow area to hang coats and sweaters.
"Can I ask you something?" I'd said.
The teacher, Julie Rapisarda, nodded her head.
"Is there a big difference between how a preschool class is run compared with a daycare center?"
Julie thought for just a second. Both options are great for kids, she'd said. Preschool and daycare both help children socialize and prepare for formal schooling. Sometimes, she said, looking around, "preschools are set up, like here, to be a lot like schoolrooms, and that really helps build kids' self esteem so the transition to kindergarten is smooth."
I wanted to say, "You had me at self-esteem..." but I was too nervous. And, in the 8 or 9 years I spent as a Cherry Preschool parent, I gained just as much as a parent as my children did as students.
As preschool students, my kids made friends they still have to this day. They discovered themselves by meeting new friends in an environment balanced with creativity and routine. They learned to be caring individuals by watching their teachers demonstrate empathy.
Their classrooms were always lively and engaging as they were read to, encouraged to try new skills, and comforted when they were just not feeling right. They drew and painted and wrote and took turns and apologized and blew out birthday candles and celebrated the specialness of every one of their peers in a myriad of ways.
They opened their classrooms to children whose families were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and stepped outside of those classrooms for trips to the local kindergarten to meet their future teachers. They recorded the changing weather, took turns being a door-holder or a snacktime water-pourer or a line-leader or a calendar-person, and at the end of the year, they took home simple memory books (which teachers had spent countless hours compiling) of their artwork, photos and dictated stories, books they still marvel at.
As a preschool parent, I also made friends. We shared parenting highs and lows. I found an unwavering, go-to community of support when I had struggles with a child's regressive behavior as well as when one of my kids reached an exciting milestone. When my oldest was diagnosed with asthma, one of his classmate's mothers stopped by with literature and a hug. When my daughter decided to cut her classmate's hair in a closet, I exchanged sympathetic glances from parents. And, when my youngest showed the slightest signs of delayed fine motor skills, his teacher and the school's director of education were there to help me set up occupational therapy. The community of parents and caregivers looked out for each other and their children, a constant support when the weight of raising children overwhelmed us.
Not every preschool experience is idyllic or even positive -- I know this because I became a preschool teacher myself. I saw all different types of chidren and parents. Some environments are better than others for some kids (or for that matter, their parents!) but that only goes to show: wouldn't you rather find out earlier (in preschool) than later (kindergarten or beyond) that your child's needs require intervention or an aide or classroom modifications?
Preschool prepares a child for future educational endeavors and also fortifies their ever-challenged self esteem. Parents are and always will be the strongest advocates for children. In my opinion, preschool matters just as much for them as it does for their kids.