Sandbox or social studies?
August 28, 2014 9:58 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for some advice on where to send my almost 4 year old daughter for preschool.

My daughter will be turning four in November and we are looking to send her to preschool. She has been in an in home daycare since she was about one year old. Recently we have decided that the day care she was in was not working as it did not have any kind of learning curriculum, among other reasons. Daughter is very advanced verbally and was the oldest child at the center (as other children had aged out and moved on to kindergarten) and we felt that the lack of curriculum and older children to learn from was not good for her development.

We currently live in San Jose, CA. Daughter and I (father) will be moving to Davis, CA next fall where she will enroll in transitional kindergarten for a few months and then conventional kindergarten upon turning 5 in November. This coming year would be focused on getting her ready for kindergarten. Her mother and I are both full time students and work part time.

We researched various preschools and day care centers in the area and have narrowed it down to two options and we're having difficulty deciding where she should go. Here is a little bit of information about the two schools.

Option 1 ("Private school") is a school very near to our home in a residential neighborhood that seems to be heavily focused on academics. When we toured the facility there were not very many children there, and those that were were outside playing (this was during their summer session so that doesn't surprise me). We met with the director and two of the teachers and everything seemed great, though the academics for the pre-k "room" seemed a bit advanced for my daughter. There did not seem to be that many toys available for the kids to play with. We could only afford to have her in the private school for three days per week, and daughter would spend the two other weekdays with her parents. As we are both students the cost is high, but manageable. There is no parent participation component of going to this school. I could provide a link to this school's website if anyone wants to take a look, though I don't think it really provides much more information.

Option 2 ("Public school") is a Head Start facility that is farther from our home and would require a somewhat longer commute in the morning for me, but wouldn't be too much longer for my daughter. It is free, and we could send her four days per week (potentially five, but neither of us have work or school on Friday so it makes more sense to keep her home that day). The public school seemed to have less of a focus on academics and more of a focus on emotional learning, though they do have a learning curriculum. Since the public school is free, we would have extra money to send daughter to extracurricular activities (particularly dance, as she has expressed interest in dance class). And because she would be in school an extra day we would have a badly needed extra day for studying. The public school is considerably more diverse than the private school. There is a parent participation component of the public school, which appeals to me. There were a lot more toys and art supplies in the rooms that we saw. The public school also allows for some limited computer time for the kids, which I don't believe the private school offers.

The dilemma that I have concerns academics. I think that the private school has a heavier focus on academics, which appeals to me so that our daughter will be ready for kindergarten when she enrolls. However, it seems to me like so much of our children's time is spent these days on academics that they are not allowed to be children for very long. Having her delve immediately into math and science and writing at four years old sounds like a great idea but I know she would much rather be doing arts and crafts or playing with the sweet doll house they have at the public school. She is a fast learner, so I'm not necessarily concerned with her not being able to pick up skills once she is in kindergarten but I wouldn't want her to be behind her peers. At the same time, I feel that I learn better when I struggle so perhaps it would be better for her to struggle a little bit so that she can get the satisfaction of learning. At the same time, since the public school is a state (federal?) program I'm sure their curriculum is geared toward having children be prepared for kindergarten, but just perhaps not as prepared as the private school.

So, here are the specific questions that I have:

For those of you that have sent your children to Head Start or related programs, what did you feel about the curriculum? Were your children ready when they went to kindergarten? Would you have preferred that they went to a private school, if money hadn't been an issue?

Is it better for a child's development to have more time with the parents or more time with quality education? If we send her to the public school we would have spare money to send her to dance, art, etc classes so would that make up for any lack of education she's getting?

Is it really that necessary for a 4 year old to know the planets, and the phases of water? Should I just let her be a kid for an extra year?

Thanks for reading. Any other comments, thoughts or links to previous Asks that I missed are appreciated. If you've had a particularly wonderful experience with a day care or preschool in San Jose and want to share that information, I would be welcome to it. I also welcome MeMail if you'd like to keep your responses "off the record".
posted by sacrifix to Education (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would absolutely without a doubt choose the Head Start program. Setting aside the fact that it is free and 4 days a week, I would still choose it because she is 4 and she does deserve to spend this time learning through play, rather than learning through classroom academics. Kids learn a lot through play, more than we as adults sometimes think.

I will also say that as a mother of a 5 and 7 year old (the 5yo just started Kindergarten last week), the skill range when your daughter enters TK will be huge. There might be a kid who can already read, but mostly kids will just know their letters and numbers. There will be some kids who do not yet know their letters and numbers. Based on what you say about who you are and your daughter's skills, I am confident she is already academically prepared for Kindergarten. She might not be ready socially (I can't tell) and this is what a good preschool program teaches, alongside the academics. How to share, how to work in a group, how to resolve conflict, how to cope with having to go along with scheduled activities instead of doing whatever you want all day long. She will have learned some of those skills already from being in daycare. I also personally prefer to send my kids to a more diverse school, rather than a private school where you tend to get a very homogenous group - because that aligns with my worldview.
posted by Joh at 10:11 AM on August 28, 2014 [26 favorites]

Hands down Head Start or other publicly available preschool.
posted by zizzle at 10:14 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

For me, taking her to the free school would be a no-brainer, given what you have described. It sounds like it eases both your budget and your time schedule (so you can study more) and provides more of what a 4 year old needs.

If she is bright, most likely school can't do much for her academically anyway. Dance class would likely do a lot more.

Kids need to be kids. Bright kids need to have more of a sandbox in which to explore the world and draw their own conclusions about what works. "Education is about lighting a fire, not filling a pail." She does not need facts and the like spoon-fed to her. She needs interesting, fun things to do that make her curious about the world. With two educated parents to answer her endless questions, she already has a leg up on the academics. You don't need to worry about that too much.

My oldest went to preschool to help force him to talk. He is gifted-learning disabled. He needed the extra help for his disabilities. Both my sons are bright. My younger one never went to preschool. He treated K-2 like it was for friends, access to additional toys and an opportunity to attend parties. He gave short shrift to the academics. Bright kids don't need extra focus on academics the way special needs kids sometimes do. They just need access to stuff that intrigues them and running room to take it as far as their hearts desire. At this age, that is typically best supplied with "extra-curriculars."
posted by Michele in California at 10:14 AM on August 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Our two oldest kids are now in elementary school and they both spent time at preschools that were more focused on play and social skils than academics (though both did try to seach various basics skills and subjects using play). Our kids were both more than ready for kindergarten. Preschool is more about learning to be away from home, get along with kids, and follow directions from a teacher than the actual academic curriculum. Your child isn't going to be behind academically. As Joh mentioned, kindergarten teachers see a real variety of abilities and readiness to learn in their incoming classes. A bright kid who has been read to at home and has some experience in a class-like environment will be in a very good position to learn from her kindergarten teacher.
posted by Area Man at 10:18 AM on August 28, 2014

At the same time, I feel that I learn better when I struggle so perhaps it would be better for her to struggle a little bit so that she can get the satisfaction of learning.

She's four. She has a lifetime of learning by struggling ahead of her.

Also, speaking as a former child, it's not like learning can only take place in a classroom! (You already know this.) You, parents, can do fun out-of-school learning-but-feels-like-play stuff with her out of school hours.
posted by rtha at 10:20 AM on August 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Free school. The "emotional learning" component is a thousand times more relevant for her early schooling than any specific curriculum.
posted by KathrynT at 10:24 AM on August 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Headstart program. Getting the hang of social skills & learning through play is so much more important at that age. She's 4 she is learning just by going for a walk around the block you don't need to struggle for her to learn. If it worries you you'd be better off putting that money into a bank account so she can go to a good college when she's older.

Add to that the fact that her parents won't be a stressed when she's around as they will have their homework done and will have time to spend with her and I think she'd be happier too.
posted by wwax at 10:28 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is it really that necessary for a 4 year old to know the planets, and the phases of water?

Probably not, and anyway, couldn't you just read her a book? If she's a bright kid with good verbal skills, make sure you surround her with fabulous kids books and spend lots of time reading with her.
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:34 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

The free school, for sure! Remember you can work with her to make sure she learns the basics (numbers, letters, colors, shapes etc..). School can give her the emotional learning that is so valuable.

P.S. I have a same age child in a private play based preschool in SJ. I toured _a lot_ of schools during my school search last year and would be happy to chat specific schools if you message me :)
posted by saradarlin at 10:34 AM on August 28, 2014

Head Start, no contest. The main thing she needs to know going into kindergarten is how kindergarten works--sitting in a circle, working with peers, playing in a large group, listening to instructions. It sounds like she already has quite a bit of the academic side down with her verbal skills, it's the soft skills that she currently lacks, especially because she'll be on the extreme young end for her kindergarten class. That is exactly what a program like Head Start exists for. The fact that the more academic place didn't have a lot of visible toys and art supplies seems like a huge red flag to me; at this age, they learn through engagement with their world. Understanding the differences between the phases of matter by experiencing them is much richer than memorizing a three word list. The money and your gut feeling seals the deal to me. Head Start all the way.

(nb: My son is exactly the same age as your daughter, and we are also academically-minded folks, so welcome to the conversation we've been having for the past few months.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:14 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Head Start for sure. One of my kids went to one and I also taught briefly in another one. The most important thing she's going to learn in preschool is how to get along with all sorts of other kids and how to follow a few rules. The values taught at Head Start are great: share, be nice to each other, explore, etc. Don't worry about the academic stuff. She has two college-educated parents who presumably read to her, engage her in discussions, take her to places like libraries and museums. She sees you both reading and studying. She'll be fine.
posted by mareli at 11:56 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is it really that necessary for a 4 year old to know the planets, and the phases of water?

Sweet Jesus, no. Send her to the preschool you'll think she'll have fun at -- the one with toys, and art, and all that good stuff.

My son went to a free preschool (not Head Start but similar) and I was happy with the curriculum, and he was academically ready for Kindergarten.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:57 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Head start program, no contest. It's better for your family and better for her. She's four, she doesn't need academics and she doesn't need to be "prepared" for Kindergarten. Kindergarten will prepare her for kindergarten. Hell, turning 5 will prepare her for kindergarten.
posted by lydhre at 12:00 PM on August 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm mostly in agreement with everyone here- I think the Head Start program would be a perfectly appropriate option. I have a just-turned-four year old who is very bright, extremely verbal, and pretty emotionally mature. He didn't do well in a place that was 'play-based' and didn't have much of a formal learning component. We don't have a public option here for preschool, but we moved him to a private place that mixes free play with a regular learning structure and he has really thrived. I don't think he would enjoy a full time academics school at this point, but he craves the challenge and the structure of the theme-based work that they're doing.

So I buy the 'kids need time to be kids' thing, but not every kid is the same and where their needs fall on the 'play only->academic only' spectrum can vary as well. The most important thing is that you know your kid best. I'd look for a balanced day and a place where the staff seem to really love the kids. It's very reassuring to know that your kid's teacher is always looking to create the best possible experience for your kid.
posted by GodricVT at 1:46 PM on August 28, 2014

Best answer: Having her delve immediately into math and science and writing at four years old sounds like a great idea

It is a really, really, really bad idea from a child development standpoint. 'Play' is the name for the essential learning human infants do.
posted by glasseyes at 2:48 PM on August 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'll qualify the 'really really bad' statement. Of course, sand play, water play, matching shapes, slotting things into spaces, building things and knocking things down etc are all teaching the fundamentals of maths and science already, in a visceral way much more suited to a young child's understanding than verbal instruction. Ideally the social interaction of playschool is also helping to build a young child's emotional robustness in a way that what you call academics will not do.
posted by glasseyes at 3:03 PM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised this is even a question. The HS sounds so much better. Do 5 days a week.
posted by k8t at 3:35 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: All the research I have ever seen says that the best way to prepare children for long-term academic success is to let them learn through play. I wouldn't get too hung up on kindergarten; there's a lot that happens after that. I think play is so important that I pay a painful (to me) amount of money to let my kid go to a play-based program. For what it's worth, most of the other parents at this program are academics/engineers, so (long-term) academics are important to them.
posted by pizzazz at 4:54 PM on August 28, 2014

Public school, 5 days a week so you can study even more. She'll love it, I promise.

Emotional development is key because they can't learn if they're emotionally uncomfortable.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:14 PM on August 28, 2014

Best answer: Also, frankly, your family's financial security is VERY important to your daughter's long-term well-being. On that alone I would say go public. Education is important but financial security helps you buy more education, as you already realize!
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:15 PM on August 28, 2014

Do it 5 days a week. Get ahead on your schoolwork, or an internship or health or another professional activity.
posted by barnone at 6:36 PM on August 28, 2014

Head Start. No doubt. While I like some academics for my kiddos (oldest entering kindergarten this fall, younger is 2) I think, at this age, it is much more about the socialization and keeping your daughter entertained and engaged. Most kids do learn writing in preschool/preK, and I'd be surprised if the Head Start didn't teach it. My oldest did some "science" stuff in his school, but it was mostly fun based, not fact based. He also knows how to read, but we taught him that, however his teacher has supported that and challenged him as necessary. Honestly, the biggest concern is the lack of toys. Kids this age should learn through playing. It's great that the private school has them outside, but the lack of toys is VERY concerning to me.

Go, let your kid play and be happy. If it turns out not to be the right choice (if your daughter is bored, etc), you can always change later.
posted by katers890 at 11:50 AM on August 29, 2014

Response by poster: I was leaning toward Head Start anyway, as you can probably tell from my somewhat biased question. Thanks everyone for your input!
posted by sacrifix at 2:07 PM on August 29, 2014

I'm not a parent. But I was an ESL teacher to kids your daughters age. One school was very classroom based, one more play based. The kids in the play based school did so much better.

And dance at that age is great. I danced from 3-19 in a very low pressure studio (nothing like that nut Abby). Only downside was I wasn't so graceful and now I have a chronic ankle injury from all those years. But I wouldn't trade them for anything today.
posted by kathrynm at 5:40 PM on September 2, 2014

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