A Mom friend was over last week with her youngest child, Ellie’s first playdate. While the three year olds played near each other (A-plus to my sister, who knows this is called “parallel play”), we Moms sat in the kitchen, talking the way Moms do.
This Mom is a nice woman, probably the first Mom friend I made after moving here. We have a similar family structure, which has made it fun for the kids too, some of whom have in the past or are now attending preschool together. I like her because she is kind, down to earth, funny, and unashamedly imperfect as a parent.
We Moms shared coffee while the girls shared the Munchkins our guests brought. Talking above the girls’ heads, my friend told me of her conference with daughter number one’s kindergarten teacher. In the course of the discussion, Mom and teacher chatted about daughter number two, who is soon to follow in elementary school. Chat, chat, blah, blah.
Until the teacher — presumably an experienced woman with many years at her current post — let this gem go:
“Oh, you’re a Preschool X family. Yes, well, that’s not really a preschool, it’s more of a playschool.” She went on to point out how graduates of the Preschool X program were not as prepared for the academic rigors of kindergarten as were the graduates of other town preschools.
We are also a Preschool X family, so naturally I took umbrage at the slight. Our school is staffed by experienced, warm, nurturing and compassionate professionals who spent a lot of time — gasp! — letting our children be children. The kids there play a lot, outside as much as they can. And in the course of their time at Preschool X, students master skills like color, shape, letter and number recognition; rudimentary handwriting skills; reading readiness. All of which is necessary for success in today’s demanding coursework in kindergarten.
And in life, if this teacher were to believed.
I’ve heard that some other preschools in my little town — more prestigious, perhaps, fancier — have a long history of grooming the best of the best for a successful life. Some parents who place their kids in these schools are the type that have planned for Harvard since before their children were conceived. I’m sure that many parents are not like that. I won’t lump them all together and judge. But apparently this teacher believes the hype.
Now, my kids are pretty bright, so far. They have learned some stuff, at school and at home. With five weeks left in the school year, Mitzi is an independent reader. Coop seems to be on the right track. I haven’t been worried about their elementary school success, even though it’s a far cry from the schooling I remember.
When Mitzi started preschool, I was shocked at how it had changed since I attended the Jewish Community Center Nursery School back in the ’70s. Back then, preschool was for finding out that other kids existed and you have to share. That you have to wipe your own tush, and that Mommy doesn’t come everywhere with you. That was pretty much it. As a Catholic kid at a Jewish school I also got to learn about other kids’ religion, which I found extremely cool. I think if we found out about letters and numbers we were ahead of the game. Kindergarten was some of the same, with more learning, I guess. I don’t think anyone learned to read until first grade. Kindergarten was about playing, sharing, taking turns, making friends, having fights, resolving conflicts, more practice at wiping our own tushes. I remember lots and lots artwork and stage performances, pretend play and a lot of outdoor activities.
Kindergarten is just not like that now. The world demands it. Today we ask our six year olds to be miniature adults who are ready to surf the Internet with wisdom and safety, who can read well enough to navigate meaningless standardized testing so that they are not Left Behind. There is no room for play in kindergarten — Mitzi gets a gym class once every second six-day cycle. Music is squeezed in once every six days. She does not have an art class at all, a passion she is trying to hang on to despite its under appreciation by her teachers. (See me later for my rambling discourse on the shameful sidelining of the arts, the representing facet of lost civilizations first explored by generations who follow.) The faculty at our elementary school joins parents in bemoaning the sad curriculum choices that have to be made because of state and federal education demands. I am comforted that no self-respecting teacher approves of what’s happened.
But it is what it is.
When looking for a new home, Ray and I picked this town primarily for the outstanding school system, and will have to play by the rules. I accept that. With many years ahead of us, I recognize that ups and downs, successes and failures will be a part of our family experience, as it has been for families throughout the ages no matter what their zip codes. And I know it’s a new world, with different expectations and demands. I get it.
But I don’t want my kids to have to grow up too soon. I don’t think I’m condemning them to second-class citizenry by being happier to hear about adventures on the preschool playground instead of high-frequency words memorized in a silent classroom.
That’s why I like Preschool X. They celebrate my children’s childhood. Maybe it’s all that relaxing and having fun that gives my kids space to learn their letters, numbers, all that is required of them. I don’t know. But it works for us. Turning down placement at other schools was the smartest thing we did.
And as far as that flip kindergarten teacher teacher goes, shame on her. I can only hope that she is the only one of her kind in our schools.
Sadly, I expect she is not.