Does Pre-K Even Make Sense During a Pandemic?

The safety of going to Pre-K in the fall is far from assured. What happens if a kid simply skips their first school year?

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My kid is supposed to go to Pre-K in the Fall and, well, I don’t see it happening. If it does, there’s like a 10 percent chance I’m going to be comfortable with it. I have a fairly flexible work schedule and with a little sacrifice — and, yeah, a lot of work — can maybe make it work with homeschooling. My question: Is my kid missing out on anything? Will they be ready when Kindergarten comes around? And what do I need to do at home to prepare them?

Pre-paring in Pennsylvania

Your question puts me in a bit of an awkward position because research related to the merits of preschool are largely mixed. The benefits of preschool appear to be connected to socio-economics and I don’t want to make assumptions about where you are financially, so I’ll do my best to present you with the best information so you can decide for yourself.

In the broadest sense, if you’re worrying about Pre-K and you have the ability to keep your kid home, then you can probably stop worrying. The fact is that preschool isn’t particularly necessary for most kids. And even if children enter kindergarten “behind” they catch up by the end of the middle grades.

It might interest you to consider the fact that kids don’t need to start school so early. In many countries, children aren’t beholden to strict pedagogy until they are around 6-years-old. The Fins and the Swedes, for instance, don’t require formal schooling until kids are 7-year-old, preferring that children play more than learn. By that time, in America, most kids have already had 2-years of formal elementary education — three if you include high-quality PreK. Interestingly, despite that head start, Finland and Sweden outrank the United States in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development measures of math and reading skills. The States only beat the Swedes in science, where the Fins still outrank both.

So, from a global perspective earlier childhood education does not correlate to better educational outcomes. Which is to say, delaying entry into educational institutions for a year does not make a less knowledgeable kid. That’s as true for American kids as it is anywhere else.

But right now, in the time of coronavirus, keeping a kid out of school could very well help keep a family healthy. That’s particularly true in families that include elderly members or people affected by severe underlying medical conditions. So, if you’re able to look at a cost-benefit analysis — because you have the means and ability to keep your kid home — Covid-19 starts weighing pretty heavily against the potential for a child to fall behind.

And let’s talk about that falling behind for a second. The fact is that the danger of falling behind can be ameliorated by involved caregivers. A child who is home can learn just as much as a child in Pre-K if they have a thoughtful adult willing to follow their lead and the unstructured time to play.

A kid in preschool might be drilled on colors shapes and letters, sure. But a kid at home can learn those same things through play — by hearing parents talk about shapes and colors around them or by hearing their parent read regularly to them. There are a ton of opportunities for parents to teach their children over the course of everyday life, but they need to be ready to follow their children’s lead and lean into what interests them at the time.

Learning at home doesn’t even need to be a formal program. In fact, the simpler the play, the better. One recent study from the American Journal of Pediatrics, for instance, noted that playing with a simple block set can improve educational outcomes more than any fancy electric STEM toy ever could. The lesson is basically that if you can keep your kid home and are committed to joining them in imaginative simple play, then your kid will be alright by the time they hit kindergarten.

The one caveat is that preschool does appear to be helpful for socialization. In preschool kids learn to navigate the social interactions and structure they will eventually be exposed to in Kindergarten. But if a parent can manage regular playdates, the socialization isn’t so much a big deal.

So when does early education matter? It seems to be incredibly helpful in closing the gap for children who are impoverished or come from poor socio-economic backgrounds. For kids who do not have access to toys, play spaces, and enriching activities, high-quality early education can be an incredible head start. Children from impoverished backgrounds who enter kindergarten without that boost will often fall behind and stay behind due to the simple fact they do not have the economic support, infrastructure, and sometimes social support to keep up.

So, if you don’t need to send you kid to preschool, then you should count your blessings. There are so many for whom sending a kid to preschool in a pandemic is a necessary and terrifying reality. And until we see a change in our economic and educations systems that reality will likely persist.

But you didn’t reach out for a lecture, you reached out for advice. And in the end, it’s this: if you can keep your kid out of preschool and are willing to devote yourself to play? Do that. But maybe also think about ways that we can ensure all parents have the same privilege in the future.

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