Once upon a time, parents worried about their kids’ college applications. For many of today’s young moms and dads, however, the preschool application process has become an all consuming parental anxiety. Before becoming a mom I was under the impression that, as long as kids weren’t still wearing diapers by kindergarten, parents were excelling at the whole child-rearing thing. Oh how wrong I was. Forget about college-prep courses, nowadays we need to be prepping our little ones for kindergarten. Allow me to explain.
“You know, kindergarten just isn’t what it used to be,” says the energetic, rosy-cheeked preschool teacher leading our tour. All of the other parents on the tour nod in understanding to this statement, but I am completely in the dark. I smile and nod eagerly anyway, and accost the teacher after the tour so she can elaborate on the topic. She enlightens me. A generation ago, kindergartners worked on the things that today’s preschoolers typically learn to master: i.e. shapes, the alphabet, and numbers. For today’s 5-year-olds, kindergarten is not just singing and colors but an academic experience. It’s the new first grade, or even second. This makes the preschool years vitally important, she continues, because the foundation for formal schooling must be laid.
And so it begins. The rat race.
Now that I’m paying more attention, I hear signs of the preschool rat race all around me. One mom I meet boasts that her still-in-diapers daughter can read, thanks to a system that her mother-in-law bought off a television advertisement (Ha!). Another dad in my circle nonchalantly mentions (with great frequency) that his preschooler is taking Spanish lessons. There’s even one mother who proudly shows off her preschooler’s advanced iPad skills, saying it’s a good thing to get an early jump on this technology stuff. We’re behind already, and he’s not even three yet! My happy-go-lucky toddler can’t speak Spanish, can’t use an iPad, and for goodness sake, he can’t read a word. The horror! He’s already doomed to be rejected from Notre Dame!
Ok, I’m a solution-oriented person. What’s my plan? How am I going to play this game?
My answer – and mind you I am feeling pretty good about myself for having an answer – is playtime. Even more specifically, intentional play. Although kindergarten may change over the years, the old adage that “children’s work is their play” remains true. In my view, parents can help children learn through their play. If we teach them skills and lessons in a fun and magical way, we nurture within them a lifetime love of learning.
A friend of mine with a background in early childhood education helps me sharpen the idea of intentional play. I’ve noticed that when she plays with her toddler, she’s incredibly focused on seizing little opportunities to teach him. She’s not hovering or pressuring, but instead she asks casual questions along the way as he plays. In one instance, she finds a way to help boost his emotional intelligence; as he crashes one car over and over into another (as some boys do constantly!) she asks how one car feels after being crashed into again and again. And then (and here’s where I need to get better) she patiently waits for his answer. After her toddler replies, they have a little discussion about the topic.
My friend calls this process of questioning, waiting patiently for a reply, and then discussing, “noodling.” As opposed to catching catfish with your fingers, this kind of noodling means letting little ones work something through and giving them the time and space to really think about the question, come up with a conclusion, and then chat about the matter. I’ve found that I am pretty good about thinking of questions during play, but I am far too quick to give an answer when my son doesn’t respond immediately. I’m vowing work on my patience and to make time for purposeful noodling every day!
The wonderful thing about intentional play is that you can squeeze the idea into almost every conceivable activity you do with your little one. It’s important to have creative toys and books around to help facilitate playtime, but the mundane chores in life are also great opportunities to teach and play with your child. Folding the laundry can be a math lesson, as you take a towel and fold it in half, and then again in quarters. Cooking together is a great way to help your kid sharpen fine motor skills: cracking eggs, stirring batter, sprinkling spices. There are hundreds of ways in one house to play and teach.
The answer that most helps me to dissipate the stress of the preschool rat race is to work more intentional play into our day – not to rush out and sign my child up for violin lessons or to schedule a daily vocabulary flash-card drill. I want to help my toddler play and be happy, and learn a ton along the way. So, I’m sticking with intentional play as my answer. That and getting my kid into the best preschool I can find.
Speaking of that, I better get back to researching schools and working on applications. They’re due soon, and what if we don’t get a spot at our first choice?? And another thing, shouldn’t I be signing him up for some sort of sports camp? There are kids his age already on teams! If he doesn’t start now, he’ll never become an All American! Arrrggggghhh. Ok, so maybe escaping the grasp of the preschool rat race is easier said than done.
Bye for now!