Look out for the Littlest Learners

Like most kids, Ilan Enteen enjoys his cartoons.

That doesn't mean he gets to sit home helping Blue solve her clues every day. Three mornings a week, Ilan's mother brings her 21/2-year-old son to Beth Ahm Israel Early Childhood Program in Cooper City to help him discover how to win friends and influence enemies without her help.

"I think it's very important for kids to have the opportunities to socialize with their peers away" from parents, says Susie Enteen, 35, a former Broward County Schools preschool special education teacher. "This helps to foster their independence in many ways. Their communication skills, social interactions and independent-thinking skills are just a few things that come to mind."

Enteen is among the burgeoning congregation of true believers sold on a growing trend: formal preschool for the Pampers set.

"There is a ground swell of interest in pre-K programs for all children, not just 2-year-olds," says Osborne Abbey, Ph.D., vice president of education at Nobel Learning Communities, a national network of nonsectarian private schools in 13 states. Nobel operates Chesterbrook Academy in Broward County.

Why such focus on preschool from the earliest years? "Greater public awareness of how important early educational experiences can be ... for success in elementary school and beyond," Abbey says.

That drive for success drives many parents straight to preschools with toddlers who, like Ilan, often are still in diapers. Child development experts say research informs the choice: Children who attend preschool programs fare better in the classroom, and the early investment later pays dividends in reduced social costs.

"Am I a proponent of good preschooling? Yup," effuses Mary Bellis Waller, a psychotherapist and retired professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. "The research is overwhelming that a good start helps the brain develop, helps social skills develop, helps reasoning develop, and helps the immune system develop. Who couldn't be for it?"

Not everyone.

Preschool too soon?

Opponents insist early formal preschool shifts focus away from explorative play toward age-inappropriate academics -- and chips away at an ever-earlier eroding childhood.

"There is more and more rabid anxiety on the part of parents that their child will not be 'adequately prepared' for this increasingly complex and challenging world, so they respond to the notion of 'school' for their children at ever younger ages," says Marcy Axness, a professor of early development at Santa Barbara Graduate Institute.

When Janine Grinage was pregnant with her second child, she remembers fielding a standard question: Where was she sending her then-2-year-old son to preschool?

She was surprised to learn that hers was a non-standard answer.

"I said that I had no intention of placing Mark into any kind of pre-school program whatsoever before he turned 4," recalls Grinage, a Wellington homemaker. "I wanted to enjoy my two children all day, without external schedules or demands placed upon our young family."

But what really cemented her choice was an unexpected diagnosis. Between Mark's third and fourth birthdays, Grinage had him tested because of some quirky behaviors, and learned that he was considered as "high-functioning autistic." "I don't know if a preschool would have noticed Mark's autistic tendencies, since [health-care experts] didn't catch his subtle behaviors when he was evaluated at age 3," she says. She credits the time she spent at home with her son, getting to know him, for his early diagnosis.

Can we be social about it?

Randi Meshel and parents like her certainly harbor no qualms about their early preschool decisions. It's been about 21/2 years since Meshel dumped Mary Poppins for preschool, letting go her in-home nanny and enrolling her son Jordan in preschool at Temple Sinai of Hollywood.

She found that the temple school offered the advantages of day care, but also socialization and education at a time when "children are like a sponge, absorbing so much in their environment," says Meshel, 36, a real estate manager who lives in Hollywood.

Long-term studies, such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Parent-Child Centers Longitudinal Study, suggest high-quality early childhood education and preschool can lower juvenile arrests, cut drop-out rates, and auger well for employment and earnings.

Jordan followed in the footsteps of his now 7-year-old sister. And Meshel hasn't been disappointed with the dividends she's seen in her kids.

"While there are things our children learn from parents, there are many things [from which] parents tend to shelter the child," Meshel says. "I know he can fold his nap mat and tablecloths and napkins when [he] is in school, but at home he tells me can't do it. At home, they often can be babyish, wanting Mom and Dad to do for them."

At school, she says, kids discover how to do for themselves. "They learn to socialize and be leaders or followers, which develops personality."

A jump-start on learning?

As a former preschool director, Yanik Natasha Martinez knew what to expect when she enrolled her daughter Amanda in the Growing House in Miami.

"I understand firsthand how important it is for a child not only to develop physically, but also socially and emotionally," says Martinez, 36, who lives in Cutler Bay in Miami. Amanda, now 5, was in a program when she was 6 weeks old. The preschool environment has allowed her to learn constantly and apply what she learns "without fear of getting into trouble because they dirtied the house," Martinez says. The youngest of three, Amanda is better prepared than her siblings were academically, socially and emotionally, Martinez says. She credits the preschool activities for that preparation.

When Sherrie Nemetz signed up her oldest boys Michael (now 8) and Bryan (now 9) at Imagination Station Daycare and Preschool when they both had turned 2, she was hoping to develop their intellect. That goal hasn't changed with the Plantation woman's youngest son, Nicholas, 5, who now attends Stirling Elementary's early development program.

"I wanted them to get a jump-start on learning in a warm and caring atmosphere," says Nemetz, a senior event manager who lives in Plantation. "They studied letters, numbers, calendars, colors and shapes almost consistently, in addition to stories and behavior training."

With that strong start, her children seem to have raced ahead of their peers.

"My children, compared to friends' children who did not go [to preschool], seem to know more and are more advanced," Nemetz says. "My youngest son really benefited from the jump-start program. He was starting to read by the end of the year."

Reading = ruin?

Sounds great, but Axness warns that pushing the three Rs at age 3 and younger might lead to a fourth R: ruin. "We are essentially and systematically doing away with childhood, and one of the means is through academics in kindergarten and preschool," says Axness, who runs Quantum Parenting, a private counseling practice in the Los Angeles area. She insists "the term 'preschool' when used in regard to a 2-year-old is truly outrageous. We're on an ill-conceived national trajectory of teaching younger and younger children more and more academics, and yes, it's still wrong even when delivered with loving, sing-song voices."

Learning to count and recite the alphabet, Axness says, is academics, and taxes a very young child whose brain isn't yet wired to handle abstractions. At that age, she says, their mode of learning is "touching, manipulating, moving, working on their world, creating."

Most early childhood experts are quick to agree that the work of children is play. Young children need to be exposed to sensory experiences, to social experiences, to decision-making experiences. They can benefit from these if they are not bombarded by academics that are more appropriate for kindergarten or first grade.

Quality matters

For many families, the pluses of early preschool outstrip the minuses. Abbey of Nobel Learning notes that children "in the earliest years are learning to make sense of their world, live with others in a social setting, and experience structure in their day. Many people underestimate the importance of providing this foundation and dismiss infant and toddler preschool when, in fact, it is extremely important."

So, what's most important is the kind of preschool experience offered -- not whether a child goes to preschool or stays home.

"There is no downside to a preschool experience if the school is carefully selected to ensure that it meets all licensing criteria, provides a safe and nurturing environment, has a developmentally appropriate program at all ages, and is staffed with well-qualified administrators, teachers, and aides," he says.

A home environment with regular play dates or a playgroup could provide the same quality of experience. What's important, experts say, is that children are allowed to explore their environments, interact with other children, and play -- not focus on serious academics.

Mornings at the Beth Ahm Israel Early Childhood Program won't find Ilan Enteen computing kiddy calculus problems. But through a raft of activities -- similar to those his older brother Aviv, 5, experiences -- his mother believes he's boosting his budding mind. Memorizing the alphabet and learning to add and subtract aren't the focus. The curriculum for both boys includes stories, songs, finger plays, dance and movement, creative play, and exploration -- and the all-important playground time.

"My kids love going to school," Enteen says. "I feel that their emotional, intellectual and social growth has been enhanced."

Darryl Owens is a staff writer at the Orlando Sentinel. He lives in Apopka.

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