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.