When older members of the baby boomer generation reflect on their early childhood experiences, they usually don’t mention preschool. Even many adults in their 30s and 40s never received a formal education before kindergarten. So why does preschool now seem like a requisite for the 5-and-under set?
Amy Weiss, director of Parents Place, the family resource center of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, said preschool has become vital for two reasons.
“When you look at the society we live in now, 60 percent of families need both parents to work, so the need for preschool as a child care option is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” she said.
With dual-income families the norm and relatives living far away, preschools also fill in another gap by providing group social interaction for young children and offering a sense of community and belonging.
A second reason preschools have become more important, Weiss said, is based on neuroscience research from the past two decades. Before age 5, brains undergo the most rapid period of development and are sensitive to stimulation and challenge. These years present a critical opportunity to nurture such physiological developments.
“During these years, it’s also extremely important to have positive relationships, because children’s brains develop in context with healthy, loving, supportive adults,” Weiss said.
Multiple studies have shown that children with preschool educations end up with better outcomes than children who do not attend preschool. A 25-year study at the University of Minnesota concluded in 2011 that students in Chicago public schools who had attended preschool had higher incomes and more education and were less likely to abuse drugs or be involved in criminal activities (see related story page 17a). Georgetown University researchers published a study in 2004 that showed preschoolers also were better prepared for the challenges of kindergarten.
Along with the growing body of evidence favoring preschool education comes an ever-growing number of school options. And in San Francisco, the competitive nature of preschool admissions can be daunting — with multiple interviews, school visits and potential rejection from desired schools.
That’s where Preschool Preview Night comes in. The annual event sponsored by Parents Place, scheduled on Oct. 17 (see sidebar), is considered one-stop shopping for guardians and parents who might be overwhelmed with the number of choices or just want an opportunity to meet with directors under one roof.
Judith Flynn, executive director of San Francisco’s Montessori Children’s Center, says it’s not uncommon for parents with infants and even pregnant women to attend the event hoping to get a jump on the admissions process two years down the road.
The preview night also offers parents a chance to learn about different Jewish preschool choices. Judith Zemel, director of the Brenna Berger Adath Israel Preschool in San Francisco, urges parents to consider one of these Jewish options because of the critical identity-building work children do at this age.
“Preschool is not only about kindergarten readiness, it’s about getting the children ready to become part of their social group, part of our Jewish community,” she said. “For Jewish kids, taking them through our tradition with the Hebrew language develops their Jewish identity and helps them connect to their values from the very beginning.”
Lest parents think that preschool these days is only about the serious work of socialization, brain fitness, identity formation and school readiness, Weiss urges them to “remember that the true work of these years is fun and play.”
No matter what choice a family makes for preschool, the overall goal of early education is universal, said Flynn. “If you put your child in an environment where they will be challenged and stimulated, they are going to develop a joy for learning.”
Preview of preschool fair
Preschool Preview Night, the annual event sponsored by Parents Place, will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 17 in San Francisco, where attendees will be able to speak with representatives from any of more than 100 San Francisco preschools and child-related service agencies.
“This is a great service for all parents of young children in our community,” says Nancy Sheftel-Gomes of Congregation Sherith Israel’s preschool. “You can go onto the Internet and get a lot of information about your preschool options, but there is nothing that can replace walking around and talking one-to-one with preschool providers about their educational philosophies and what they can offer your youngsters.”
The 20th annual Preschool Preview Night will be held at the San Francisco County Fair Building, at the Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way entrance to Golden Gate Park. The fee is $10 in advance, $15 at the door. To register, visit www.parentsplaceonline.org/san-francisco or call (415) 359-2454. Parents Place is the family resource center of Jewish Family and Children’s Services.