Preschool Dilemma: What to do with our 4 year old?

In the midst of my final disillusionment with academia which includes feeling skeptical about schools, formal education and the real point of learning, my husband and I are obligated to make a decision about where to send our four year old next year for school…  by the end of this week.  We are at a complete deadlock.

Option 1 is to keep her where she is—a play based daycare with not enough outdoor time and no real curriculum but dedicated and loving staff and great kids to play with—and move her to part time.  If she went part time she and I would get to go to museums, do art projects, read books, and play.  We’d get to spend more time together but I know I’m not going to teach her to read or do math or to sit quietly.  It would not be pre-K.

Option 2 would be to send her to the exceptional pre-K at the same school that Big Girl attends.  The teachers there are amazing.  The resources are mindblowing.  The outdoor space is a dream.  The follow a Reggio-Emilia philosophy that would allow Little Girl to spend days and weeks diving deeply into topics I’d never think to cover, alongside lots of curious kids who would be at school with her for the next 6 years.  She wants to go, desperately.

Cost is not irrelevant: Option 1 is the cheaper choice and Option 2 is just about doable.  Option 1 is flexible with schedules and timing.  Option 2 is a school; five days a week, starting right at 8:15 for morning meeting.  The timing and flexibility issues are hugely important to me.

Do we pick the school that allows Little Girl and I more time to have fun, the flexibility for her to go back up to full time if the part time option doesn’t work, and is less expensive but no real academic content or the school that costs more, does more but is a year-long commitment?

We have four days left to decide…

There are lots of other pros and cons we can throw into these lists (including: one place for drop-off, Big Girls opinion, existing friendships) but the above captures the central dilemma.  Part of what makes this such a dilemma is the fact that we are trying to predict the future during a time of profound changes in our family life— it’s virtually impossible to make a prediction with so many unknowns (anyone have a crystal ball to lend?).

But, also central to our dilemma is a question about what we think kids need most: structure and stimulation or freedom and openness.  As with any other legitimate dilemma, I can find data to support both perspectives.

Scholars have shown through several studies that kids who attend a structured pre-K program do much better in all academic pursuits both short-term and long-term (for example, see  But, scholars have also shown that pre-K is particularly important for kids with low-to-average IQs, those who grow up in poverty and those whose parents are not able to provide enrichment for them.

I am abundantly able to provide enrichment myself.  I do it automatically and naturally.  (What was you’re your favorite animal we saw at the zoo today?  Cool!  Why don’t we go draw a picture/sew a stuffed animal/make a sculpture of that animal?  I bet we can find books on it at the library too!)  That said, although I am an educator, I’m not a pre-K one.  A fabulous pre-K teacher will surely be able to give her all that and more.  And, I’d still give her that on the side, just like I always have.

The second big reason I read about why kids need pre-K is for the socializing aspect.  Well, part-time care at her current daycare will handle that easily.

For that matter, all the research I can find (including this compelling article in Slate ( shows pretty clearly that for most kids, and kids with highly educated parents especially, which school we pick makes very little difference in my daughter’s future.

For us, this is not a decision about the long-term future but the short-term.  What is best for her, for me, and for our family next year?  It’s hard though to know how much to weigh my preferences or to know how durable my preferences will prove to be.  I keep finding myself thinking that my little four year old would really benefit from more time at home, more time for big projects that she can immerse herself in, and especially more one-on-one time with me.  But, I also think that I can benefit from more time to play with her.  It’s hard to make a decision on so selfish a reason.

But, so far, it’s that assessment of my own wants that pushes the lever just a bit on the side of less school next year (keeping her at her current school and reducing to part-time).  This lever is finicky, we’re at 55-45 right now, but we seem to keep swinging back and forth… and we only have four more days to decide!


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