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Growing Concerns (05/16/2004)

A question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota

Question: My 3-year-old daughter has been on the waiting list for two preschools, and we just found out she got into both for next fall. So now it's decision time, and we're torn about where to send her. One is a lively, play-oriented school where the kids look like they're having fun. The other is a quiet, serious environment with a strong emphasis on reading and math. The schools in our suburb are very competitive, and we don't want our daughter to start kindergarten at a disadvantage. But our guts tell us she needs time to be a child. Can you provide some guidance?

Answer: Fortunately, having fun does not mean sacrificing learning. And getting children ready for school success does not require a quiet, serious environment--especially at the age of 3. Children learn a great deal through play, particularly in an environment with interesting things to explore and with adults who provide developmentally appropriate guidance and encouragement.

Young children are naturally curious and eager to learn. Whether acting out a favorite story, measuring ingredients for cookies, or taking care of the class guinea pig, children absorb important concepts in language, math and science that will serve them well when they move into the K-12 education system.

Equally important to future school success are the social and emotional skills children develop through active interaction with classmates and teachers--skills such as focusing attention, expressing emotions appropriately and respectfully, understanding other people's feelings, and solving problems together. A well-run "lively, play-oriented" preschool can provide all these things and more.

In fact, Kathy Hirsh Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, conducted a study that compared children who attended an academic preschool with those who attended a play-oriented preschool. She found no short- or long-term differences in school achievement between the two groups. And, in elementary school, children who had attended the academic preschool were less creative and more anxious than those who had attended the play-oriented preschool.

I would encourage you to pick up the book "Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less," by Hirsh Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. This book may be very helpful as you decide which preschool your daughter will attend. And it also will suggest creative ways you can encourage your daughter's learning at home, while having fun at the same time.

A question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota

Question: Getting my 4-year-old off to childcare and myself off to work has become a morning nightmare. He doesn't want to get out of bed, resists when I try to dress him, and hardly touches his breakfast. What can I do? (Once he gets to childcare, he gets along fine with the other kids and seems to like his teacher a lot.)

Answer: Trying to get the whole family fed, dressed and out the door can become a major challenge and source of stress for many families with young children. Your son probably finds his cozy bed much more appealing than facing the morning rush hour. And even though he enjoys childcare once he gets there, he may long for more time at home with those who love him best. Nonetheless, here are a few things that might help things go more smoothly for all of you.

* Be sure that your son is getting enough sleep. This may mean gradually moving his bedtime to an earlier hour.

* Gently acknowledge his feelings of still being sleepy in the morning and wishing that he could have a morning at home. Remind him that when Saturday comes you can have a lazy morning together. Then be sure to follow through. Just knowing that you understand his feelings may make him less resistant.

* To minimize what you have to do in the morning, do some planning together the night before. For example, have your son choose his clothes and lay them out; pack his backpack for childcare and put it in the car; plan together what to have for breakfast the next morning and set the table.

* Create a wake-up ritual with your son, something that makes getting up more fun and a time of special closeness with you. For example, you might read a short story or sing a wake-up song. Although these routines require a little extra time, they often save time in the long run by helping to avoid battles.

I remember confronting these same challenges when my own daughter was young. We created our own wake-up routine, which made our mornings much happier. While she was still sleeping I'd make breakfast for both of us, then I'd take it upstairs on a tray and wake her up with a silly song I'd made up for her. We'd eat together, snuggled up on the couch in the den-it was our special time together. Dad and big brother had a different morning style and were glad to be left on their own. My daughter is 27 now and about to have a daughter of her own, and she still has warm memories of those morning times together. Sometimes we even sing that silly song I made up for her way back when! 


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