Every Spring, I find myself defending the role of preschool in a child’s life. As parents plan for the next fall, I am making the case for starting or continuing the experience of preschool.
Somewhere between 18 months and two years, a child develops into a more autonomous human being, moving from the safe, symbiotic relationship with parent to form a sense of self. As the world opens up for this tiny person, there is much to explore and much to fear. Simultaneously the young toddler is beginning to “order” their world and the information they are taking in. While often undetected by our adult standards — have you ever seen a toddler dump everything in the dishwasher out, bring it to the cupboard and put it all into the nearest pot or pan — they are defining the concrete objects in their world with their limited sense of purpose. The more they are allowed to experience these seemingly random acts of ritual, the more they will begin to form a more recognizable sense of order.
A good preschool can provide a safe, model environment for the toddler to experiment with purpose and order as well as to be exposed to other methods of order by observing peers. These early interactions are the “seeds” of socialization. They provide a base layer for other experiences. Can I tolerate the child next to me crying? What do I do when they unexpectedly grab my toy or worse, hit me? What do the adults do in the environment I am exploring? How do I define my space? What is mine? What is yours? This is the work of a two year old.
One of the strongest arguments for early schooling comes from current brain research. This research shows that infants are born with more brain cells than are needed. As the child grows, he retains cells depending on exposure to stimuli and information around him. The economy of the brain is such that it will slough off what is not necessary. Through targeted stimuli provided in a fully sensorial environment, children retain motor memory. As the hand (and the mouth!) is allowed to absorb information, the brain stores and categorizes. Exposure in a planned, well–thought-out environment produces optimum brain retention.
Parents today are concerned about providing for their child’s education, but often feel they need to “cut back” on preschool costs in order to save for “college.” Because the first three years are the prime time to provide exposure to information, I would argue that nothing could be more counter-productive. By the college years, the brain is almost fully formed. At this point, students are able to take in only that which they have been previously exposed to or can hinge information on in deep storage. It’s pretty much a done deal at 18. But, the curious, exploring mind of a toddler is ripe and malleable – ready to be engaged.
Learning from repetition, struggles, observation of others and attempts at communication in all of its forms – the toddler starts to form a resilient sense of self. Preschool can be the breeding ground for future successful relationships. By steering the pathways and setting up the “whole” child for patterns of healthy interactions both physically and socially, the child is ready to retain necessary curiosity and resilience to continue on the path to higher learning.