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The case for sending 3-year-olds to school

Good for West Virginia, enrolling more than 15,000 4-year-olds in preschool last year, ranking the state in the top 10 in the country. But as predicted 12 years ago at the beginning of this emphasis on 4-year-old preschool for all, that progress has come somewhat at the cost of enrolling 3-year-olds.

In that category, West Virginia does not fare so well, enrolling only about 4,000 children, or about 20 percent of the total, though the precise number is not known, says Margie Hale, executive director of Kids Count West Virginia. Kids Count chose to highlight the need for more 3-year-old preschool in its annual report.

But little ones belong with their mothers, I can hear my own uncle saying. Age 3 is too young for school.

No doubt it is ideal for 3-year-olds to spend their days playing and singing with a loving mother — or father, to keep up with the times — or grandparent, someone who gives them undivided attention, teaches them new words and arranges for them to get fresh air and to explore safe yards and parks.

And how many days a year can working people achieve this idyll? Even well-compensated parents with good benefits and paid vacation could do it for only a couple weeks a year. Many parents make do with much less.

No doubt 3 years old would be too young for school, if preschool were like what most adults remember of school — rows of desks and tables, with an adult directing students from the front of the room all day. But good preschool is nothing like that learning environment, which has its place for more mature students.

Good preschool offers curious little minds and fingers plenty of opportunity to explore, experiment, talk, sing, listen, move and learn. It is done through age-appropriate play, all in safe environments, with rest and good nutrition built into the schedule.

Preschool is sometimes dismissed as mere babysitting, a kind of custodial care that requires keeping the toddler from falling down stairs, wandering into traffic or getting into things under the kitchen sink. Keeping a child safe is certainly required, but it is not the whole goal.

Children will spend their days learning something, whether adults are paying attention or not. It could be bad behavior, poor eating habits and the ways of daytime television exhibitionists. Or it could be sharing, taking turns, animal names, counting, opposites and a listening vocabulary that will make kindergarten and first grade glide by with welcome, world-expanding ease.

Literacy benefits alone make the argument for more widespread access to top-notch preschool starting at age 3. Children who are read to, who are acquainted with books, who see others reading, who have books and other texts in their environments, acquire more words by school age and read more easily. Too many children are not getting that start at home for a variety of reasons. That makes good preschool even more valuable for those families.

Some of the lowest marks in the Kids Count report go to public school performance. But those problems start well before they are measured and documented. If most — dare we aspire to all? — of West Virginia’s children started school with a sufficient listening vocabulary by age 3 or 4, how many “reading problems” might we avoid? How much frustration and failure? How many dropouts? These ripples redound throughout life.

That’s why people who can afford it have for generations sent their toddlers to preschool, even if they don’t work during the day. There is lifelong value in that kind of education. And the fewer advantages a child has at home, the more indispensable the experience of good preschool is.

Dawn Miller, the Gazette’s editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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