The president is pushing for universal preschool

May 5, 2014 at 5:30 p.m. ET

As my daughter prepares to turn four in a mere couple of weeks (what in the world?), there has been one thing on my mind as she passes this important age milestone from what feels like little girl to big girl — preschool.

Preschoolers playing |

Photo credit: kristian sekulic/Vetta/Getty Images

Honestly, my husband (a public school teacher), and me (a nurse and parenting writer), have pretty strong feelings about not forcing our children into organized activity and schooling too early. So when I read about the president's plan to implement universal preschool for all of the U.S., I have to admit, I was immediately not a fan.

Does universal preschool have benefits?

Well, of course, it does. Studies show that giving children that "extra" head start helps them with reading, math and other life skills that pretty much continue all the way through graduation from college. But I'm not convinced that focusing on all the ways to make our children do more and be more is where the emphasis needs to lie.

"I think preschool is a fantastic ideas for parents who want to send their child," comments Kirsetin Morello, a mother of two high schoolers and a middle schooler. "In addition to the chance to learn new things, I think the biggest advantage of preschool is the opportunity for young children to learn to interact in a social environment with their peers — they learn to wait their turn, use manners and share. They also learn to take instruction from an adult other than their mom or dad, which will serve them well for the rest of their lives."

Preschool needs to be an individual decision

While I see the value in preschool, I don't think that it should be regulated as a universal standard by the government. I believe every child needs to be treated as an individual. For instance, in our family, my husband and I made the decision to put off preschool for our first daughter until age 4, and then only sent her two days a week to ease her into the idea of full-time kindergarten. And with our second daughter, we still haven't decided if we will send her at all.

Not only do I work at home and have the flexibility, but she has other siblings and cousins that provide the social engagement that is key for her age. I am still able to work with her on basic kindergarten preparation, but for us, the emphasis on pushing children to do more and attain more "education" does not necessarily translate into successful life skills. We believe that children need that time at home for free play, to develop relationships and a safe base at home, and as long as we are able to do so, we will continue to evaluate each child's need for preschool on an individual basis — not based on a universal standard for success.

"I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for a child to attend preschool to be successful in elementary school (or life)," says Morello. "For example, none of my three children (all boys) learned to read, write or add at preschool or elementary school. They learned those things at home, not because we drilled them, but by nature of the life we led."

The benefits of access to preschool for all kids

The president's push for universal preschool is trying to bridge the gap that occurs between families of different economic statuses. Middle and upper-class families are more likely to send their children to preschool, and those children often do better academically — and therefore economically — down the line. Expanding preschool programs for lower-income families may help even the playing field.

Many professionals believe that preschool is absolutely necessary to ensure that a child gets his or her best start in life. "I personally believe that preschool, in a sense, is an early gift given to the kindergartener or 1st grade version of our children," says social worker Krishann Briscoe. "It not only gives them a chance to build social skills — and depending on the school, some sort of academics — but also helps prepare them for the structure and regular transitions that are present in a school setting. The reality is that, while some might, not all parents have the time and resources to do this at home. I believe that children who have been in a classroom setting and around their peers, even on a part-time basis, typically have a less daunting and/or more positive transition into grade school. Of course, every child is different — but knowing how critical these first years are in our children's development preschool should definitely be considered."

I believe it's more about what is happening at home, and in my opinion, that's where the resources need to be focused, alongside high-quality educational, optional, preschool programs.

What do you think? Is universal preschool a good idea?

More on preschool

4 Preschool skills needed for kindergarten success
10 Things our kids' preschool teachers want us to know
How to find the perfect preschool

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