Is Preschool Essential?
No, it’s not essential … but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good thing for toddlers.
Think about it this way. Here’s a short list of things that should be part of a toddler’s life:
Opportunities to Play: Play is a broad concept. Toddlers need time to play alone, and also play with other kids. They need to manipulate things to develop their fine motor skills. Being very inclusive here, we can extend this perspective to activities like drawing – which is known to support the later development of cognitive skills. They need to run around and be active. Pretend play is often thought to be at the root of creativity, but recent research shows that it has a large social benefit when done with others.
Opportunities to Socialize: Toddlers need to be around other kids. It’s fun for them. It’s a way to start to learn how to be social creatures and function with peers. They also learn a lot when they disagree with each other, when they don’t share, and when they don’t get along (as long as there is proper guidance from adults). They learn that they are not the only person in the world and sometimes need to take turns – which means waiting their turn now and then.
Opportunities to Regulate Their Emotions: Toddlers have to continue learning how to regulate their emotions. Whether it’s a full blown tantrum or just handling being mad or angry or scared, kids have to experience their emotions in multiple social contexts and develop ways of regulating themselves and functioning around others.
Opportunities to Talk: Yes, talk. Kids can develop their language by being around different people – it helps them learn how to use language to communicate socially (which requires integrating behavioral and emotional and cognitive skills). They should also hear a lot of talking.
If you consider this list, you have a sense of the richness that should characterize a toddler’s life. It’s another way of saying that lots of experiences are needed to give a well-rounded platform for social, emotional, cognitive, and language development. Notice I haven’t said anything about getting a leg up academically, or ensuring top grades later in school. I’m talking about fundamental developmental goals. And kids need to have fun. A lot of fun. A lot of the time.
Now, a toddler doesn’t need to go to preschool to achieve all this. If a preschool isn’t focused on the developmental tasks that characterize toddlerhood, then there is not much utility to it. But a great preschool is a great way to give your kid opportunities during the week to be around other adults and other kids. It’s not essential. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good if you choose to go that way and you find the preschool that delivers what you should be looking for.