Q. In our town, there are two popular preschools. One is more academic than the other. If I send my daughter to the academic one, will she have an edge when she's older?
A. Earlier isn't necessarily better when it comes to academics. That's because mastering phonics or learning to subtract at age 3 or 4 doesn't translate into later school success, says Lilian Katz, PhD, professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois. In fact, "too much early experience in work sheets, drills, or flash cards may backfire later," she says.
Researchers think that gaining social competence -- learning how to cooperate, solve problems, and think about other people -- is what really makes a difference later on. Playing and working together on projects with other kids is the best way to build these crucial social skills. Any "academic" learning in the classroom should be integrated into the daily routine ("let's count four crackers for a snack") or have some personal connection ("there are five 'J' names in our class"). Adds Strasser: "Parents should be worrying about whether their kids are doing enough creative play at preschool, not whether they're doing daily work sheets."