On the Tuesday after Labor Day, we went to the playground. The sun was out. The air was warm. And the place was empty. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and Pip, Polly, and I were the only people there. This was a surprise to us. On the previous Tuesday there had been a number of kids running around, whipping down the slides, twisting on the swings, and creating the general commotion that is the specialty of children. Now, the playground was a ghost town. It was so quiet I could hear the swings creaking as they were pushed by the morning’s gentle breeze.
We stayed for about an hour. During that time, only one other kid appeared – a toddler who was probably 18 months old. At first my kids enjoyed having the place to themselves. They ran up the slides. They hopped from empty swing to empty swing. They scurried up the little climbing wall over and over. But soon the absence of other kids to watch and to play with left them bored and ready to leave.
Where was everyone? The answer came to me on the walk home: preschool. With the passing of Labor Day, all the area preschools are now in session. The kids we had seen the week before (and the week before that) are now scattered about the region’s various churches and private preschools. And they won’t return again until sometime in the month of May.
This phenomenon has raised an uncomfortable question for me: Am I going to have to send my kids to preschool to give them the chance to play with other kids? I hope not. We’ve done preschool. Ava and I sent Pip to one last year, and the experience was mediocre for us all. This was not the fault of the preschool. The program was well regarded, and the teachers did everything they said they would do. Pip made art projects. He went to Spanish class. He did music class. He learned some sign language. He got playtime everyday. We went with him on field trips to a local farm in the fall and to a exhibit of live butterflies in the spring. His experience was everything the ‘preschool industrial complex’ (Ava’s term) promises preschool can be.
But we never really were happy with it.
Our unhappiness stemmed largely from two areas. First, it felt like the activities were tailored heavily towards producing ‘things’ for parental consumption. On a daily basis, we were swamped by a deluge of paintings, drawings, collages, paper cutouts, etc. The importance given to all of this ‘stuff’ by the teachers did not align well with our own attempts at living a relatively simple life.
Second, Pip never really seemed comfortable. While he always said he liked preschool, whenever we did something with him there, he never appeared happy and relaxed. In fact, the indelible image for me from Pip’s year in preschool is of him standing on stage at the end of the year concert and nervously pulling the cuffs of his shorts up around his hips while he was supposed to be singing along with the music. His uncertainty in that moment was emblematic of what I saw from him throughout the year.
The main reason we sent Pip to preschool was for him to gain some “socialization.” As a two-year old, he was significantly more comfortable talking with adults than with kids. We hoped that by having the opportunity to independently interact on a regular basis with a group of kids his own age, he would at least get comfortable in a crowd and maybe even make some friends. In this respect, Pip’s preschool time was largely successful. He is much more outgoing now with other kids than he was a year ago. In particular, he is much more willing now to talk to new kids on the playground and engage in the kind of back and forth that is necessary for learning about new people.
That willingness made me hopeful that we could skip preschool this year. Over the summer our family moved to a new city and the potential for non-preschool socialization opportunities seemed high. We now have the great fortune of living in a neighborhood that is crawling with kids of all ages. There are strollers in abundance and tire swings hanging from multiple trees. During our first couple of weeks, Pip had begun to make a couple of friends at the playground nearby. He was talkative and playful and seemed to be figuring out how one goes about making friends.
Then Labor Day arrived, and now I’m facing a dilemma. In a new place where we don’t go to church or have an established network of family and friends with young children, if we want our kids to interact regularly with others their own age, do we have any choice but to send Pip (and eventually Polly) to preschool?
Obviously, I don’t really want to. In addition to my ambivalence about Pip’s earlier preschool experience, the following question comes to mind: what good comes from my being a full-time father if we are just going to send the kids to preschool every morning? I can do all the cognitive stuff better and more efficiently at home. The kids will get more direct attention, read more books, learn more letters and numbers, get exposed to more novel ideas, and have longer periods for playtime with me than at preschool. As a result of all of this, they’ll probably start reading and writing on their own sooner, too.
But what I can’t replicate at home is a social environment where Pip or Polly has to negotiate things with six other kids. How important is that in the long run? Will it put them at a significant disadvantage once they go to kindergarten or are these social development moments ones that they can catch up with pretty quickly? I don’t know. These are questions I’m still working out.
In the meantime, I’m trying a couple other avenues to get them playing with other kids. The most promising is an internet meet-up group for playdates that on the surface looks to be well-organized and highly active. Unfortunately, like the good preschools near us, there is a waiting list to get in. So, while I wait in line there and elsewhere, Pip, Polly and I’ll keep prowling the playground, hoping for that chance meeting with some other preschool holdouts.