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Do Kids Really Need Preschool?

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Since President Obama proposed making high-quality preschool education available to every American four-year-old in his 2013 State of the Union address, the debate over the benefits of preschool has been thrown into the national spotlight.

As every parent knows, preschool must all too often be purchased for a hefty price. In fact, for many parents, preschool expenses are one of the most surprising costs of having a young child.

So many of us pay the asking price, but is that cost really necessary? Are there less expensive options? And is preschool itself really all that important?

We spoke with the experts to help you decide how to best invest in your kids.

How Much Will It Cost?
About 30 percent of the country's 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in private preschools and childcare centers. Prices can vary radically depending on what kind of program you choose and where you live.

Getting a firm number on cost is difficult. "Data on the amount that parents are paying for private preschool programs is not collected in any nationwide effort," says Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University.

According to a recent report by Child Care Aware America, parents, on average, are paying anywhere between $3,900 (Mississippi) to nearly $11,700 (Massachusetts) per year for full-time, center-based care for a 4-year-old.

Those numbers are even higher in urban areas. Live in New York and want to send your little one to Fieldston in Manhattan? That'll cost you $39,525 a year. Maybe you want your offspring to rub shoulders with the Obama girls at Sidwell Friends School in D.C. You'll be looking at $33,268 a year for the lower school.

The Benefits of Preschool

"Children need to develop a healthy and strong brain architecture," says Todd Grindal, an education expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "The experiences kids have in the early years have profound effects on their futures," he says. Considering a child's brain grows to 90 percent of its adult size by age five, the first few years are critical.

Preschool aids this development in the following ways:

Academic Achievement. Studies show that the benefits of preschool include overall academic achievement and school success, less grade repetition and special education and increased high school graduation rates. According to Barnett, high-quality preschool programs benefit children from middle-income families as well as from low-income families.

School Readiness. "A number of large-scale studies demonstrate that participation in high-quality, center-based pre-K programs positively influences all children's kindergarten readiness," says Barnett. "Positive impacts include gains in achievement test scores, including early literacy and math skills, as well as improvements in social and emotional development."

Social/Emotional Development. Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, has noted that the long-term impacts of early education on social and emotional development -- the skills that allow people to interact appropriately and effectively with others -- may be the most important takeaways from preschool.

Social Progress. Heckman's research indicates a 7-10 percent annual return on investment in high-quality preschool, an ROI which has recently gained attention due to Obama's State of the Union address. Heckman argues that preschool is the time to teach kids the "soft" skills (like focusing, keeping an open mind and controlling their tempers) they'll eventually need to succeed in the job market.

A 2010 report from the Institute for a Competitive Workforce concludes that "for every dollar invested today, savings range from $2.50 to as much as $17 in the years ahead."

"High-quality preschool has also been found to reduce participants' future reliance on welfare and likeliness of being imprisoned," says Barnett. In fact, research from the Ounce of Prevention Fund shows that at-risk children who don't receive quality preschool education are 25 percent more likely than their peers to drop out of school and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Can Kids Get By Without Preschool?
As many parents can attest, there's a lot of pressure to send your kids to preschool. In fact, three-quarters of children ages 3 and 4 whose families have incomes of $75,000 and above are enrolled in preschool.

But many parents seem conflicted about whether it's a need or a "should."

Katy, a mother of two in Vancouver, believes kids can do just fine without preschool. "I think children can learn all they need to from their parents and the families they socialize with, but that the socializing is important -- being with other kids, making relationships outside the family," she says. That said, her 4-year-old son attended preschool part-time, and her 2-year-old daughter will as well.

Some parents feel that preschool is nothing but day care with a higher price tag -- but foregoing the experience comes at a price. "Preschool is day care by another name," says Morgan, the father of a preschool grad in Alexandria, VA. "But people feel that they have to do this stuff, or their kids will somehow miss a shot at getting into Harvard. It's the Toddler Industrial Complex."

And some industry critics argue that kids are better off at home with their parents. "If family care is an option, that's certainly preferable to center-based programs," says Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C.

Burke argues that preschool primarily benefits disadvantaged children. "Even those benefits dissipate over time, leaving children who attended preschool no better off academically than those who did not," she says, pointing to recent research.

Not so, says Barnett. "The most recent peer-reviewed meta-analysis summarizes the results of 123 studies and found that despite some decline in effects after children entered school, on average, the effects did not disappear and remained substantial."

How Can You Get Preschool Without the Price Tag?
Largely, the research shows that yes, kids are in need of the skill sets and socialization provided by the preschool experience.

But can you extract those benefits without the traditional structure and its hefty price? "Beyond proper nutrition and health care, kids need supportive relationships with caregivers and positive stimulation," says Grindal. If you're concerned with the price tag of more traditional preschools, consider one of these alternatives:

Cooperative Preschools
If you have some personal flexibility, a cooperative preschool, where parents take a more hands-on role, could be an option. In most co-ops, your tuition makes you a part-owner of the school, and while there is a formal teacher, you'll be expected to pitch in on a regular basis to experience your kid's classroom in action.

Megan, a mom of two in Brooklyn, NY, originally thought preschool wasn't necessary. "I thought the whole application process was madness," she says, referring to the 100-person wait lists, early application deadlines and stringent assessments for 2-year olds, not to mention the cost.

Instead, she found a small cooperative preschool for her 3-year-old son. "After seeing the positive effect it has had on him, I am totally pro-preschool," says Megan. "His manners, concentration, and thought process have all improved so much," she says. "He loves it and has a great relationship with all the kids and his teacher."

Structured at-Home Play
Not sold on the necessity of preschool -- and willing and able to remain home with your child? In that case, be prepared to put together a "program" of activities that could include regular play dates, spending time at local parks, enrolling in age-appropriate classes and visiting your library, museums and craft stores.

Melanie, a mom of three in Montgomery County, MD, chose not to enroll her youngest child in preschool. A former teacher, she sent her 9- and 11-year-old daughters to part-time preschool when they were 4. "For us, preschool was mainly for socializing with other kids and to prepare them to work with a teacher other than myself," she says.

Why did she keep her 4-year-old son home? "I felt comfortable with the amount of socializing he was doing through play dates and various classes," she says. She's now teaching her son to read and uses hands on, play-based activities to stimulate conversations on math, science and history.

"I truly do believe in preschool," says Melanie. "But I knew for our family I would be able to cater to my son's individual academic needs in a style I preferred."

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