Once upon a time, children didn't step into a classroom until kindergarten. There, 5-year-olds got their first real introduction to ABCs and 123s, colors and shapes and how to share and take turns.
Today, kindergartners are widely expected to know their letters and numbers before the first day of school. One mother, whose child will start kindergarten in the fall, was told that because her child was not yet reading, he was "already behind."
That's not truly the case at either a public school or at the vast majority of private schools, but many schools and parents are pushing students to learn material at progressively earlier ages. That presents preschools with the challenge of balancing these demands with the needs and the developing abilities of their young charges.
One result is that parents and educators alike have been thrown into the debate over the merits of a more academic approach -- traditional, structured and teacher-directed -- vs. a developmental approach -- more informal and child directed.
"With the academic approach, kids get information drilled into them that they may not grasp," said Sarah Maizes, the mother of a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old twins. "I want my children to understand the world on their own terms."
Maizes, who previously worked in children's publishing and television, chose to send her children to preschool at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, because she considered it developmentally oriented, focusing on "each individual child's needs."
April Brown, in contrast, originally chose the developmental route with her then-3-year-old son, Andrew, because she "didn't want to push him." But after he grew bored and unhappy, she switched him to a more structured, academic program.
"He did much better in an environment that was more focused on projects, goals and lessons," Brown said. "The decision wasn't made based on how I wanted him to perform but on what suited him best."
Experts say that both academic and developmental approaches have merit, and in fact, can be used in combination.
"For many years, I've heard about this dichotomy of developmental vs. academic ... They aren't mutually exclusive," said Dr. Barbara Gereboff, head of school at Kadima Academy in Woodland Hills. "These terms are used to stand in for 'kind and gentle and nurturing' vs. 'punitive and strict.' These are the wrong definitions."
Kadima's new preschool on a campus it purchased last year is already fully enrolled.
Young children can and do benefit from academic experiences, said Esther Elfenbaum, director of Early Childhood Education Services for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) of Greater Los Angeles.
"By the time children reach the age of 5, their brains have made many connections. The more stimulation a child's brain receives, the better off that child will be," she said. At the same time, material should be presented in a manner that is appropriate and interesting for each child. "Children can learn more than we think. The trick is to make it so that they want to learn."
Seven years ago, Elfenbaum introduced a teaching methodology called Reggio Emilia to Jewish community educators. This approach uses children's interests as departure points for learning opportunities. For example, if a student raises a question about a certain animal, that can lead to a discussion of the animal's habitat, diet and lifestyle.
By allowing children to explore what's significant to them, this type of approach "does academics in a way that's developmentally appropriate," she said.
Elfenbaum recently returned from a BJE-sponsored trip to Israel, where she and 17 early childhood educators from Los Angeles observed best practices at Israeli preschools. There, they saw classroom walls covered with children's artwork and child-dictated captions, which were created around such themes as "the ocean" or "summer." She believes that teaching reading through such a themed approach is more effective than using "the letter of the week."
At Harkham Hillel Academy in Beverly Hills, Cecelie Wizenfeld, early childhood director, described her school's approach as "developmentally academic." While the curriculum is structured to accommodate both general studies and Hebrew, she said lessons are presented in a way that recognizes children's "ages and stages."
Even when schools recognize their student's capabilities and limitations, the children may still find themselves being pushed.
"Parents at orientation ask, 'Will my [3-year-old] child be reading?" Wizenfeld said. "I tell them that the No. 1 priority is for children to feel good about learning."
Children's early learning experiences are also affected by the caliber of their teachers. Tamar Andrews, preschool director at Temple Isaiah, noted that California requires only 12 units of early childhood education for state preschool teachers, a fact she called "scary."
Andrews said that she prefers to borrow elements from the many philosophies. The ultimate goals of preschool "are intangible: high self-esteem, a sense of self and a sense of belonging," she said. In other words, "the goal is for children to turn out to be menches."