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Welcome to Harvard pre-school --

by Betsy Hart

WHEN I WAS A 4-YEAR-OLD, pre-school meant a few mornings a week playing and singing songs in the church basement down the street. Flash forward some 30-plus years, and the trend seems to be little Harvards -- at little Harvard tuition prices -- for 2- and 3-year olds.

Consider the Creme de la Creme child care, er, "early childhood education facility" in Denver. In a front-page spread, the Washington Post recently described the arrival of one child to the place: 4-year-old Jackson "crosses over a bubbling brook stocked with fish, moves through the 32-foot-high vaulted interior with its Victorian-style shop fronts, passes the 'bibliotheque,' the Coconut Theater, the music room, the math room, the computer room and the TV station with its four clocks displaying times around the world."

And little Jackson is just getting started. He and his peers in Creme de la Creme centers already in suburban Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City (the chain's owners plan to add 50 more in the next five years!) have a big day in front of them. Children 2 and older will switch "classes" every 30 minutes. From the "bibliotheque" - or library, as any little Creme person knows - the 2-year-olds who are learning French might go next to the music room to listen to Mozart. A half-hour later, it could be computers, then reading readiness. And what early learning center would be complete without tennis courts, a child-sized basketball court and a water park?

In Atlanta alone there are five Creme de la Creme centers, under different ownership than the national chain. Their Web site advertises a curriculum for 3-year-olds that includes, in part, Science/Health Discoveries, Reading/Whole Language Approach, Math Their Way, Pre-Writing Skills, French Songs and Games and Social Studies. 4-year-olds get into D'Nealian Handwriting (whatever that is), Fernand Nathan French, IBM "Writing to Read," Journals and Community Awareness.

Needless to say, all this catering to professional parents "who want their child's every waking moment filled with learning," as the Post put it, comes at quite a price - usually hundreds of dollars a month more than any other day care in the area. (In Dallas, it's $1,200 a month for infants). But apparently that's not a deterrent. Not only is the Creme chain expanding, but several other centers are entering this elite market, and some existing mid-level child care chains are apparently considering upgrading to stay competitive.

Now, I wonder how these kids handle entertaining themselves, or what they do when there's not an exciting scene change every 30 minutes. But I guess many parents go this route because they've come to see constant intellectual stimulation as the sum and substance of successful early childhood. Today, even many parents who would never go to the extremes or expense of a Creme de la Creme are still convinced that their very young children need some level of organized learning from a pre-school.

Purchasing this book
-- linked to the right --
helps fund JWR
Perhaps that's because we now know that children's brains undergo significant development in those early years that can have lasting effects. But does this mean they benefit from math flash cards at age 3?

No, Dr. Stanley Greenspan told me. Greenspan is a noted child psychiatrist and author of the new book "Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences that Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children" (Perseus Books). Greenspan explained that in a healthy family there is regular, loving, emotional interaction, signaling and play between children and Mom and Dad. Even a baby quickly learns that a smile to Mom gets a big smile back. But Greenspan says that that warm communication is actually just as important for fueling a child's intellectual growth as his emotional growth.

He cites recent research showing that it's really consistent, loving interaction and play with the same intimate long-term caregiver that teaches children how to focus their attention. This is also what teaches them about patterns and cause and effect and enables them later to develop their scientific reasoning and analytical skills.

So, Greenspan says, to the extent flash cards, educational gadgets and the hottest new learning programs compete with or usurp this emotional interaction, it's to the detriment of a young child's intellectual and emotional life.

But, of course, I'm one mother who didn't need Greenspan's book to help me decide against scraping together the tuition for the Creme de la Creme center that comes to my town.

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