But not all schools, even ones with fancy titles, are so carefully structured, and the profit motive behind the linguistic trend is impossible to ignore. The average cost of care for a non-infant preschooler at an accredited childcare center is $11,050 yearly, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. With so much money at stake, providers are eager to give parents what they want. That ongoing courtship entrenches the dynamic: Parents, eager to give their children a head start, select programs that seem more educational for their babies and young toddlers. In turn, the programs continue to market themselves in a way that conjures up an especially educational image.
That, says the University of Delaware professor Roberta Golinkoff, can be dangerous under the wrong circumstances. Changing the sign on the door to say “school” instead of “daycare” may be innocuous, but there are signs that the linguistic changes correspond to a rise of a more structured, scheduled day reminiscent of schools for older children. Children are often rushed from one activity to the next, explains Golinkoff, without sufficient time to play and explore at their own pace. For babies and toddlers, that approach can be counterproductive to childhood development.
“There’s an extreme overemphasis on content for American kids,” said Golinkoff, who recently co-authored the book Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us about Raising Successful Children. “It’s, like, all that matters is getting information in kids’ heads, and that’s unfortunate,” she said. “Content is crucially important, but it’s not the only thing that matters. It’s not just all about memorizing the ABCs, which unfortunately these schools are probably going to torture little kids to do,” Golinkoff joked.
So what else should childcare providers focus on? According to experts: plenty of free play, plenty of opportunities to socialize and be part of a community, and plenty of exposure to new experiences. “A good preschool tries to help children gain self-confidence, become more independent, and develop interpersonal skills,” writes the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in the book Caring For Your Baby and Young Child. The AAP also acknowledges concerns about programs that are created to cater to parents’ fear or guilt rather than children’s needs: “Be wary of programs that claim to teach academic skills or ‘speed up’ children’s intellectual development. From a developmental standpoint, most preschoolers are not yet ready to begin formal education, and pushing them will only prejudice them against learning.”
Not all experts think that the daycare-as-school trend is troubling, though. Others don’t take it too seriously, noting that the trend may indeed be more about semantics than substance. For the psychologist and radio host Stacy Haynes, the shift in favor of “school” is just an innocent linguistic adjustment that can help reluctant youngsters overcome anxiety. “Older children go to school and so younger siblings want to go to school, too,” she said, calling the reference a “play on words” that can instill confidence in children once it actually is time for kindergarten. “Many parents find their children are willing to go to school if they know they have already attended 'school,’” she explained. For this reason, Haynes recommends that parents refer to outside care as school from the beginning.