Three and a half years ago, I took my oldest daughter to preschool for the first time. (It was a busy week then.) She spent two school years there, then moved on to kindergarten. Her younger sister started at the same preschool in September 2003. She goes three days a week for two hours, and each day, a parent (or grandparent, etc.) of one of the kids there stays for "duty day," which mostly involves seeing what the kids do and helping cut paper and make sure everyone washes their hands.
One reason we, and the kids, like their preschool is that it's not called that: since 1974, it's been known as Willingdon Playschool, with the emphasis on play. While it is in a large local church, it does not push a Christian agenda too heavily—which is good, because many of the families who send their kids there (including ours) are not Christian. When we tell people about it, we're surprised how often they ask, not about how religious it is, but about how academic it is, with the implication that more is better.
I see no reason why preschools should be academic at all, because for kids of preschool age, their most important work is play. Yet the trend among many parents, and thus the schools they pay for, seems to be to try to give children a "head start" in math, language, and desk work, even at age three. Sometimes they have homework. Yet I don't know of any evidence that such a "head start" actually helps children when they grow up.
Similar trends are evident in the U.S.A. as well. Over the weekend, Jennifer Steinhauer wrote in the New York Times that:
Indeed toddlers are a self-centered lot, as anyone who has spent more than an hour with one knows. They require a lot of coaching for a world in which crayons are shared, the feelings of others are paramount, and games of Candyland can be lost without tantrums.
Traditionally nursery school has been the place where those skills are acquired, and where socialization has been the primary lesson. But as the educational pendulum in the United States has swung toward emphasizing standardized tests and enhanced academic achievement, the focus of many preschools has changed as well.
Today is my last duty day at Willingdon Playschool, and in about three weeks, my youngest daughter finishes there, which will end my family's involvement at that preschool. I'll enjoy watching the kids run around and have fun without much structure to it. But before then, she and I are going to go out and play on the swingset in our yard.