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Innovative Japanese Preschool is Built to Encourage Puddle-Jumping

Creative architecture helps create a space where children feel free to play, and learn, at the exact same time.

image via (cc) flickr user sixybeast

As a small child, I was absolutely petrified of thunderstorms. I can’t quite pinpoint what exactly caused my phobia, but whenever a bad storm would roll through town, the first rumble of thunder would send me scrambling under the bed, fingers stuffed firmly in my ears, to wait until things settled down. But as much as I may have been afraid of the thunder and lightning itself, I loved what usually came next. As a “reward” for making it through the storm, my parents would coax me out from my hiding spot, take me outside, and let me loose for a few glorious minutes of uninterrupted, adult-sanctioned, puddle jumping. For me, as scary as the storm may have been, running free to stomp, tromp, and splash my way from puddle to puddle was well worth the fright.

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Why Preschool for Poor Kids Can't Just Be a Crime-Prevention Strategy

Educating poor children is not a priority, unless perhaps it stops them from growing up to be lawbreakers.

It was a potent image. Five of Pennsylvania's top prosecutors lined up outside a state prison in Chester. The presence of so many law enforcement officials usually signals a major criminal indictment or the announcement of expanded crime-fighting efforts. In this case, the district attorneys gathered with a warning for policymakers: Pay now for high-quality preschool education or pay later for prisons.

The same scene was replayed in cities across the country as part of a national campaign led by "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids." The nonprofit groupcomprised of police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecuting attorneysis pushing the idea that investing in early childhood programs for poor and especially poor minority children can help prevent the little tots from becoming career criminals. If there is any question where the emphasis for this benevolent crusade lies, the banner image that the "Fight Crime" Michigan affiliate chose for its homepage makes the audience crystal clear.

Even well-meaning columnists fall into the trap, asking "Do We Invest in Preschools or Prisons?" This is what education advocacy has come to: supporting quality preschool as an anti-crime strategy. The debate over the value of preschool has raged for decades, joining the long list of partisan fights in education. Every study that finds long-term benefits and cost-savings of investing in early childhood education is attacked by those who think Head Start and preschool programs are a waste of tax money: "free day care under the guise of education."

The irony is that as policymakers, Wall Street Journal op-ed writers, and others question the educational value of pre-K, children from upper-middle-class families are habitually enrolled in preschool because their parents consider it a no-brainer. In reality, the debate is less about whether preschool is a worthy investment or necessary and more about whether poor children are worth the money and effort.

In New York City, the intense competition for preschools is the stuff of folklore, with parents putting their names on waitlists while the child is still in utero. Manhattanites scramble fiercely to get their children into the most prestigious preschoolsestimates are 15 to 20 applicants for every spot. One infamous case involved a Wall Street analyst and $1 million donation made under slightly dubious circumstances just to guarantee entry into an exclusive Upper East Side school.

Since multimillionaires with nannies at their disposal aren't desperate for day care, it's safe to assume that the social elite view preschool as vital to their children's future success. For poor students, the preschool discussion always centers on worthiness (a waste of resources); feasibility (too expensive); or dire possibilities (preventing youngsters from becoming felons). For affluent parents, preschool is never up for dispute. They game the system and finagle their way into the "right" preschool, recognizing that it forges a path to positive educational outcomes.

What's so poignant about this contrast is that while all children may benefit from preschool, preschool can be a lifeline for disadvantaged children. Following up on research two decades ago that found children from low-income families hear as many as 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers by age three, a new study finds that the "language gap" can now be seen as early as 18 months-old. In the homes of wealthy professionals, the non-stop chatter and bedtime stories help grow their children's vocabulary skills. For poor preschool-aged children, quality early education programs can close this learning gap.

Yet the research continues to be ignored and refuted. Because educating poor children is not a priority, unless perhaps it stops them from growing up to be lawbreakers. That is the heart of the prosecutor's anti-crime preschool campaign: all of the focus on pathology, none on potential. That is the core of many pro-preschool arguments—this Sophie's choice between preschools or prisons. While child and education activists, armed with volumes of data, continue to point out that investing in preschool can make a huge difference in a poor child's success in school and life, the debate drags on, with little progress. Maybe "loosen the purse strings or they'll grow up, knock you upside the head and steal your purse" is a more compelling message.

Educate these children to level the playing field, no thanks. Educate them or else they'll be criminals, ears perk up. It amounts to the Willie Hortonization of education policy. It is a sickening indictment of our national priorities. It just might work.

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Sweden Has a New Gender-Free Preschool. Is This the Way to Fight Bias?

One preschool in Sweden has banned the use of "him" and "her." Will this experiment bring us gender equality?

In keeping with Sweden's rep as the most evolved country ever, a preschool there is attempting to eliminate gender bias in the classroom by not using the words "him" or "her." At the taxpayer-funded Egalia preschool, teachers use the word "friend" and the recently invented Swedish gender-neutral pronoun "hen" instead. Lego bricks and building blocks are placed next to the toy kitchen, where all the kids play in harmony.

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