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I’ve made peace with the fact that my kids will attend public school.  At least, I tell myself this, because it will happen.  We bought a house in a top-rated school district  to ensure it will happen.  But having lived in this area for 11 years now, my eyes have been opened to the variety of private schools that exist.  I’ve worked for two of them, and perhaps drunk the Kool-Aid.  Kids learn differently.  Public school doesn’t work for everyone.  There are choices, and private school isn’t all about blazers, galas, and lacrosse.  Maybe I have edu-crushes on the Friends schools because I want my kids to have the types of hand-on education I didn’t in my cookie-cutter public schooling?  A vicarious Quaker education?

Anyhow, preschool is a paid experience (at least until Pennsylvania finally enacts universal Pre-K), so I get to dip my toes into the worlds of admissions, applications, open houses, and choosing the “best” school.  My kids attend the two-year-old program at the JCC.  Is it enough?  Is this the mommy wars/competitive parenting poisoning what is overblown in importance for kids of educated middle-class parents anyway?  (There is research out there that if a kid comes from a home where he is read to and stimulated, no one preschool is “better” than another.  I wish I could find the link to that article…)  Or maybe my standards are impossibly high from having been immersed in preschool for 5 years, years which shaped my parenting and educational philosophies.  Much as I want my kids to do Quaker and Waldorf and nature preschool stuff (but not Montessori; don’t get me started), I also want to choose a place that, frankly, has the hours and tuition and location that makes our lives easier.  I have no interest in choosing a school that will require impossible logistics.  That’s the childcare portion of it again.  Beyond financial limitations, we can’t choose a place simply because they have a classroom I fall in love with, or an ideal curriculum, a gorgeous playground, or teachers who are kindred spirits.

Bottom line: I think it doesn’t matter in the long run where they go to school when they’re 2, 3, or 4, as long as it’s not those dumps in North Philly where I did early intervention.  But the other half of the equation is that I want them to be at a place I love.  A place I feel really good about.  And it’s kind of eating me up inside that all my “expert insider” preschool knowledge came down to the fact that the school day at the JCC goes until 3:30pm and Mr. Apron can pick them up then.  Frankly, that’s what made our final decision.  That, and we thought we’d use the JCC’s fitness center.  That’s happened…exactly zero times since September.

So what do we do? Switch them next year to the other program?  Uproot them from something that works, and from a place they do in fact enjoy going to school to play the lottery on a different program? Sacrifice our logistical sanity trying to work out the transportation, tuition, and childcare challenges for a school I feel good about?  Find an anonymous benefactor to subsidize private school education and a nanny/chauffeur to handle the logistics?  We’re lucky we have choices in preschools for our kids.  Once it all gets whittled down to our limitations, though, it feels a lot less like actual choice, and more a matter of playing Tetris with our kids’ education.

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Years ago, I was present as our friend’s son unwrapped birthday gifts.  One was a school bus with the alphabet emblazoned on it.  Each time you pressed a letter-button, it would name the letter.  Our friend took great delights in pushing “F” “U” over and over.  It went right back to the store.  Later, either in one of the many daycares I visited as an itinerant early intervention speech therapist, or in Kohl’s as a hormonal woman pregnant with twins, we chanced upon a toy lawn mower.  It looked just like a regular toy mower, with a handle, some noise when you pushed it around, like many walking toys, but it had one more thing – a label proclaiming it to be a “learning mower”.  I laughed it off, deciding the manufacturers had given it that title because there were ABC and 123 stickers, which added supposed educational value without actually doing anything extra in product development.

Unfortunately, the trend caught on, and it’s more than just some colorful decals on the side of a toy.  Behold: the Fisher-Price “Laugh and Learn” line.  Characterized by the goofy (and I’m sure trademarked) eyes and mouth emblazoned on every single toy, the “Laugh and Learn” line has remade such classics as mowers, vacuums, shape sorters, telephones, cameras, puzzles,  and now encompasses such things as lanterns, mirrors, chairs, iPod cases, stuffed dogs, smart phones, and ball poppers.  There’s even a soccer ball.  Fisher-Price has created a cash cow by slapping the word “learn” on their products, as if the plain, classic version had no educational value whatsoever.  Parents see a plain toy next to the jacked up “Laugh and Learn” (or, increasingly, see only the electronic version), deduce there’s added value in the battery power, and bring that home instead.  I cannot stand the battery-powered version with its repetitive mechanical tunes, and promises to “teach” babies.

Let’s take one example, the shape sorting cookie jar.  Shape sorters teach many things to babies and toddlers.  My kids, who just turned one this weekend, are able to open the lid to their classic 1972 Fisher Price shape sorter, and take out all the shapes, as well as put them back in, with or without the lid.  They can learn visual-spatial skills as they put things inside, hone fine motor tasks of grasping and releasing, fine-tune pre-puzzle skills of rotating shapes to fit into the holes, explore gravity as they drop the pieces in or out of the bucket, and there are even opportunities for such pre-academic classics as shapes, colors, and numbers.  The triangles are all green, the rectangles are red, and the circles are blue.  We can count them as they go in or out.  We can introduce an action vocabulary — push, drop, hold, count, sort.  We can sort them into different piles by shape/color.  We can even add advanced vocabulary and learn the names for 3D forms such as cylinder, rectangular prism, and triangular prism.  Maybe I’m the only one who does that.  We can learn the opposites “on” and “off”, and take shapes “out” or put them “in”.  They learn determination (“grit”) as they persevere to fit the shapes through the holes.

We received, by way of hand-me-down from my nephew, the Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Cookie Shape Surprise cookie jar shape sorter.  It has five shapes/colors, so you know it already has added value (my kids may never learn what a star or a heart is otherwise). Plus, the shapes are all emblazoned with a raised numeral, even though it’s not developmentally appropriate to be teaching number symbols until kids have an awareness of quantity of real objects (“two” feet?  My kids just learned they have feet).  Then, we get to the battery-operated wonder.  The cookie jar has little ball-bearings in each opening, so when you successfully force a shape through the hole (it requires more force than the traditional shape sorter owing to the motion sensing technology impeding the shape’s progress), it labels the shape (or number) for you.  And then sings its stupid song.  “Shapes are in my cookie jar, triangle, heart and star.  There’s a circle over there, here’s a square!”  Or, if the toggle switch is set on “number” mode: “Would you like some cookies? Here they are!  Five different shapes, in my cookie jar! You can take them out, you can put them back, five little cookies make a tasty snack!” You can also just push the red nose of the cookie jar’s face to get a bonus song.  The most positive reviews of this toy range from detailing how the song is “catchy, not too annoying” to “It’s my kid’s favorite toy, but I want to shoot myself for buying it”.  That seems to be the theme.  As a parent, you have to put up with the stupid songs or noises because of their “educational” value, and if they’re only mildly annoying, that’s as good as you can expect to do.

What’s ironic, is that in trying to bolster educational value by adding sounds/music, the companies are actually grossly simplifying what the toy can actually “teach”.  It also makes parents feel like they’re depriving their child of something educational if they buy the plain shape sorter.  What do kids “learn” from these toys?  They learn mostly cause and effect.  If I push the button here, I get a song.  Many, many toys teach this concept.  While this is an important baby toy skill, it is only one aspect of play, and of learning.  Just as hearing a mechanical voice say “triangle” is only one exposure a child will have, and will mostly certainly not be the way my children end up figuring out the abstract concepts of shapes.  What I cannot stand is when parents measure educational value by the amount of time their child pushed the red nose over and over and stayed quiet in their crib.  While I appreciate time to go shower, make a phone call, or eat a sandwich, I do not conflate repetitive button-pushing with “learning”.  Nor do I think my kids will figure out shapes, colors, or numbers from playing with educational toys.  I also rail against what those songs are replacing.  For the parents who think it’s the toy’s job to “teach”, and not theirs, it’s replacing a parent coaching a child along, saying, perhaps, “Yes, mummy, that red square goes in the hole.  Can you put it in there?  Oops, not quite.  Try it a different way.  Yes, like that.  Push.  Almost.  Good job!”  The toy says, “Square” or “Four” and then sings a song.  If recent research in language acquisition is any guide, the child playing with the toy without the parent has just lost out on 28 additional words.  Fast-forward to preschool-aged children using a “learning vacuum” for pretend play.  If the vacuum’s job is to teach letters or numbers, and the toy constantly sings when you push its buttons, where is the voice of the child going ‘vroooom’ pretending to suck up dirt?  Where is the child narrating his play as he imitates the adults in his life?  Where is the integration of the vacuum into a larger ‘house’ play scheme?  So-called educational toys are by far the least open-ended toys I’ve seen on the market.

Why does a soccer ball need additional value?  So you can charge more for it, obviously.  So you can guilt well-meaning but anxious parents into purchasing more crap.  So you can assuage the guilt parents feel about not providing constant stimulation so their children can “get ahead” by the time they get to preschool.

In my family, the premier purchaser of this Chinese-made, battery-powered plastic crap is the last person you’d think of — a librarian.  But my mother-in-law gobbles up these toys, from the Vtech Infant Learning Jungle Fun Music Box my nephew was scared of for his first six months, to the “Rhyme and Discover” “book” (from a librarian — this shocked me), the infamous cookie jar, and the newest one, that just left my jaw hanging open, the Singin’ Soccer Ball, which, in addition to ABCs and 123s (again, not developmentally appropriate for the 9 month old pictured holding it), purports to teach sportsmanship.

I try to pretend I’m coming around on the electronic toy front, for the sake of family harmony.  I try to pretend it’s all copasetic if I just turn the toy off when I’m around. (though the kids are confused why the buttons that used to light up are now dark…) I try to pretend it’s okay if our household isn’t 100% battery-powered toy free.  In short, I try not to be a helicopter control-freak parent.  But every time we unwrap a new gift, whether it’s a talking puzzle from my uncle, or a battery-powered walking toy from my in-laws, or when we receive a new bag of hand-me-downs (and that fucking cookie jar) from my nephew, I just want to cringe.  It should simply be a parent’s choice to offer these toys.  It shouldn’t make me so angry, should it?  Yet, short of explaining (again) to my in-laws that we don’t want those toys, they keep on coming.  I doubt they’d sit and listen to a condensed lecture from this diatribe.  Maybe it’s more the fact that I feel disrespected in my parenting decisions, the fact that the burden of deciding whether to return a well-intentioned toy, try to remove the batteries, allow it, or smash it into a million pieces falls on us.  I’d rather spend my time building block towers with my kids for them to smash than arranging for childcare so I can run to Kohl’s for the third time this month, and return the piece of junk.

As I goggled in disbelief at the Singin’ Soccer Ball, I was unable to disguise my contempt in the usual forced smile I reserve for playtime at my in-laws’ house, and my father-in-law asked, “Why, it’s bad?” while I searched in vain for the off switch (IT HAS NONE!!!), I replied, through gritted teeth, “No, they’re just not my favorite kind of toy.” It’s true, kind of.  If my wonderful mother-in-law is sitting on the floor with my children, interacting with them and the heathenous toy, it’s not harming them.  If my brother likes pushing the buttons, and it helps him play with my kids, then that’s great for everyone.  No one toy sitting on the shelf is going to make or break a child’s kindergarten readiness.  No open-ended shoebox, or high-priced baby laptop can replace a parent’s interactions.

I am officially going on record to speak for all those parents writing Amazon reviews about annoying songs and tolerable noise levels — you don’t have to buy that crap.  I absolve you of your feeling a need to buy “educational” toys.  You are so much better than that.  You are not only your child’s first teacher; you’re also his first — and best — toy.

“He made a different choice,” I told the 5-year-old.  The boy I had been working with in this particular church basement in North Philadelphia was using his pencil to color in some “educational” worksheet that alleged to teach about Jesus, apples, or the letter M.  This particular daycare center had a culture of tattling, and all the teachers were called, “Teacher”, so there was a constant refrain of, “Teacher, he goin’ up the slide!”  or “Teacher, he bite me!” On this day, coloring in a worksheet with pencil set off alarms of propriety in the sometimes rigid preschool mind, which knew that crayons were the only thing allowed for coloring.  This was not a far-flung assumption in a center which passed out only one crayon per child, and only red crayons for apples, despite that fact that apples come in myriad colors.  Away from the distracted gaze of the daycare providers, I assured the tattler (“Teacher, he colorin’ scribble scrabble!  He usin’ a pencil!”) that using a pencil to color however he wished was simply a different choice.

At the beginning of my parenting journey, I, too, was like the inflexible preschooler.  I had read all the books, absorbed all the literature, and while I acknowledged that there were different approaches to parenting infants (e.g., no-cry vs. Ferber for sleep-training), I knew certain truths:  babies must sleep on their backs, in their own bed/crib/bassinette.  They may not have covers other than swaddling blankets and/or sleep sacks.  They must sleep in tight-fitting flame-retardant pajamas. Thou shalt not take a baby to bed with you.  Otherwise, the SIDS monster was lurking outside the nursery door, certain to attack in its mysterious, not completely understood way.

Then, I became a parent.  Despite sleep-deprived hallucinations that my husband’s flannel pajama pants (and the leg inside) were actually a swaddled baby we had brought to bed, I clung to certain knowledge of what was the “right” thing to do.  At an early breastfeeding support group meeting, the first time I heard a parent talk about co-sleeping (and not in a co-sleeper/sidecar, but actually sharing a bed with a baby), I silently tsked at the parent, who was asking for advice on how to get her 18-month-old out of the parental bed, and into his own crib to sleep.  I tsked not only because it went against American Academy of Pediatrics (gospel itself) guidelines to co-sleep, but because it basically proved to me the ill consequences of her own, wrong decision 18 months ago, to bring her child to bed.  Well, now look what you’ve done, I concluded.  You made your bed (pun intended), now lie in it.

My children are now 5 ½ months old.  In the past 5 ½ months, I will admit I have let my children sleep on my chest, in my bed, in my arms, in a sling, on their tummies, and under a blanket.  I have nursed them to sleep, despite warnings about sleep-association problems.  I have put two children in equipment made only for one, and I have exceeded weight limits on the bassinet of the pack n’ play.  I don’t change them into pajamas when they nap, and they’ve even fallen asleep (and been left to do so) on Boppies, despite their huge “NO SLEEP” warning tags.

Am I a bad parent? Am I engaging in reckless behavior?  Or am I merely making a choice that I can live with, a choice that enhances my sanity (by gaining precious minutes of baby or adult sleep), and thus, my parenting skills overall?  In all of these choices, I had to weigh the risk of SIDS, sleep-association problems, and countless other fears with my own choices, and the benefits I saw in my children being comfortable, being happy, being fed, and being well rested.  I made a different choice.

Making different choices is a theme that comes up often these days, as I struggle to allow myself to be human, to make mistakes, and to be flexible in understanding how people do things differently.  It has become a constant refrain as I seek to understand the actions of my spouse, my parents, and my in-laws.  For as ridiculous as it seems to me that my father-in-law and sister-in-law would choose to lease Buicks solely on the fact that they are one of the only companies to offer 24-month leases, or as absurd as it is that my mother-in-law drives her car ¼ mile to work regardless of the weather, those are their choices.  Despite even research that driving cars such short distances is harmful for the vehicle, it’s her choice, and it’s different than one I would have made.  In my own family, my mother’s slavish devotion to her constantly breaking down Jaguar wagon and countless expenditures on rebuilding it make me cringe, but keeping that car, and pouring money into its upkeep, are her choices, too.  The way I began to understand others’ choices was, oddly enough, through cars.  My car, a Honda Fit, has consistently earned top honors in comparison tests for compact cars in numerous automotive publications, in both point-to-point contests as well as anecdotal reviews.  My car is objectively the best, based on actual research.  Yet not everyone who needs a compact car drives a Honda Fit.  It’s not only because it costs more than a comparable Toyota Yaris, or a Nissan Versa, nor it is because they were somewhat hard to come by when I was in the market for one.  It might be because they like the way the other cars look, or drive, or the pretty Toyota blue the Yaris comes in.  Maybe they hate the awesome functionality of a hatch, and wanted the ugly sedan version instead.  Regardless of the research that shows (I might say proves) my car is superior (even superlative), the other cars are made, and purchased, and driven, because people make different choices.

Despite all my research to find the best baby products, to learn the best methods for calming and feeding and caring for my offspring, there still remain others who don’t agree.  Beyond the individual variability of babies themselves, parents do make different choices, whether it’s about cloth vs. disposable diapering, baby-led solids vs. baby food purees, cosleeping vs. AAP guidelines, or even which stroller to buy.  And as long as it works for them, who am I to judge?  I used to feel rather smug when a choice I had made was working well for me, as if I had truly made the right choice, and if only others would emulate me, they, too, could feel awesome and superior.

Then, my children stopped going down to bed so easily, started taking an hour-and-a-half to fall asleep, and it turned out maybe it was just a developmental stage, or pure chance, not some awesome parenting trick I had discovered.

Back at the church basement daycare center, the children continued to color in their worksheets.  Yet another child noticed the graphite gray of the worksheet my student was coloring in.  She began the all-too-familiar chorus, “Teacher, he using a pencil!”  My heart sang as I heard the object of my earlier correction turn to the girl and tell her, “He made a different choice.”

Lest I judge my fellow humans too harshly, I try to remember that they, too make different choices. 

The kids invented some game during lunch-time today that seemed like a cross between no-tackle football and a very competitive version of keep away.  They somehow split into two teams, and were able to keep track of who was on each time while they shuffled a soccer ball back and forth in the gym.  They were also able to avoid the many kids playing basketball as well as the few stragglers still eating their lunches at the cafeteria tables at one end of the gym.  There wasn’t any scoring; no bounced touch-downs in the back hallway of the cafe-gym-atorium.  It only got a little questionable when one kid had a dead-lock on the soccer ball, and others were gently pummeling him while the entire mass encroached upon the metal bleachers.  Boys and girls played together, 6th and 7th graders organized teams independently while their less socially adept classmates hung out at the periphery, still trying to master the art of sharing a basketball.  Aside from the scuffles near sharp metal objects and my own fears of being mock-tackled or hit in the head with a flying ball, it was a pretty mesmerizing experience. 

My mentor teacher when I taught preschool was forever rolling her eyes when parents would mention signing their 3-4 year old kids up for t-ball, pee-wee soccer, or competitive knot-tying.  They should be allowed free-play; they should be allowed to develop their problem-solving skills and “rules” of play without coaches and referees and disciplined drills.  Structured play has its place, and competitive sports plays an assuredly important part in the middle school extracurricular activities.  But it’s nice to see this hodge-podge group of kids – some stars on the basketball team, some who usually don’t touch a ball – invent their own game, give it their own rules, and engage in some self-sustaining preschool-inspired free play.

Soon, the office supply closet will be locked, just like the classroom supply closet.  There will be a requistion list we can fill out to ask weekly for a supply of things like copy paper, pens, writing tablets, tape, paper clips, and staples.  And allegedly, someone will come along and dole these things out to our waiting desks. 

Just pass out the paste, the crayons, and the paper, please.  Raise your hand nice and high, don’t call out, and you’ll get yours.  Dot, dot, not a lot. 

Now, maybe you’d think this would encourage us to keep track of our supplies better, to count each paper clip, to ask ourselves if we really need to make that next copy, to be mindful of our impact on the environment and our company’s bottom dollar.

Or maybe it’s stooping to the lowest denominator about alleged disappearance of alleged supplies (nothing mentioned overtly), or alleged rapid use of some supplies.  No investigations, no chances to see if anything actually gets used up any faster than it can be accounted for. Not sign-out lists so we can account for our own use, so we can track supplies.  Not even a memo, a staff meeting, or an announcement.  How did I find out?  The door was locked.

So I asked the secretary, who told me what is coming down the line. 

Just another instance of not treating us like adults.  This kind of management, if you can call it that, encourages, at the very least, hoarding.  And greedy grubbing for pens, push-pins, and post-its.  Mine, mine, mine.  No more “Sure, use my stapler; it’s in my top drawer.”  Now it’s every woman for herself, and every supply is sacred. 

I’ve seen this in children who are barely 3.  They’ve usually been in daycare since they were 6 weeks old.  At the least, they’ve been in daycares where there aren’t enough supplies for them to do their work.  A child’s work is play; his play is his work.  If he doesn’t have enough materials, enough blocks, enough sand, enough balls, enough tricycles, he will hoard, he will guard, he will become territorial.  I see this in all manner of preschoolers.  They’re the ones asking me, “Save this for me,” as they press a precious toy into my hand when they line up for the bathroom.  They’re the ones losing playtime in the gym because they’re concerned they’ll lose access to the one desirable/functional tricycle.  They dump out bins of toys and scoop the bulk towards their bodies.  They don’t actually build; they’re more concerned with defending turf.

And this is exactly what will happen in my office if I cannot go get a pen when someone’s made off with mine for the 4th time that day.  This is exactly what will happen when we start making storehouses deep within our desk drawers, with secret stashes of copy paper, file folders, and Sharpies. 

No one better touch my post-it notes, or I’m telling!

I have a 10 month old nephew.  My sister-in-law, his other aunt, is very protective of him.  She fairly has a heart attack every time he eats solid food.  She obsesses over his every bowel movement.  She roves the internet in search of UV protective clothing and the Consumer Reports #1 rated sunblock, SPF 450, for Baby’s First Shore Trip, but then refuses to allow him in the sun once they arrive at the beach house.  She goes into palpitations when his mother doesn’t pull down the sunshade on his stroller, or when he looks hot, or cold, or clammy, or his Pack ‘n Play doesn’t have a fitted sheet.  She is consumed with worry in exactly the way any first-time mother ought to be.  Except it isn’t her kid.  She doesn’t have any children, and, being single at age 42, isn’t likely to come into any in the short- or long-term.  So he’s her Substitute First Child, the one all the parents (and maiden aunts) worry themselves sick over.

Erma Bombeck famously penned in one of her columns, that when First Child swallowed a quarter, she bolted straight for the emergency room.  By the time Third Child rolled around, she just deducted it from his allowance. 

As calm and relaxed as I am now about children, as much as I know about child development to assure myself children come with many safety features, and as silly as I judge my sister-in-law’s fussing to be, I know I’ll worry over my First Child, too.  I know Mr. Apron will wake in the middle of the night just to make sure it’s breathing.  He’ll take its pulse, I know he will.  I know I’ll blanch at the sight of abnormal poo. I’ll become preoccupied with its feeding cycle.  He’ll worry about its dental development and toenail health. 

But all these worries are on a scale of worries.  They all compare in magnitudes of greatness to real things to worry about.  As my Israeli father-in-law says, “It’s all compared to what!”  To fears of real child endangerment and neglect.  My mother-in-law won’t allow my nephew to fall asleep with a bottle in his mouth.  Not that she would ever dream of putting him into his crib with a bottle; she won’t even give him a bottle to help him fall asleep, for fear it would instantaneously cause bottle rot in his precious milk teeth the second he closed his eyes. 

Today, though, I saw a sight that puts everything in perspective, a sight that fairly caused me palpitations.  As I waited outside a daycare for my victim child to arrive with his brood of siblings so I could spend a futile hour working on a tongue thrust that, in a 5 ½ year old, is going to require more than bi-weekly speech therapy, I saw a mid-1990s 4-door Honda Accord pull up – a father dropping his kids off.  From my vantage point, I saw a small head in the front passenger seat.  As Dad got out, the picture became clearer; I saw two small heads, side-by-side in the front seat.  Two children young enough for day care, seated in the front seat of a car, not even buckled into the one seat they were sharing.  And as they piled out, Dad walked around to the rear door.  As he opened it, he made a motion to hold his arms out as if waiting for a large beach ball to come his way, and the smallest child yet climbed happily into his arms.  Alive, and yet, I was scarred.  The kid was walking, yet couldn’t be older than 18 months.  Couldn’t have unfastened any sort of car seat I’ve ever seen.  Minutes later, as I walked to the door of the day care, I glanced at the rear seat of this vehicle.   What I saw would have curdled the blood of my sister-in-law.  She would have locked herself in her condo, curled up on the floor in a fetal position, and started rocking.  Filling the back seat was an assortment of laundry, towels, and pillows. 

That was all. 

Mr. Apron says he would have narc’ed on the guy.  I see any number of kids come to the center where I work strapped into front seats, arriving without car seats, piled into back seats with 5 others.  I hope I haven’t become desensitized to the dangers of automotive child endangerment.  If public service announcements, stricter laws, and “Don’t be a dummy” ads haven’t taught people, they won’t learn until they see their own precious kids flying out the windshield.

That’ s the scariest image of all.

*Disclaimer: If you run a daycare, work in a daycare, send your kids to daycare, or if Daycare is your middle name, please understand I am only culling together my own observations.  I have experienced the full gamut of quality child care, and this is in no way meant to disparage the good ones out there, nor the need for high-quality child care, which supports the working families in our country.  

How to make a daycare center

Find a building, any building, or a space in a building.  It can be an abandoned school, a mechanic’s garage, a storefront, a church basement, or the 2nd floor of a strip mall.  Splash paint on this building.

Think of a creative name to put forth your mission – Creative Minds, Future Footsteps, Minds Matter, Little Shepherds, Little Ones of the Future, Precious Babies, Kiddie Karriage, Kiddie Korner, Terrific Tots, Wonderfully Made, or Shake, Rattle, & Roll.  (These are actual examples.)  Now call a sign maker, and ask for your daycare’s name to be emblazoned on your storefront. Under no circumstances should you ask for a proof or – heaven forbid! – go into the store to make sure the spelling is right.  Having the name of your center spelled correctly would only make people feel insecure when they can’t spell the center’s name.  If you have extra money, have multiple signs made – for the doors, the marquee (if it’s an old movie theatre), the awning (if it’s an old laundromat), the windows, or walls inside.  Don’t worry about consistency in spelling.  Again, if you get 3 different spellings of “shepherd”, one of them is bound to be correct.  For marketing purposes, you can also write on any of your signs the attributes parents are bound to be attracted to in child care, such as “trips”  “computers” “French classes” and “open at 4am”.  

Buy lots of materials.  Make sure you buy the kit from the school supply catalog that will label the centers – science, math, art, reading housekeeping, blocks, writing – and paste these liberally to the walls, regardless or whether or not you have those actual centers at your daycare.  Repeat with the ABCs and numbers.  Make sure you have borders for the bulletin boards.  Bulletin board design is a very important way to show what creative teachers you have.  Another way to show creativity is by buying art kits.  Kids will learn exactly where to place the pre-cut, pre-glued dog’s nose on his face, and all the projects will turn out exactly the same.  

Also, buy lots of tables and chairs.  These do not have to be precisely fit to the size/age of the kids you’re serving, because kids grow into things, don’t they? And besides, small children are meant to spend long hours seated at tables doing worksheets, which reminds me –

Buy lots of workbooks to copy worksheets out of.  Don’t bother buying reference books for teachers to learn developmentally appropriate practices.  They’ll just figure it out as they go along.

Make sure you have 1 thin rug from a school supply catalog for circle time.  At this point, if you’re worried about running out of money for actual toys, fill empty bins with broken Happy Meal toys, torn books from the “Free” bin at the library, and your kids’ old Barbies and Beanie Babies.  

Staffing is not really an issue to get worked up about.  Young, inexperienced teachers will learn from older, burnt-out teachers.  Overweight teachers with Daycare Butt © will use their loud voices to command presence in the room.  Make sure each teacher is working toward a CDA so you don’t lose your license.  If teachers are really green and can’t handle their rooms of children, just put more new teachers into the room to help.  Don’t bother making one the “lead” and others the “associates” – that kind of hierarchy just makes people angle for bigger paychecks, and might give certain teachers a sense of superiority.  And you can always just move them around in the middle of the school year if they’re not a good fit.  

Lastly, use whatever money you have left to put up walls to make separate classrooms, depending on how many rooms you can legally create.  If you have just a few dollars, buy some cubicle partitions – the walls work great for displaying kids’ art projects using push-pins.  If you have more money or know a handy-man, you can put up a half-wall.  This makes sure the daycare noises of loud teachers, crying children, and the clean-up song will be able to travel from room to room, unabated.  Teachers will also be able to communicate freely over the wall about their upcoming court dates, custody battles, and new tattoos.  If you’re lucky, your building will already be divided into rooms, or if you want to spend the big bucks, go for real walls. Otherwise, you have many options.

And with that, throw up one more sign that says “Now enrolling, subsidized excepted” and open your doors to the oncoming masses.

Toy manufacturers are in a business; there’s no denying that.  I think they earn most of their money producing things that already exist.  Simply put, there are no new toys.  We have the balls, strings, blocks, sticks, and sculpting material.  Put them together in some combination, and you have a toy.  Look for “new” toys on the shelf: chances are they’re some variation on the ball, string, block, stick, or clay theme.  In other words, building a better mousetrap.

But what about when it isn’t actually better?  What about those toys I see in the Toys ‘R Us circular that I can’t fathom an adult thinking, “Oh!  That’s such a great toy!” and buying it.  Moreover, I can’t picture a child playing with it after 7:45 Christmas morning.  And what about those toys that seek to fill a “need” that wasn’t actually there in the first place?  The types of commercials/ads pushing these toys first have to convince you how miserable your life is, and what horrible problems you have.  Then, they present their product, and you’re cured of your insatiable depressive existence on this earth. 

At one preschool/Head Start center I visit, each classroom seems to have grey plastic shoes in the dress-up area.  They look like an old man’s jogging shoes, complete with red accented plastic, but thse are no real shoes.  They’re for teaching children how to velcro, snap, and tie shoes.  What’s more, they’re not actually designed for kids to put on their feet, yet they’re in the dress-ups, as if a child might put on a silly hat, glamorous gown, and try to wedge their feet into these plastic vessels.  Try as I might, I couldn’t find an image of these ridiculous “toys”.  I guess the Head Start bought out the stock of the fake grey plastic un-shoes several years ago and instituted it center-wide as a sort of mandate. 

“All house-keeping and dramatic play areas will heretofore be outfitted with a set of plastic shoes model 147A, 147C, 147T, and 147Q.  Failure to adhere to this guideline will result in immediate enrollment of children you thought you expelled for eating crayons and pooping in the sandbox.”

Anyway, when I realized they were not even functional as dress-up shoes, I began to think how silly it is to create a product that imitates a real thing, yet would seem to serve no additional purpose.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to practice tying  shoes by, um, tying shoes?  And if the argument is made that it’s hard to learn to tie one’s own shoes, then wouldn’t it serve dual purposes to have kids tie each other’s shoes?  Then the teacher spends less time crouched on the ground gripping sticky, dirty, sandy laces, and the kids develop special standing when they become resident “Tiers” (hmmm…that doesn’t look right.  Tie-ers?  Lacers?  Lasers?  Sneakers? Knotters?). 

Here are some of the fabulous offerings from respected toy makers for those in the market for fake shoes you can’t wear…I mean, “dexterity toys”: Here, and here.

To draw some parallels, in speech pathology there is a movement afoot which posits that some children need to do so-called “non-speech oral motor therapy” separate from actual speech therapy.  It involves blowing whistles and horns, blowing bubbles, blowing cotton balls across the table, and sucking through straws.  As much fun as this is (especially for those producing and selling the whistles, horns, and straws), for kids who don’t have actual, demonstrated motor deficits (i.e., your normal, articulation therapy candidate), we in the speechie world have found that the best way to work on speech is to actually practice speech. 

Can you imagine learning to play a musical instrument by drumming your fingers on a table and never touching an actual piano?  I can understand rehearsing music mentally, clapping out beats, and cellists practicing finger positions silently on their arms, but never to touch an instrument, in service to playing an instrument?

Or how about learning to chew food by practicing first on packing peanuts, bubble wrap, kitchen sponges, and aquarium tubing?

Or learn how to drive a car by sitting in a carboard box with a paper plate stapled on as your steering wheel?  Or, worse yet, by taking drivers ed while playing Need for Speed?

Scary.

I’ll be the first to admit it. Mr. Apron and I don’t keep the cleanest home.  We tidy up so we don’t constantly feel like we’re living in squalor.  We do laundry often enough so we’re not turning underwear inside out.  And we try not to smear dog poop all over the floors.  But still we don’t keep it clean, and I know it.  I don’t change the hand-towels in the bathroom or the dishtowels in the kitchen as often as I should.  I don’t disinfect the toilets and sinks as thoroughly as I ought to, and I’m not maniacal about washing my hands.

At work, everyone is maniacal about hand-washing, and not just for themselves.  I’m pretty conscientious about my own hands at work.  I’ve learned the school protocol is that we’re supposed to wash our hands each time we enter a classroom, and before meals, and after toileting.  I’m also thorough about washing my hands after I get sneezed, drooled, or boogered on.  What I’m not as fanatic about is the method.  The specific protocol varies from room to room, from daycare to daycare, from teacher to teacher, but involves some aspects of not touching anything, rubbing one’s soapy hands together for six hours under scalding water, and doing this sixteen million times a day. 

One teacher asks for kids to count to 30 or sing the ABCs while working up lather.  She also asks them to use a tissue to turn on the tap, or to wait for a teacher to do it for them.  This results in nasty soggy tissues disintegrating on the ever-running tap.  Another teacher has a song the kids sing which helps them remember to wash the tops and bottoms of their hands, and between their fingers.  Most teachers just let the tap run on full pressure while the endless line of children parades up before meals, after meals, before and after using the sandbox or the water table, and each time they enter the room. 

I’m not against teaching good hand-washing, or trying to reduce cross-contamination in a germ-filled classroom.  I am against making children rewash their hands because they touched the tap, or opened the trashcan using a hand instead of the foot pedal.  I am against letting water run to make things easier rather than using a moment to teach water conservation.  I am against changing trashcans 3 times in a year. And I am suspect of the fervent belief that if we can just perfect hand-washing, that’ll be the end of the cesspool that is the preschool center.  Because we’ll never get it just right.  Kids are still touching the soap pump; they’re still shaking dripping hands all over; they’re still touching light switches; and they’re still messing with their zippers and buttons before and after they wash their hands.  They’re still sneezing on my arm and goobering on my shirt and drooling on the table.  They’re still licking their fingers when the class makes cookies. 

Do you use a towel to turn on and off the tap in your own home?

We all make efforts, but we can only do so much, even with regimented hand-washing drills.  At some point we all just have to calm down and do out best without making ourselves, or the children we’re supporting, absolutely crazy. 

Unfortunately, mass hysteria over H1N1 and airborne Pacific Monkey Virus has resulted in products such as no-touch soap for the home, no-touch faucets, no-touch toothpaste dispensers, and disposable Kleenex hand-towels that fit neatly into your now-defunct towel bar.  We have my mother-in-law, a confessed germophobe, who quarantined my sister-in-law in the 2nd floor of her home, away from my nephew, who is at the house 2 days a week, because she had a sore throat, opening the door to a restaurant by applying her handbag over the handle. 

We do all these things and we still get sick.  We still use bar soap, cloth towels, and pull up our pants before washing our hands.  At least my mother-in-law hasn’t discovered anti-viral tissues or disposable hand towels yet.  But wherever I draw my personal line between hygiene and hysteria, I am still loathe to eat a child-prepared confection unless it’s been baked for a long time at a very high temperature.   Cuz man, kid germs in my cookies — that’s just nasty:

I work with preschoolers. I work in preschool classrooms. 90% of the children I work with on a day-to-day basis are from 3-5 years old.  The few others are either toddlers at the centers and siblings in the homes; or children approaching six as they take an extra year in early intervention.

I understand parents and teachers struggle with when to teach kids proper terminology and anatomy.  I understand that you teach your child to use “breast”, “uterus”, “vagina”, “penis” and “anus” those words may show up as descriptors on a self-portrait he brings home from school, or, worse, a picture of the mother pregnant, with all accompanying labels.  It’s your choice to teach your child “esophagus” and “trachea” or just “throat” at this stage.  But as my mentor is fond of saying about preschoolers, “Too much information sinks the ship of wonder.”  Let them explore light and rainbows and refraction without going into the physics. 

Yet I think there are few people out there who would ardently argue for early exposure to unnecessary evils.  Certainly if a loved one dies, you have to approach the subject of death with compassion.  If children grow up in a neighborhood where they see guns in the home, then the topic can be handled with tact.  But even in the case of the child exposed to too much too soon in the home and neighborhood, let school stay a safe place.  Especially in preschool.

Why then did I see a child watching a youtube video titled “Stick Figures on Crack”?   Regardless of the content, do you want to be the one to explain crack to the precociously early-reading child, or to his parents?  My personal distaste for computers in the preschool classroom aside, if you are committed or obligated to have computers for the children to use, you are also in my view obligated to provide or find age-appropriate games.  Computer game manufacturers are quite adept at providing many early learning games.  Their actual education value I may question, but at least they’re developmentally appropriate.  Many children are adept at surfing a site like www.nickjr.com or www.pbskids.org, and can navigate their way to games starring their favorite characters.  I’m confused why, with such arguablu appropriate and free content on the web, I managed to glance at a screen and see  5 year old playing a bartending game on www.y8.com!  A game, which, I should mention, I now cannot find myself.  Oh, quipped one teacher, they’re not supposed to be on that.  Oh, really.  It’s another teacher’s view that the kids can be on a site that features such games as “Drunken Masters”, “Osama Sissy Fight”, and “Staggy the Boy Scount Slayer II”, not to metion 269 games in the category “Blood”, just as long as a teacher is monitoring them to make sure they find okay games. 

As there may be 18 children in that room, I doubt it makes sense in anyone’s resource book to have 1 teacher dedicated to monitoring computer gaming.  And because that supervision clearly does not happen (or didn’t today), the kids find adult things to play. 

Just as we lock up the cabinets containing cleaners and sharp knives; just as we put on high shelves the breakable materials; just as we do not leave available broken toys with sharp edges, we should not make accessible toys, or games, or websites that may be harmful to the children.  In that carefully controlled environment free of peanuts, can’t we determine what they’re viewing through the computer screen?