Preschool is the first big decision we make for our children, and it can be a tough one. Add in considerations about choosing a Jewish preschool and the decision gets trickier. How do we balance our desire for our kids’ to learn about their heritage with our wish for them to know about the wider world? Some of us fear we’re not “Jewish” enough to choose a Jewish preschool.
Yet the Torah has no such qualms. Early childhood is a great time to expose our kids to Jewish education. The results can last a lifetime.
Here are five reasons to consider Jewish preschool for your child, backed up by 3,300 years of Jewish tradition and modern research.
1. Early Impressions Count
The experiences we have as young children form the basis of what we regard as comforting and safe for years to come. If we want our kids to feel that Jewish rituals are familiar and enjoyable, preschool is the time to start sharing them.
This doesn’t have to be heavy: singing Jewish songs, talking about holidays and Jewish values all create long-lasting impressions in our children. It helps create a memory of being at home in a Jewish setting. Learning about Jewish concepts such as tzedakah (charity), kind deeds, and saying thank you also helps teach our kids that Jewish tradition has something to say about the issues and conflicts that they face in daily life.
2. The “Thirty Million Word Gap”
Even very young kids are capable of learning a great deal. By the time they’re ready for kindergarten, many preschoolers have mastered complex skills like sounding out words, reading, counting, and performing sophisticated tasks like cutting, pouring, and measuring. Jewish preschools have the added benefit of teaching Hebrew songs and prayers, and educating kids about Jewish holidays as well.
Adding this extra level of education can have some less obvious benefits, too. In one famous study, researchers looked at the number of words that children heard in their early years, and compared this with later academic success. They wondered why kids from more privileged environments often did better in school than deprived children, and found that one of the main factors was that kids from wealthy families were exposed to many more words each day than poorer children. Over the course of the first three years, the difference was a whopping 30 million words. This “Thirty Million Word Gap” explained much of the lag in poorer children’s academic success, even years later.
Jewishly, many of us have our own Thirty Million Word Gap. Choosing a Jewish preschool can help ensure close this gap for our kids, and help them know more about their heritage.
3. Clay Candlesticks and Lumpy Challah
One of the most important objects kids in Jewish preschools bring home is clay Shabbat candlesticks. (In my own home, they’ve joined tie-dyed matzah covers, a wooden menorah - which seemed to me to be a fire hazard, but we used it anyway - and weekly loaves of lumpy challah.)
The ritual objects that kids bring home with them often help start new family traditions. One dad I know told me that when his daughter brought home challah loaves from preschool each Friday, he and his wife started making the blessing over it. To make the occasion even more special, they eventually started lighting Shabbat candles and saying the blessing over grape juice before dinner, too. Before they knew it, they were celebrating with their own weekly Shabbat dinner.
Even when families don’t go so far, the Jewish ritual objects kids make can help start a dialogue in the family. One friend of mine told me she had a big discussion about conservation and nature with her kids when they learned about the importance of trees on the Jewish holiday Tu B’shvat. Another friend said she and her husband started giving charity regularly when their daughter brought home a tzedaka box she’d made from a can in school.
4. Find a Good Friend
Preschool is much more than the hours spent in the classroom. It tends to spill over into playdates and social events, and – in many cases – friendships that endure for years. This isn’t only true for the kids themselves; since young kids require supervision, their friendships often extend to their parents, who get to know each other and bond during those intense preschool years.
Getting to know other families who are interested in their kids getting a Jewish education, and who are grappling with some of the same issues we are, helps shape us, and give us resources as we continue to grow and evolve – through the preschool years, and beyond.
5. “Do You Know?”
Recent studies have pinpointed an unexpected source of resilience in kids. About a decade ago, Sarah Duke, a psychologist who worked with children with learning disabilities, noticed that children who were familiar with their family histories were better able to face challenges and overcome setbacks. Intrigued, her husband Marshall, a psychology professor at Emery University, eventually organized and conducted a wide-scale academic study. Dubbed the “Do You Know?” study, he and a colleague measured how familiar children were with their family narratives, and correlated this with their emotional health and happiness.
“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke reported. “Being familiar with family history was the single biggest predictor of emotional health and happiness.”
Jewish preschools give kids a clear sense of their history and identity in the world. Learning about Jewish history helps kids understand the world, and their place in it. It helps them understand that they’re not alone, but part of a larger community, which has overcome adversity and celebrates life. Knowing where they come from helps children make sense of challenges they see around them, and gives them the security to know they’re connected to other people.
As our children grow up, being able to answer “Do You Know?” might be one of the greatest gifts we can give them to help them navigate their way.