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A New Spin on Day Care

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To help narrow the gap in quality, the U.S. Department of Education is urging school systems to develop more pre-kindergarten programs using Title 1 funds, says Fran Bond, head of the U.S. Department of Education's "Ready to Learn" program.

In the past year, only 17% of schools spent money on preschool services -- yet the importance is very evident, Bond tells WebMD. "In the last 10 years or so, an extraordinary amount of research has told us very clearly that children, even in the earliest months of their lives, have an extraordinary ability to learn."

At what age do children benefit most from a structured day care environment?

For Prevosti, day care proved to be a surprisingly positive experience for her very young child. She decided to keep him there -- even after she hired live-in help. "Those early years were more for safety ... a controlled environment where he was less likely to topple down a flight of stairs if a gate is left open," she tells WebMD.

But socialization proved to be very beneficial as well, she says. "Being in a group setting with one teacher for four or five children forces them to communicate their needs more effectively," she says. "His speech skills improved so much ... compared to his friends who stayed at home."

Whether day care is right for a very young child "depends on the child, certainly, but also on the child's family life," says Patricia Waters, assistant professor of early childhood education at Towson University in Towson, Md., and an educator since 1957.

"I realize that for some families, there may not be a choice whether to put a child in day care," she tells WebMD. "Some families want that extra stimulation, in addition to what they're providing at home. But if social activities are provided, if parents bring young children together for socialization, I see no need to put the child into a day care center before the age of 3. If there is conversation, books, labeling going on, if families are going places and having experiences, that's what's important."

Waters works with Baltimore public school pre-K programs set up for children with language needs. She's seen firsthand the difference a good program can make. "In September, the classrooms are very quiet and children speak in one-word replies, and they have very meager vocabularies. Some come in not knowing their own names. By May, those children have just blossomed. I put it all to the credit of that environment, that stimulation. Thank goodness those children are brought out of their nonstimulating environment. They have the potential, but it just has not been awakened."

Bond agrees that much cognitive stimulation can be accomplished at home. "I'm a great proponent of reading to children from birth, taking them to the bookstore, the library," she says.

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