Children are capable of learning a lot in the period between birth and five years of age, yet our present system does not allow them to attend school. This is not much of a problem for children blessed with parents who are capable of providing for their physical, emotional, and educational needs. It is a major problem for children whose parents lack the skills necessary to provide for them effectively. It is during these first few years of life that the gap in achievement between children from low-income families and their more affluent peers begins to appear. If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we must be willing to offer children from low-income families some of the same opportunities that are commonly available to children from middle- and upper-income families. All children should have books read to them regularly. All children should have access to educational toys. All children should have the opportunity to interact with adults and other children in a positive environment.
For parents who want to provide these advantages for their children, but who are unable to do so because of their own lack of skills, resources, or knowledge, our public schools should include both children and parents in programs that would offer the training and materials needed to enable parents to provide their children with educational opportunities similar to those of more advantaged families. In cases where the parents are absent or unwilling to get involved, for what- ever reason, we should allow children to attend school at any age.
This does not mean that we should force babies and toddlers to engage in “educational activities.” Compulsory learning is damaging to older students, it could be even more destructive with children under the age of five. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer foreign language lessons to children or make the opportunities commonly available to middle and upper-income children available to all children. We could offer story times with parents or teachers taking turns reading to children. We could provide playrooms with educational games and toys, especially for children whose parents cannot afford to provide books, games, and toys. If we could manage to offer parents and toddlers educational opportunities with- out damaging their natural love of learning by introducing elements of compulsion and control, we could give all of our children a “head start.”