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When my children were newborns and I was spending a lot of time watching television while nursing, I saw a program with pediatrician extraordinaire T. Berry Brazelton in which he repeatedly stuck out his tongue at an infant on camera. The point of the exercise was that the infant responded to the doctor in kind. My own children did the same. I stuck out my tongue, they stuck out their tongues. The conclusion was inescapable: Babies are nowhere near as stupid as they look.

Since then, scientific research has compellingly reinforced this notion. Children, it turns out, begin learning at an astonishingly early age, even in those months when they appear to be doing little more than poking themselves in the eye. Toddlers are constantly seeking out new stimulus and information, their brains working away at a rate that is to an adult mind what a race car is to a lawn tractor. What kids learn between infancy and the time they begin kindergarten is, most scientists believe, the bedrock for all the rest of their intellectual development.

Which makes the need for a system of universal voluntary preschool in this country undeniable.

There is strong empirical evidence for the benefits of existing high-level programs that provide play and stimulation for toddlers and infants. One of the best known of these, the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, did a follow-up study of young adults who'd been enrolled as babies and found reading scores, school retention and employment rates significantly higher than among their peers.

And a study of grown graduates of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in Michigan discovered that their risk of getting in trouble with the law was significantly less than that of kids who had not been in the program. This last may have contributed to the formation of the strange-bedfellows coalition of the year. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an alliance of researchers, doctors and police chiefs ranging from Brazelton to former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, is rallying behind early-childhood education as "one of our most powerful weapons against crime."

Many of the most highly touted, government-funded preschool programs are aimed at poor children, whose parents are assumed unable, unwilling or unavailable to give them the stimulus to get their tiny synapses moving. But the notion that middle-class mothers spend their day in a joyful succession of teachable moments is just a fairy tale. Many of them are at work, leaving their kids in centers that range from good to barely adequate, or with unlicensed and untrained caregivers who, ironically, may be the very same poor women whose own children are seen as in need of special intervention.

Even mothers who stay home have a hard time keeping things lively. A lot of toddlers are in front of the TV, a lot of moms burned out.

Some of the opposition to preschool has to do with a reasonable fear of flash cards and film strips, a terror of putting pressure-cooker kids under ever greater pressure at an ever more tender age. And certainly some has to do with a sub rosa view of the role of women, of motherhood as martyrdom, the same view that leads to disapproval of middle-class moms who leave their kids to go to work (as well as disapproval of poor moms who won't).

But there are good models to allay those fears and trump all those outmoded archetypes. For more than a century the French have had a national voluntary "ecole maternelle," a low-key learning and play program for children between the ages of 2 and 6 that virtually every family uses. It is the educational equivalent of well-baby health care, a long-view approach not only to teaching kids but to building citizens.

By contrast, our national attitude is reminiscent of those people who get their health care on an emergency basis at the hospital, expensive and at the wrong end of the continuum: Head Start is underfunded, and prisons do a booming business. This is shortsighted stupidity.

Maybe early-childhood programs raise subsequent reading scores, and maybe they don't. Maybe they cut down on crime, and maybe they don't. Maybe making them available will result in a future work force of imagination and increased intelligence. Or maybe these programs will simply make life more interesting for children and easier for parents, which is a considerable affirmative good.

We have learned that children are teachable at a very young age. How teachable the policy makers are is now the critical issue.

Universal Press Syndicate

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