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Are Naps for Pre-Schoolers a Luxury?

Ohanian Comment: It is difficult to comment on this degree of child abuse. It is difficult even to quote from it--so many abominations are uttered. Pre-schoolers don't have time for naps because they have master seven skills, from writing their names to memorizing words in a sentence to matching words that rhyme. They are tested each fall and spring to track their progress.

After lunch and snacks, alphabet and story times, the lights go off. Sixteen tiny bodies sprawl on a sea of red foam mats, the sounds of classical piano coaxing them to sleep.

And there they stay, tucked under Spider-Man and Powerpuff Girls blankets, until teacher Chantay Wynn switches on the lights 45 minutes later. "Come on, get up," Wynn chides 4-year-old Steven Dieu, lifting him from his mat. "Open your eyes."

It's a daily ritual for the pre-kindergarten students at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School in Arlington, as it is at countless schools across the country. But in the increasingly urgent world of public education, is it a luxury that 4-year-olds no longer can afford?

By asking that question, a few leaders of Washington area school systems have begun to challenge one of the pillars of the early school experience: afternoon naps.

"Nap time needs to go away," Prince George's County schools chief André J. Hornsby said during a recent meeting with Maryland legislators. "We need to get rid of all the baby school stuff they used to do."

Hornsby wants to convert his pre-kindergarten classes into a full-day program. If he secures the funding to begin that next fall, there will be no mats or cots allowed, he said. In Anne Arundel County, where full-day pre-kindergarten is in place, Superintendent Eric J. Smith also has opted not to build nap time into the schedule.

Educators including Hornsby and Smith find themselves under growing pressure to make school more rigorous -- even in the earliest grades -- in the belief that children who are behind academically by age 6 or 7 have a difficult time catching up. "The time is very precious," Smith said. "When they come into first grade or kindergarten for the first time, they learn within a few weeks of the school experience that they're not as capable, and that's a burden that is extremely damaging."

Critics of eliminating school naps say the reality is that many 4-year-olds don't get enough sleep at home. There are piano lessons, soccer practices and other scheduled activities during the day, and many kids stay up past their bedtime because their parents come home late from work and want to talk or play.

"Kids are often kind of overscheduled even as toddlers, even as preschoolers," said Kenneth A. Haller, assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

"We are a sleep-deprived society," agreed Stephen H. Sheldon, director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Typical 4- and 5-year-olds need 10 to 12 hours of sleep, and if they don't get that at night they will likely fall asleep during the day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The amount of sleep a school-age child needs decreases each year, and the need for naps diminishes after age 3, pediatricians say.

Most evenings, Adrian Moreno tries to get his son, David, to fall asleep by 9 p.m. The goal is to wake David at 7 a.m. to get him ready for pre-kindergarten at Hoffman-Boston, where administrators continue to support naps. But David, who recently turned 5, has a 3-year-old sister, and the two often keep each other awake playing games until 10 p.m. or so, Moreno said.

It's no wonder that on a recent rainy day, David was fast asleep soon after Wynn switched off the classroom lights.

"I think they need to sleep a bit," Moreno said. "They're small. They have to rest their minds."

Nia Baker, 4, wakes up around 6:30 every morning to get ready for day care and later spends almost three hours in pre-kindergarten at Seabrook Elementary School in Prince George's, said her mother, Aisha Baker. Then she goes back to day care until 6 p.m., when Baker, a single mother and a cashier at a D.C. restaurant, picks her up.

The rest of Nia's evening usually goes like this: She eats dinner, reviews what she learned in school for about 20 minutes, plays a little, then watches TV for 10 minutes. Bedtime is 7:30 p.m.

"You get tired," Nia said, reflecting on her schedule.

Nia gets a 30-minute nap at day care, which her mother appreciates. "They need a break to take a nap and get rejuvenated," Baker said.

But support of naps is hardly unanimous.

"Do all 4-year-olds need nap time? The answer is certainly no," said Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Texas and author of the book "Baby 411."

Smith, who came to Anne Arundel County in July 2002 from Charlotte, is a firm believer that pre-kindergarten students don't need naps. His teachers and principals urge parents to make sure the children get enough sleep at home. In place of nap time is "quiet learning time," during which students look at books or play with puzzles, said Barbara Griffith, coordinator of the county's early childhood programs.

If they do fall asleep, the teacher doesn't wake them. But the message is clear: "This is not a child-care program. It's an educational program," Griffith said.

In effect, kindergarten is becoming more like first grade, teachers say, which makes preschool more like the kindergarten of yesteryear. "When I was in preschool, I remember learning socialization skills," Wynn said. "By the time they get to kindergarten, they have to hit the ground running."

Wynn followed a recent "quiet time" -- what many schools now call any break in the school day -- with a rhyming drill. By the end of pre-kindergarten, Wynn's students have to master seven skills, from writing their names to memorizing words in a sentence to matching words that rhyme. She tests them each fall and spring to track their progress.

Zahava Johnson teaches two pre-kindergarten classes at Seabrook Elementary, each almost three hours long, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Johnson said her students stop paying attention to her lessons after 15 minutes. So she offers an occasional respite with fun activities, like singing a song about trains.

If she teaches a full-day class next year, she said, she wants the students to take a nap. Or at least take a break from the learning. "This is an introduction to school, and to have them work like a 6-year-old, I don't think that's going to work," she said.

Seabrook Principal Marvel Smith is more supportive of Hornsby's move to eliminate naps. "They can't be babied," she said. "These are young minds. We have to take advantage of this early stage when they grasp everything."

— Nancy Trejos
Washington Post
Time May Be Up for Naps in Pre-K Class





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