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Preschools Break From Nap Time

by Nancy Trejos, Washington Post, July 12, 2004

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, Va., 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, Md., schools chief Andri J. Hornsby said recently. “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 gets the money to begin that next fall, there will be no mats or cots allowed, he said. In Anne Arundel County, Md., 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.

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, N.C., 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.”