Amherst Magazine

The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics

By David L. Kirp ’65. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. 352 pp. $26.95 hardcover.

Review by Catherine Sanderson

As a mother of three (ages 9, 6 and 3), I was particularly eager to read David Kirp’s The Sandbox Investment. Like many working parents, my husband and I have spent a considerable sum on preschool for our kids and have, at times, wondered about the merits of this investment: is my 3-year-old daughter really benefiting from the weekly Spanish lessons taught in her preschool? (Certainly the answer to this is “No,” if we expect that she could actually communicate with any Spanish-speaking person.) Kirp makes a compelling case—both through summarizing empirical research and by describing daily life in preschools—that high-quality preschool matters a great deal for all children, and indeed for all adults.

The Sandbox Investment begins as a review of preschool education in the United States today—the good and the bad. With vivid use of real-world examples, Kirp describes the high-quality learning that takes place in those public and private preschools that share particular characteristics: well-trained teachers, small classes, involved parents, adequate resources. These preschools provide opportunities to explore ideas, engage in fantasy play and experience “guided discovery” (in which children learn to solve problems on their own). Children exposed to this type of learning arrive at kindergarten an average of four to six months ahead in their reading and math skills, compared to those who stay at home, and also feel more positively about themselves.

On the other hand, Kirp points out, “a 4-year-old doesn’t gain anything from attending a pre-kindergarten where untrained instructors, obliged to manage large classes, driven by the narrow objectives of No Child Left Behind, substitute skill-and-drill for thinking.” Unfortunately, in many preschools, children spend large amounts of time eating, standing in line and even watching television. We all know the factors that lead to poor-quality preschool: underpaid (and underqualified) teachers, crowded classrooms and a lack of financial resources.

One of the most important—and, frankly, unusual—aspects of The Sandbox Investment is its thorough basis in empirical research. Kirp describes in detail cutting-edge studies across disciplines that provide strong support for the benefits of early education. He includes research by economists showing that the long-term benefits of early education for emotional and cognitive development far outweigh the costs. The book introduces research by neuroscientists on the benefits of early education for brain development. It includes psychology research showing that low-income children who receive a high-quality preschool education are less likely to end up in jail and more likely to earn a college degree.

Kirp explains that preschool education should matter to us all—parents and non-parents alike—because paying for universal preschool now can decrease the costs associated with unemployment, crime and emergency-room visits later on. Kirp writes with warmth and humor (he describes ex-North Carolina Gov. James Hunt as “Bill Clinton without the zipper problem”) as he addresses the very real political pressures involved in bringing about universal, high-quality preschool. He rightly commends certain politicians for supporting this fundamental issue, including Britain’s Tony Blair, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas and Zell Miller, former U.S. senator and Georgia governor.

This book makes a compelling case that Americans (from both red and blue states) should rally around an idea that the research strongly suggests: that universal, high-quality preschool education is the best investment in the future we can make. Kirp can count me as one of his activists.  

Sanderson, who chairs the psychology department at Amherst, is the author of Slow and Steady Parenting.