With full-day kindergarten available, or in the works, in most public school systems across the country, parents have more choice than ever about where to launch their young children's education.
Do they opt for public school, which is free? Or do they invest several thousand dollars for all the private school extras – instruction in a second, or even third, language (such as Spanish or Mandarin), dance class, technology labs, science lessons that involve three- and four-year-olds growing and cooking their own vegetables?
Embracing the philosophy that early childhood education has lasting benefits, Ontario public schools now offer full-day junior and senior kindergarten. British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Northwest Territories have full-day senior kindergarten. Some Nova Scotia schools also offer full-day JK classes and Northwest Territories plans to phase in full-day kindergarten for four-year-olds over the next three years.
Independent school administrators say this has not much affected them – there are so many other reasons that parents opt for private school, including getting a coveted placement for their children as early as possible.
Some private schools that had not previously offered full-day schooling at the junior kindergarten level now do so in response to parental demand, although many others were well ahead of the public system with full-day early childhood education. For instance, Bayview Glen School, a university preparatory private school in Toronto, has full-day preschool classes for children as young as 2. French lessons start at 3.
It's the enriched curriculum and teaching methods that draw parents who want their children nurtured – while academically challenged – from the outset, say parents at Toronto's Havergal College.
On a recent visit, the junior kindergarten girls – clad in smart green tunics, co-ordinated knee socks slipping down their tiny legs – were found deeply engrossed.
One had created "a new pink" by mixing lighter and darker watercolour paints. A young girl named Sara was sorting small plastic discs and other shapes into various containers – labelling her work, in an impressive attempt at spelling, on sticky notes.
Teacher Katie Tranter encouraged Sara to guess which letters made the sounds of the words she wanted to put on one of her labels ("little circles") and later invited Sara to "share her learning" with the other children.
Just a few weeks into full-day kindergarten, these little girls were already active participants in their own education. The children choose from a number of "inquiry centres" designed to provoke a sense of wonder and experimentation as they play with the various materials – rocks, feathers, sand, building blocks, scarves, art supplies and plastic shapes such as the ones Sara has categorized and sorted.
The two teachers in the JK room circulated among the girls, asking questions and encouraging discussion, artfully weaving literacy and mathematics into whatever projects the children have engaged in.
Lily's mother, Jordane Frankel, had researched several schools – visiting her top choices two, sometimes three times – before choosing Havergal for her daughters. (Lily's sister Ella is in Grade One.)
"They are both very different, so I needed to know it wasn't a place where a child had to fit into a box. I wanted a place where there is so much offered to them that they will inevitably find something that speaks to them." Starting in JK, Havergal girls have the opportunity to explore French, music, dance, health and physical education, and technology with specialist teachers in those fields.
"I didn't set out directly for Havergal or single-sex. I was really open-minded about everything when I first went out on my search, so I started to go to all the open houses.
"I looked at my local public school, I toured it twice, it was fabulous," said Ms. Frankel, who has taken time out from her career as a Grade One teacher in the public system to get her daughters launched.
"While the public system academically seemed great and had a lot to offer, I just thought there were so many more opportunities for them at Havergal. And I really like the idea of smaller class sizes all the way through, not just in kindergarten, but all the way through [to Grade 12]. They really get to know every child and, as an educator and a mom, I think it's really important that they cater to each child's needs and strengths and areas of weakness," she said. "We were lucky enough to be able to provide these opportunities for our girls."
Canadian parents have a lot of choice when it comes to private kindergarten options.
Montessori schools, trailblazers in the field of early childhood education and child-centered learning, typically offer multi-age groupings (with three- to six-year-old boys and girls learning and working together). The children work at their own levels, which can vary depending on the subject matter, and build a solid academic foundation by mastering each level before moving on to the next, say proponents of the Montessori approach. Tuition fees can range from less than $8,000 a year for half-days to $20,000 a year for full days.
Waldorf schools are similar to Montessori schools in terms of focusing on the "whole child" rather than just the Three Rs, but Waldorf programs are more teacher-directed in the early years, in the belief that "a strong and consistent rhythm … contributes directly to a child's physical, emotional and intellectual well-being and development."
For instance, a sample day in the kindergarten program at Toronto's Waldorf Academy would include a morning language arts circle involving classic fairy tales, folk legends, poetry, nature stories and creative movement, followed by a practical daily activity such as baking bread. There is still plenty of time blocked out for free play – and nap time, if needed, according to the academy's website. (The annual fees are $11,585 for half-day kindergarten, and $15,690 for full days.)
West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, which has offered full-day senior kindergarten for more than a decade, will introduce full-day JK in the fall of 2015, in response to parental demand, says Ciara Corcoran, principal of the co-ed academy's junior school. In addition to activities aimed at strengthening literacy and numeracy skills, the kindergarten children are offered specialist classes in French and a third language (Spanish or Mandarin), art and digital citizenship.
Community service is also a key element of the program, Ms. Corcoran says. "We teach the children that even though they are little, they have a voice, they have great ideas and they can learn how to help out in the world." (The full-day kindergarten fee for the 2014-2015 academic year was $15,900.)
There are always more applicants than there are spaces at West Point Grey Academy, Ms. Cocoran said. The aim, in the early years, is to instill a joy of learning and build a solid foundation. And as more parents become aware of the benefits of early childhood education, "they want to enter school from the beginning of the journey – we are a JK-to-Grade 12 school."
In Toronto, Havergal parent Marianna Pink said her daughter Emma was the smallest and youngest child in the school when she entered junior kindergarten last year. (Emma was a Dec. 19 baby.) "She was three, she was incredibly shy and she has transformed into a perfectly confident, outspoken and compassionate little girl. What more could you ask for?"
Now in senior kindergarten, Emma "is inquisitive, she questions the world around her, the desire to learn is there," said Ms. Pink, who hopes her 2½-year-old daughter will follow Emma to Havergal.
"I think a lot of people who consider independent schools are looking to prepare their children for post-secondary education. We wanted Emma to be in a school that was strong and challenging with the academics but, because she was just three, compassionate educators and a nurturing environment were really, really important to us [as well]," Ms. Pink said.
"We have reflected on what is developmentally appropriate and best practice for early learners and, at Havergal, we draw from play-based learning inquiry, where we nurture the questions of our students and allow those questions to guide the content of our program," said Laura Logaridis, one of Emma's senior kindergarten teachers this year. (There are 14 children in JK, 18 in SK and two teachers in each classroom.)
Every summer, Ms. Logaridis and Ms. Tranter conduct a heavily-attended two-day professional development workshop called Powerful Play: Inquiry-based Learning in the Early Years. Many of the participants are from public school boards, with many provinces now offering, or planning to offer, a play-based, full-day kindergarten option.
"We really place value on giving our students choice and honouring them as capable beings," Ms. Logaridis says. "When they engage in play and exploration, we give them time and space to explore the materials. Of course, we are active participants in that play, where we are listening for opportunities for us to engage and provoke with thoughtful questions," Ms. Logaridis said.
"It's not a one-size fits all program," adds Ms. Tranter. "We are honouring each child where she is, we are constantly tracking her development and nurturing her in moving forward to where we know she needs to go, and where she can go."
Parents receive weekly reports on what their daughters have learned. Fees for day students at the 22-acre campus were $28,600 in the 2014-2015 academic year.
"I think the hope for everyone who enrolls their daughter so young is that they will stay on for the long haul, because it is such a great place and the opportunities only become greater as they get older," Ms. Frankel said.
"When you have chosen the right school, you don't worry about anything. You just know that they are going to get where they need to go with the right support and everything is going to fall into place."