By age 3, a child’s brain is 80 percent developed, researchers say. It’s 90 percent developed by age 5.

Institutions outside of the home are increasingly viewed, and funded, as the best developers of young minds, although studies show the few early learning gains of institutionalized preschoolers fade out within the first few years of entering school.

As of the 2011-2012 school year, 28 percent of U.S. four-year olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

As experts debate preschool’s effectiveness and the Obama administration aims to increase large-scale programs, some forget the well-documented importance of parent involvement to education outcomes.

Some organizations focus exclusively on family-centered approaches to educating young children, while many private, half-day preschools focus on developmental skills parents can reinforce at home.

New initiatives such as Save the Children, Too Small to Fail, and a plethora of free, online resources  encourage parents of preschoolers to educate their children in simple, engaging ways that carry no price tag.

A Solution in Search of Crisis
“The trends we’ve seen for decades now are that the vast majority of American preschoolers are already in regular childcare arrangements,” said Vicki Alger, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and mother of four.

By kindergarten, nearly two-thirds of American children already have experienced some form of regular childcare, and the numbers are increasing. Forty states fund preschool programs, and thirty increased funding to preschool in 2013, according to the Education Commission on the States. Universal government preschool has been an Obama administration platform.

But is it necessary?

“Too much institutionalization too early can be harmful to little children,” said Eunie Smith, Eagle Forum’s Alabama state president. “That is why Eagle Forum supports parents deciding what is best for their own children.”

“In my opinion, this is a solution in search of a crisis,” Alger said.

Training Parents to Teach
Parents can accomplish so much, and oftentimes lack the confidence or resources, not the ability, to teach their children, Alger said.

Too Small to Fail, a new Clinton Foundation initiative, recently began pushing for more positive parenting messages.

Poverty-stricken families are most vulnerable in this regard; 16 million U.S. children live below the federal poverty line and typically enter kindergarten well behind their peers. According to global advocacy and volunteer organization Save the Children, four-year-olds from low-income families are often 18-months behind other 4-year olds developmentally.

“These kids may not know how to hold a book; they can’t concentrate or take instruction,” said Tanya Weinberg, spokeswoman for the Clinton Foundation.

“Parents are their children’s first teacher,” Weinberg said. “Parents generally want the best for their children but don’t know how to give it to them. Many weren’t read to as children or grew up in homes without books.”

Save the Children arranges home visits for families, where families learn how to read to young children.  Simple, stimulating play and communication with parents and friends can increase children’s learning and preparedness for school.

Four of five 3-year-olds in Save the Children’s home visit program scored at or above the normal range for vocabulary acquisition.  Children participating in STC’s Early Steps program average as many or more risk factors than those enrolled in Head Start, the federal preschool program. But while Head Start graduates score far below the national mean on vocabulary tests, children enrolled in Early Steps for at least one year score comfortably mid-range.

“Hands-on activities that helped them to learn a concept, opportunities for playing and learning social skills, how they should react in different situations—that can all be done in the home,” said Joy Berish, a preschool teacher at a faith-based, half-day preschool in Hoover, Alabama. “My kids learned a lot at a young age. I would say the alphabet in the car with them, talk to them constantly, and when I read to my children I would sit and [discuss] what was going on in each picture.”

Federal Funding, Daycare v. Preschool
According to data collected by NIEER, state spending has risen to $5.12 billion on pre-K programs. Quality control is still a work in progress, with many “preschool”-labeled programs employing staff with similar credentials to daycare workers.

“A clearer delineation between day-care and early-childhood education would be useful,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “The Preschool Juggernaut.”

At least a third of Berish’s students would leave if given a government-sponsored “free” option, which vastly diminishes the reach of private and faith-based programs, Berish said.

“Childcare and education need to be kept separate, from our limited government perspective we need to make that distinction,” Alger said.

Further, Alger said, it’s not fair to families for government to preference institutional childcare over keeping children at home or in private care, which often provides better bonding between adults and children and features low caregiver-to-child ratios.

 “Some organizations…forget the fact that a lot of families make sacrifices to keep a spouse or family member at home,” Alger said. “A lot of government initiatives take away options because they force subsidized care. The preferences of parents must prevail, and what we’ve seen time and again over the decades is that once the government sector expands, parents choices diminish.”