There is a simple answer to this complex question. No.
Children don’t need preschool to gain admission to kindergarten or to succeed in life. In fact, the wrong preschool experience could potentially set a child back by creating a negative perception of school, learning, and socializing. However the right preschool experience can give a child a headstart academically and socially over peers without preschool.
In order to make the right choice for your child you need to look at what a preschool program should do for children. Ideally, preschool should help integrate children socially so they learn about the rules and structures of society in general and school society in particular. In addition, preschool helps students begin a foundation of academic knowledge including literacy, numbers, and culture.
The actual content, focus, and structure of preschool programs varies widely from community to community (and often even within communities) but most programs achieve these two primary goals for students. However a parent can easily accomplish similar goals without the confines of a specific preschool program.
Obviously many families need to arrange some type of day care for the preschool age children and if this is the case then it often makes sense to combine day care and preschool. Children who regularly attend day care programs with other children are less likely to need the social aspects of a preschool education. They likely learned how to play with others, the rules of sharing, and how to follow instructions and other key social lessons. Similarly children who belong to a large family or live in a neighborhood where a group of children regularly interact need less social education than children who do not regularly interact with their peers. Parents can replicate these social situations by seeking out play groups and community activities.
It is fairly easy to create a home preschool program for children. There are packaged curriculums available for purchase, materials available from local libraries, and information available on the internet. You can choose a program created entirely by someone else or create your own individual program to suit you and your child. Some television programs even offer additional material on the internet to supplement programming that would be suitable for a homeschooling project.
A motivated parent can certainly create a quality preschool program for their child that exceeds the results of any professional program. It is simply important to keep in mind your primary goals. What do you want your child to learn? What skills do you want your child to master? Do you simply want to prepare your child for kindergarten or do you have more advanced goals in mind?
The right preschool program can definitely give children a head start on long-term educational success, but not all programs are created equal and sometimes even a wonderful preschool program isn’t right for certain children. Some children may benefit more from spending another year or two in a more nurturing atmosphere, such as home or a small day care. When making the preschool decision it is important to consider the individual child as well as the individual programs available. It is not a one-size-fits-all decision.