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Bribing toddlers can be counter-productive, according to Vanessa. Instead, the 28-year-old coaches her young charges how to play together – for $450 an hour. After all, play dates are no trivial matter. They can decide a child’s future.
Vanessa, who declines to give her last name, is one of a new breed of play date experts that help children prepare for admission to New York’s elite kindergartens. As part of the admission process to these schools that charge up to $40,000 a year, four-year-olds must attend a playgroup where they are tested by teachers for academic ability and their social and emotional IQ.
Play date experts set up situations to see how children respond and then make suggestions for improvement. For example, if everyone has to write down his or her name but there are not enough pencils, they must wait their turn.
These New York children take a test at the age of four. The ERB – named after the Educational Records Bureau which administers it – determines if a child can get into the best private schools, such as Trinity which includes Lachlan Murdoch and Ivanka Trump among its alumni.
The exam lasts between 45 minutes and an hour, and evaluates vocabulary, ability to perform fine motor skills and simple maths. There is also an interview with the parents.
Suzanne Rheault, chief executive of Aristotle Circle, which began offering play date experts three years ago, says that some schools “have a 5 per cent acceptance rate, below Harvard at 6.9 per cent. It’s like a bloodbath getting into these schools.”
Parents are desperate for advice to help their children get into the schools that are seen as a ticket to an Ivy League university. “There’s a perfect storm – a lot of money, a lot of immigrants with a focus on education [and] a lot of educated parents keen on getting their child into the best school,” she says. “Parents are shameless – they want it so badly.”
Aristotle Circle, the company that employs Vanessa and was co-founded by Ms Rheault in 2008, sells an ERB preparation workbook with sample test questions in it such as “Apples and oranges are both . . . ”. Children get two points for “fruit”, one for “sweet things I eat” and none for “yummy”.
The bulk of its business is providing tutors at $350 an hour, who prepare children for the tests, and admissions experts for parents desperate for information. But demand for play date instruction is increasing.
Neither Sara, Aristotle Circle’s most sought-after expert, nor Vanessa wants to be identified publicly. Both are cautious about breaching clients’ confidentiality. But they are also nervous about the public’s perception of the work they do.
Ms Rheault says that people have been scornful of parents who buy their services, criticising them for outsourcing their duties and putting too much pressure on young children.
Vanessa defends her clients. “These parents want to give their child the best advantage. Most of these families have been to the best colleges and want the same for [their offspring]. The children are learning and having fun. We do everything with games.”
Both concede, however, that a typical outcome of a mock play date is putting mothers and fathers at ease. As Vanessa puts it: “It demystifies the process for parents and lets them relax.”
By day, Vanessa is an occupational therapist, which means that she is sought after by parents who want their child to work on fine motor skills or attention difficulties. Sara, who is studying for a PhD in child psychology, is often asked to help provide “enrichment”, reading, comprehension or mathematics.
As Ms Rheault puts it, the hope is “the child will move up to advanced reading group at school. The enrichment market is growing leaps and bounds. Tutors are no longer just for kids who need support.”
Ms Rheault was inspired by her own experiences to introduce playgroup services. In 2007, while still an analyst at Morgan Stanley, she was trying to get her three-and-a-half year-old daughter into a very competitive school. “I told my daughter to make sure she shares with the teacher all that she knows . . . not to be too shy . . . and to please speak up so the teacher would be able to hear her.”
When the children sat down, the teacher posed the first question: she had five teddy bears, and took away two, how many were left? “Three,” said Ms Rheault’s daughter. So far so good – until she answered all the questions directed at the group. “We did not get in but I learned that even good advice can backfire when interpreted by a three or four year old.”
Play date experts may also flag up family scenes parents might not want their child to draw in their admission test. “One child,” notes Ms Rheault, “drew a picture of her mother with a cigarette in her hand. It might be mom’s one guilty pleasure but to the school, it might look like the parents are bad to be around.”
They are also careful to spot traits that might be interpreted by a school as an indication that a child is on the autism spectrum. “So many of these things, like walking on tiptoes or not making eye contact, are normal but if 20 other children are fighting for a place, the school will go for the easiest option,” says Ms Rheault.
After assessing the child’s play, the experts write a report alerting parents to problem areas and suggest exercises to practise at home. With so much resting on a play date, Vanessa is careful how she frames her verdict. “I always start by noting the child’s areas of strengths. These are young children and performance and behaviour can vary day to day,” she says.
Though occasionally, Ms Rheault adds, a play date might show a parent that an elite school is not suitable for their child. ”Sometimes you have to reset a parent’s expectation. George might be bouncing off the walls.”
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