Donna developed an eye for fashion when she was just a toddler in day care. “She would actually say, ‘So-and-so has this skirt. Can I get it?”‘ says her mother, Christie Rickert of Locust Grove, Ga.
But since Ms. Rickert enrolled Donna, now 4, at ABC Montessori School in McDonough, Ga., where all the children wear uniforms, “we don’t have those kinds of conversations anymore,” she says. Putting on her white or navy polo shirt and navy or khaki shorts or skirts, just like all the other kids, “took the pressure off, of trying to belong.”
A growing number of preschools and child-care centers are requiring children to wear uniforms. Many parents like the ease of dressing children in uniforms and say it usually costs less than other clothing. Day-care directors say uniforms lend an atmosphere of professionalism, giving a sense of order and security.
At ABC Montessori, where Ms. Rickert’s daughter Donna is enrolled, Kimberly Morey, executive director, says having the children wear uniforms “eliminates distractions.
“Children come in comfortable and prepared to focus. They’re not worried about what their neighbor is wearing or what their mom didn’t let them wear today,” Ms. Morey says. Uniforms reinforce feeling part of a group for children, she says. Even in preschool, “if you put a blue shirt on a child, he or she knows ‘I’m getting ready for school.’ ”
Long used in many private and parochial schools, uniforms started showing up in public schools in the late 1980s, and are now used in 13.9% of public schools, federal data show. They’re also commonly found in schools in other countries, such as Japan and England.
While uniforms are still relatively new among the day-care and preschool set—children ages 2 to 6—apparel makers are working to meet the demand.
At Dayton, N.J.-based French Toast, sales of toddler uniforms doubled between 2008 and 2009 and rose another 30% last year, says Michael Arking, a vice president. At Classroom School Uniforms, preschool sales have risen to 9% of revenue since the company entered the preschool market five years ago, says Andy Beattie, a senior vice president of the parent company, Strategic Partners, Chatsworth, Calif. And preschool-uniform sales have doubled in the past five years at Rifle/Kaynee Schoolwear, Scranton, Pa., another big uniform manufacturer, says David Reif, president.
Janice Palmer, early-care administrator of Little People Child Development Center in Bear, Del., says she began considering requiring uniforms last year after two 4-year-olds began competing for her to admire their dresses. As one child begged her to “look at my new pretty dress and my sparkly shoes,” Ms. Palmer says, a classmate approached her and said, ” ‘Miss Janice, I have on a new dress today, too, and you didn’t tell me I was beautiful.’ All of a sudden they were comparing themselves with each other,” Ms. Palmer says. “I don’t want to hurt these children. I don’t want them to think I acknowledge one child over another.”
After discussing the issue with parents, she set a uniform policy last fall for all children 3 and over. “It has gone over so well that I have parents in the 2-year-old program who have gone out and purchased uniforms” voluntarily, Ms. Palmer says.
Four-year-old Aubrie Emmett, who lives with her grandmother, Madonna Malinowski, and attends Ms. Palmer’s center, used to take a long time each morning deciding which outfit to wear to school, Ms. Malinowski says. She often changed at lunchtime, using clothing Ms. Malinowski provided in case her clothes got dirty. “I asked the teacher, ‘Is she having an accident?’ and she said, ‘No, she just thinks she needs to change after lunch,’ ” Ms. Malinowski says.
Since the uniform policy went into effect last year, however, Aubrie has “more of an attitude that, ‘This isn’t playtime, this is school now,’ ” says Ms. Malinowski, of Delaware City, Del.
Ms. Rickert says her own mother objected at first to putting Donna in a uniform, telling her, “You need to let her express her own individuality” by choosing her clothing. Ms. Rickert says she encourages Donna to express herself in different ways, by choosing hairstyles such as pigtails or braids, and adding pink or purple hair clips and ribbons.
On the flip side, many preschools regard clothing as a way for small children to express their individuality and develop their personal identity. Mary Biggs, director of Basic Trust, a Manhattan day-care center for infants through age 5, says that for children, the process of negotiating what to wear helps children learn to make independent choices within limits set by adults. She says day-care providers should embrace that process as part of preschoolers’ education, rather than imposing on them uniform policies created for older kids. “The developmental issues are completely different,” Ms. Biggs says.
Clothing choices also can be a focal point for classroom conversation, says Virginia Casper, interim dean of the graduate school at Bank Street College of Education, New York. A teacher might say, “Look, George is wearing purple again! I think George really likes purple,” Dr. Casper says. “Not that you can’t say, ‘Look, we’re all wearing beige.’ ” But making one’s own individual clothing choices is “part of life, and we like classrooms for young children to parallel life as much as possible.”
However, Dr. Casper says the trend probably doesn’t do any harm, especially if parents want uniforms. She and other experts say that parents’ preferences should play a role in such policies.
Most child-care centers and preschool programs are free to implement their own dress codes.
Linda Hassan Anderson, senior director of the accreditation arm of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, D.C., the country’s largest preschool-accrediting organization, says she hasn’t seen any research on the possible benefits of uniforms for small children, and her group hasn’t taken a position on the issue.
For the 40 preschoolers at Wendell Phillips Elementary School, Kansas City, Mo., wearing the same navy polos or sweatshirts with khaki pants as required of elementary students “makes them feel a part of the school,” encouraging them to think of preschool as the beginning of their education, says Donna Brown, director of early childhood education. The uniforms also level the playing field for disadvantaged students, she says.