The rat race ' where the child is both prize and participant ' is getting younger and younger.
City schools are throwing open their nursery doors to students as young as two-and-a-half years, eating into playhouse turf.
With the pre-school industry raking in an estimated Rs 80 to 90 crore a year, stakes are high and big schools, with reputation and resources, are eyeing a piece of the toddler pie.
The playhouses, in turn, are promising parents they will prepare the tots, as young as one or two years, to face admission interview pressure.
A trend that will do children more harm than good, argue Montessori teachers and psychologists, who say one to two years is too tender an age for structured teaching.
The admission age has dipped over the past four years, since Class I admission age was fixed at five-plus instead of six-plus. Schools then began to set their own cut-off age for nursery admission.
So, St James' School takes kids at three-plus, while both La Martiniere and South Point open admission at two-and-a-half years.
At the same time, playhouses have sprouted across the city, where children are taught through play.
This, too, is detrimental, according to Montessori practitioners. 'Below the age of two, a child is in the stage of unconscious learning. To teach even through the play-way method is detrimental for overall growth,' says Sonali Majumdar of St Sebastian's High School.
Clinical psychologist Mahuya Ghosh explains why: 'Between the age of one and two years, a child learns through observation and imitation. Routine arrests independent mental growth. Even being sent to a playhouse regularly curbs freedom.'
A child who does not enjoy learning at this stage could lose interest later, warn experts. Margaret Neogi, who runs Mother's Care playhouse, agrees.
She turns away parents who approach the schools hoping for luck at admission time. 'It is not possible to teach anything to such a young child,' Neogi stresses.
Legislation is the only way to stop this practice, feels Pradipta Kanungo, headmistress, Patha Bhavan.
But the state government has not yet stepped in. 'We do not recognise any of these schools. They are running a private business,' points out Raghunath Mitra, chairman, district primary school education council.
Parents say they have no choice. Schools often expect children to know shapes, alphabets, numbers and how to differentiate between animals.
'Playhouses are essential to build confidence and develop aptitude, which makes a child better prepared to face interviews,' feels Soma Bagchi, whose child has made the grade from playschool to high school.