I recently went in for a check-up. Since I am new to the area, I was meeting a new Dr. She asked me what I did for a living; I told her I was a preschool teacher. She then asked me a question that surprised me (coming from a doctor): “How important do you think preschool really is? My daughter goes to daycare, and I’m not sure if I really need to put her in preschool or not.” It wasn’t the first time I had been asked this question. I asked her if there were other children at her daycare, what kind of group experiences she was getting, and what kind of learning they were doing there.
Preschool isn’t just a place where kids go to play. Yes, play IS an important part of the daily schedule. Research shows that young children learn best through play. Classroom activities are intentionally planned in order to maximize learning. Another post will be coming on that soon.
Following, you will find some of the key reasons preschool is helpful for young children. If your child attends a child care setting that offers these experiences, and you feel they will be ready for kindergarten, great. If not, you may want to consider putting your 3-4 year old in some sort of preschool program. There are many different programs out there. Some preschools are 2 days a week for just a couple hours, some are 4 days or even every day for extended hours. You need to choose what will best meet the needs of your child.
Many children have little interaction with other children. Their exposure to other children may be limited to siblings or other relatives, small groups such as the church nursery, random children at the park, or the McDonald’s playland. Children who do not have regular exposure to children their age, may not know how to act appropriately in a social setting. At preschool, we spend a lot of time teaching children appropriate ways to play with other children, how to enter a group, to wait their turn, to give others turns, and other such skills. We teach children in a variety of ways, including stories, role playing, using puppets, looking at pictures of different situations and talking about them, and most importantly, giving them the actual words to say to get what they want. The exposure to a variety of children and to learn appropriate interaction is one of the main goals of preschool.
Freedom to Explore
One of my favorite things, is to watch children explore all the different activities in the classroom. It is amazing to me how many children are not allowed to paint, play with play dough, or engage in other messy activities at home. We offer these types of experiences every day!
We have a sensory table, where children can explore a variety of materials. Another favorite area is the science table with fun objects/experiments to try. I love watching children walk around the room with magnifying glasses “checking things out.” We offer children opportunities to explore the different things in our room at their pace. They can “play” in an area until they are done, and move on to the next area.
We don’t worry about the messes. It’s part of what we do. That said, we also teach children, through demonstration and setting expectations of appropriate play in each area. When we teach them how to use the scissors, they are less likely to cut things they shouldn’t (like their hair). When we teach them to keep the noodles or sand in the table, they are less likely to fling it all over. Granted, they are still children. They are going to make mistakes. We then teach them ways to fix their mistakes (sweep up the noodles on the floor, redirect them to another area if they are having a hard time, or whatever seems appropriate).
Having Directed Focus
One thing that is very hard for children entering school, is having to sit still for a period of time. They may also find it difficult to listen to a teacher, with so many other things to look at/distract them. In the 3 year old classes, our group times are shorter, and include more action. We encourage children to sit “criss-cross applesauce”, but that’s not always easy for their little legs. As long as they have their feet in front, and not in a “W shape”, I am ok with that. I one had a pediatrician tell me how bad it is for children to sit with their knees in front of them, with their legs bent behind them (W Shape). He said it’s very hard on their growing hips and knees.
As the year goes on, our group times get longer. As the 4 and 5 year olds are getting closer to kindergarten, we have slightly more rigid expectations for sitting and listening. I have a flip chart made with boardmaker symbols, that I wear on a lanyard during group time. The symbols I use include: a child sitting crisscross, the “shh” symbol, eyes with an arrow pointing (I say “eyes on the teacher” when I show it), an ear with a hand cupped behind it (“turn on your listening ears”), a stop sign, and a raised hand. It’s a great tool, as I can simply flip to the one that needs attention and hold it up. The children know what each one means, and usually respond right away.
Small group experiences
While much of the learning in the classroom is somewhat self-directed as children explore and practice skills, we also have small group time included in our daily schedule. This is an opportunity for children to work on more specific skills with some teacher direction or guidance. Skills we plan for and work on during these times include: cutting, counting, sorting, writing, working together to put together a floor puzzle, rolling a dice and moving accordingly on a board game, etc.
As you can see, preschool has many important elements that prepare a child for kindergarten. Through practice of social skills, freedom to explore the many areas of a classroom, setting expectations for group time, and small group experiences, we help children to be ready for the demands that will be made on them as they enter the academic school setting.