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Which Type of Preschool is Best for You?

Toddler Girl Reading in Mom's Lap

Q. Will my 2-year-old get anything out of a toddler program? When I observed one class, the toddlers didn't seem to be interacting much.

A. Actually, that's just what you should see, because toddlers mostly engage in solo or parallel play, says Janis Strasser, PhD, associate professor of early childhood education at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. "Even though children may not be playing with other children, they are watching, listening, and modeling what they see and hear. We call this 'scaffolding.' For instance, a child may watch another child rock a baby doll in the dramatic play area, and the next day that child may pick up a doll and try pretend play herself." So there's more going on than what you may see on the surface.

Expect to see some kids playing by themselves, or wandering around the classroom, finding things that interest them. Toddlers should also have lots of opportunities to engage their senses, with water, sand, Play-Doh, and paint. And you should see the teacher interacting with the kids, but look for more lap time -- one teacher reading to two or three kids -- and less circle time. Each child should also get some one-on-one attention from a teacher, so look for a low teacher-child ratio (1 to 5 is good).

Q. My 3-year-old goes to a home daycare while we work, and she's happy there. But I keep wondering whether we should enroll her in a school or a larger center to give her more of a preschool experience.

A. It really depends on the program, says Amy Flynn, director of the Family Center at Bank Street College of Education in New York City. "If your child has a loving provider who's committed to doing age-appropriate activities with the kids, that's probably fine." It's helpful if the program has other preschool-age children there for your daughter to practice taking turns and sharing with. The home should also have the same kinds of simple materials -- blocks, costumes, art supplies -- you'd see in a preschool classroom.

But as you suspect, sending your daughter to a preschool or daycare center will give her some experience with being part of a larger group, which in turn will help her prepare for kindergarten. As a compromise, if it's practical, you might consider sending your child to a preschool program in the mornings, then back to her home daycare in the afternoons.

Q. In our town, there are two popular preschools. One is more academic than the other. If I send my daughter to the academic one, will she have an edge when she's older?

A. Earlier isn't necessarily better when it comes to academics. That's because mastering phonics or learning to subtract at age 3 or 4 doesn't translate into later school success, says Lilian Katz, PhD, professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois. In fact, "too much early experience in work sheets, drills, or flash cards may backfire later," she says.

Researchers think that gaining social competence -- learning how to cooperate, solve problems, and think about other people -- is what really makes a difference later on. Playing and working together on projects with other kids is the best way to build these crucial social skills. Any "academic" learning in the classroom should be integrated into the daily routine ("let's count four crackers for a snack") or have some personal connection ("there are five 'J' names in our class"). Adds Strasser: "Parents should be worrying about whether their kids are doing enough creative play at preschool, not whether they're doing daily work sheets."

Q. What if we decide not to send our child to preschool at all, and keep her at home until she's 5? Will she be at a huge disadvantage when she attends kindergarten?

A. Surprise -- early-childhood experts say that preschool isn't absolutely necessary, and any disadvantage your daughter encounters would probably be short-lived. For instance, she'd probably need help in adjusting to daily school routines; she might also need more time than others to get used to being in a group and taking turns with materials. "But even without preschool, many children can master the fundamentals of kindergarten life in a short period of time," Katz says, as long as they're supported by teachers and parents. Of course, this assumes that during the preschool years you read and play with your child every day, that she plays regularly with other children, and that she occasionally spends time away from you with a sitter or relative. Play dates at other kids' houses would also be helpful.

Still, although your child won't suffer if she doesn't go, there are definite benefits to attending preschool. A child gains important social and emotional skills, says Wendy Masi, PhD, dean of the Mailman Segal Institute at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. She'll learn to feel safe and comfortable away from home. She'll learn to be part of a group, to take turns and follow routines, and to make friends and work out conflicts. A good preschool will also encourage your child to pursue her own interests, whether it's writing her name or learning more about the natural world. By the time your child starts kindergarten, she'll have all those skills under her belt.

Q. How are Montessori programs different from other preschools?

A. The main difference is that in a Montessori classroom, your child is part of a group of 3- to 6-year-olds, and stays with the same teachers for two or three years. The aim is to form family-like communities in which children choose activities at their own pace, and older kids gain confidence by helping teach younger ones, says Mimi Basso, director of school consultation and accreditation at the American Montessori Society (AMS). Classes tend to be on the large side, often with two teachers and 20 children. Like many other preschools, Montessori classes have circle time, but kids spend more time working independently or in small groups.

A Montessori classroom also looks a little different: It's divided into distinct sections that reflect the Montessori curriculum. One area emphasizes practical skills, like pouring water or threading laces. The sensory learning area features objects like graduated blocks, bells, and spheres; as kids play with them, they pick up concepts like big and small, loud and soft, and so on. Other sections of the room may be devoted to art, language, math, and music, all with hands-on materials for kids to explore. Montessori preschoolers often learn to read, write, and do simple math, but since children only choose activities they're interested in, a child who's not ready for reading or math isn't forced to try it.

However, keep in mind that Montessori schools -- and there are more than 3,000 in the U.S. -- are as different from one another as they are similar, so it's important for you to visit and get a feel for the individual school, just as you would with any other preschool. When you visit, ask about accreditation; three national groups offer it. A school affiliated with AMS, for instance, will have teachers who've completed a 300-hour course of training and a yearlong internship.

Sarah Crow, a mother of three, lives in Concord, New Hampshire.

Copyright © Meredith Corporation. Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2004.