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Preschool Prep

Preparing for Preschool

Aimee Herring

It's no secret that attending preschool will prepare your child to succeed in kindergarten. But according to research, kids who attend a quality program also have higher reading and math scores a few years later and they even tend to make more money as adults. While it may seem early to begin thinking about preschool now, most parents start researching and planning a year or more in advance. Jenifer Wana, author of How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child, answers parents' most common pre-K queries.

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Preschool isn't considered formal education, so the definition is flexible. But it generally refers to the one to three years of schooling before kindergarten. Day care typically provides child care for infants and kids up to age 5. That said, if your kid is over 2 or 3 and is placed in a day-care classroom with other preschool-age kids and has a teacher who follows a set curriculum with structured learning activities, he's basically in preschool.

Although your kid will certainly do things like paint and sit in a circle for storytime, she'll also get practice in sharing, cooperating, resolving conflicts, and being independent. These social and emotional skills will help prepare her for kindergarten and life in general. In fact, according to a study of kindergarten teachers, 95 percent said that children who had attended preschool were better prepared socially and academically. Without looking at school records, they could tell which kids had been to preschool by the way they played with their peers, behaved in the classroom, and performed with pre-reading skills and math concepts.

Each preschool has a different admissions process and time line. If a school has a waiting list, you may be able to add your child as soon as he is born. Generally, you don't have to start looking until about a year before the September that your child would actually start school, typically around age 3 or 4. Some parents opt to start their kids at age 2; although there's no huge educational benefit to doing so, it sometimes makes it easier to get into a competitive program, rather than waiting another year and hoping for a spot to open.

One main difference between programs is how structured the curriculum is. Schools also differ in how much emphasis they place on building social and emotional skills versus academic skills, how teachers interact with students, and what kind of toys and materials are used.

The most popular approach in the U.S., known as "play-based" or "developmentally appropriate," assumes that kids learn best through play. Students in these programs generally choose their activities and learn at their own pace.

Another popular approach (found in Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia schools) is child-centered learning, where kids choose their activities based on their interests. Montessori schools aim to foster independence, encouraging kids to work independently using special toys for hands-on learning. Waldorf schools encourage imagination and emotional health through creative projects such as gardening or baking. In Reggio Emilia programs, teachers create projects based on the interests of the kids, in order to help them explore how to get answers and later reflect on what they learned.

Other programs include academic or "traditional" preschools, which are generally teacher-directed (students follow a set schedule of activities focused on pre-reading and pre-math skills) as well as religious preschools and parent-run co-ops. Remember, there's no "best" type of school; you want to find one that's a good match for your family's needs and values, and your child's personality.

Probably. Most people send their kids to a private preschool. Although most states have public pre-K programs, they're not always open to everyone. They might target low-income families or kids with disabilities. Some districts offer free preschool to all children, but hours and age cutoffs vary, and if there's a high demand for spots, children may be admitted through a lottery system.

Word of mouth! Talk to friends and other parents you meet at the playground. Some communities hold preschool fairs where you can meet different directors and learn about multiple programs at once. You can also learn more at savvysource.com, a nationwide preschool directory that includes parent reviews, as well as greatschools.org, which also provides information on elementary and secondary schools.

Don't expect to find desks in rows. Instead, there should be areas for different play activities, such as a reading nook, a puzzle table, and a make-believe corner. Look at what's hanging on the walls -- are there samples of the kids' artwork? You should see many pictures, but not all of them drawn the same way or with the same colors (when the children's artwork is original, it shows that the school encourages creativity). Decorations and supplies should be at a child's eye level and labeled with words in order to expose kids to letters and numbers. You should also ask about security procedures. If someone other than you is picking up your child, will the school check her ID and make sure she's on the list of authorized caregivers?

More important than class size is the teacher-to-student ratio. The fewer kids per adult, the more one-on-one attention your child will receive. The National Association for Education of Young Children recommends at least one teacher for every nine students for 2?- to 3-year-olds, and at least one teacher for every ten students for classrooms of 4-year-olds. It's typical for a class to have one head teacher and an assistant (or two).

Set up playdates with future classmates so he'll feel more comfortable socializing with other kids and being apart from you. Do storytime at the library or take a toddler class to get him used to classroom behavior, like focusing on a teacher, taking turns, and sharing. Your child will feel confident and independent if you teach him to be self-sufficient -- i.e., eating by himself, putting on his own jacket. Finally, boost your child's cognitive skills by pointing out letters, numbers, shapes, and colors, and by read?ing books to build up his vocabulary.

Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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