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Your Preschool Questions, Answered

Your child may be at a disadvantage if he hasn't had any school experience before kindergarten. "In 1960, only 10 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in any type of classroom," says W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D., director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "But now nearly half of 3-year-olds and 70 percent of 4-year-olds are in some kind of program." Although this trend may reflect the rise in working moms, it's mostly due to the recognition that preschool provides a strong foundation for learning. That's not to say that a child from a loving home who has stimulation and social opportunities won't do well. But preschool teaches kids to be independent, to share, and to follow directions -- crucial skills for kindergarten.

You may be surprised by how many options there are -- and how different they can be. For example, Montessori schools have mixed-age classes in which 3- to 5-year-olds play independently. Waldorf schools foster creativity, using activities such as baking, gardening, and pretend play. There are religious preschools, programs at private schools or day-care centers, and cooperatives run by parents. In addition, many states now provide free programs for low-income families. Some states, including Georgia and Oklahoma, offer public pre-K classes for all 4-year-olds. To find out what's available in your area, talk to your friends, neighbors, pediatrician, and employer; inquire at your place of worship, community center, and local school.

No. However, "studies show that children who are enrolled in programs with clear goals and carefully considered lesson plans are better prepared for school," says Suzanne Donovan, Ph.D., of the National Research Council. But avoid programs that limit spontaneity, individual differences, or special interests among kids, because children who are encouraged to make choices during the day have been found to have lower stress levels than those in very structured preschools. "They're less dependent on adult approval and more willing to try challenging tasks," says Diane Trister Dodge, author of Preschool for Parents.

Most preschools hold open houses in October and November and take applications from November to February. Start investigating programs the September before you want your child to attend. For many parents, this is when their child is 2. But if yours will turn 3 between August and December, you may need to wait a year. Or look at programs for 2 1/2-year-olds.

Small class size and low child-teacher ratios are very important. "This allows teachers to meet children's individual needs," says Parents adviser Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It also helps kids make friends more easily. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends classes of no more than 14 for 2 1/2- to 3-year-olds and 20 for 3- to 5-year-olds. And there should be at least one adult looking after every seven 2 1/2- to 3-year-olds or ten 3- to 5-year-olds. The classroom should also be well equipped with play materials that the children can reach easily. Of course, safety and cleanliness are crucial too. Make sure the staff is trained in first aid and that there are fenced outdoor play spaces. Ask how often toys and equipment are cleaned, and if kids are encouraged to wash their hands during the day.

Look for warm, enthusiastic teachers who are well trained and dedicated. The NIEER recommends that all preschool teachers have a bachelor's degree in early-childhood education. However, most states don't require teacher training for preschool accreditation, and only half of preschool teachers have a college degree. So you may have to consider experience and reputation too. Other good signs: programs that encourage teachers to seek ongoing professional training and have low teacher turnover.

Good programs expose kids to academics through play, movement, and exploration. For example, teachers use storytime to build vocabulary and snacktime to practice counting. But this shouldn't be the sole focus, because preschoolers also need to hone social, emotional, and physical skills.

Preschool schedules range from two half days to five full days (with structured activities in the morning and free play in the afternoon). What's best for your child depends primarily on his temperament and current schedule. Some children have an easier time adjusting when they attend five half days per week, because their schedule is consistent, Dr. McCartney notes. However, kids who are particularly shy or clingy may be better off in a two- or three-day-a-week program at first.

Before you visit a preschool, call and ask these questions.

  • What are the schedule options?
  • What is the tuition?
  • How old are children when they enter your school?
  • What is the cutoff date for new students?
  • Do you have openings for next September?
  • How many children are in each class?
  • How many adults supervise each class?
  • What are the qualifications of the teachers?
  • What training does the director have?
  • Is the program licensed or accredited?

If a program meets your basic needs, ask about the enrollment process and schedule a time to visit. You should meet the director, take a tour, and spend an hour or two in a classroom. Try to revisit your top choices before making the final pick.

Copyright © 2004 Meredith Corporation. Reprinted with permission from the October 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.