Mia Ibanez is fascinated by the science table at her preschool. The 4-year-old from Santa Rosa, California, hangs out by the butterfly cage, where caterpillars are forming chrysalises. She's also learning how seeds grow into plants. "The other day she brought home a Ziploc with moist cotton and lima bean seeds," says Mia's mom, Sharon. "She checks each day to see if they're growing."
Mia's experience is typical of preschool education today -- hands-on, stimulating, and engaging, it's about more than naps and snacktime. Here's a look at what your child will likely experience this fall.
Preschools have evolved dramatically from the nursery school you might remember. "The biggest, most exciting change is that we better understand what 3- and 4-year-olds are capable of," says Jerlean Daniel, PhD, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in Washington, D.C. That means earlier introductions to math and reading but also a focus on how young children really learn.
Most schools balance child- and teacher-initiated activities. "In the best-case scenario, kids come to own the information," says Daniel. For instance, you can drill a child on the alphabet for hours -- but if he connects letters to his life experience, the proverbial light bulb goes on. "He might say, 'I learn J because it's in my name, Jacob,'" says Daniel. "Then he sees that the same letter is in Johnny's name."
A typical preschool day still includes the classics: circle time, sharing, and free play. But kids are just as likely to come home talking about seeing marine animals or baking pita bread as they are playing follow-the-leader. Preschools also offer hands-on math and science activities, Spanish lessons, and computer time.
It's not about drilling a set of facts into kids. Essentially, it means that children are introduced to concepts in a fun, engaging way, using all five senses to learn. Abby Carr was pleasantly surprised when she enrolled her daughter, 3-year-old Lila Jane, in a three-days-a-week preschool last year. "The focus is on learning through games, music, movement, art projects, and nature studies," says the New York City mom. "She has not once come home talking about reading, writing, or math -- although I know she's being introduced to those concepts."
Even in the past 10 years, there have been arguments in the early childhood teaching community about "academics versus play," says Jim Greenman, senior vice president of education and programs at Bright Horizons Family Solutions, which operates 600 preschools in the United States, Canada, and Europe. "The trend swings back and forth," he says. "But lately the consensus is that the right approach is a blended one." To the outsider, preschool learning often looks like play, notes Mary Zurn, PhD, vice president of early childhood education at Primrose Schools, which operates 150 preschools across America. But teachers assign an underlying purpose to even the most mundane tasks. "If children are tearing up pieces of confetti for a craft, for instance, they're working on their fine motor skills. When they sit down and scribble on a piece of paper, they're really practicing 'emergent writing' -- recognizing that marks on paper mean something, even if they don't know what they are."
That's not to say that preschool teachers are actively teaching kids to read and write; they're merely laying the groundwork for more advanced skills, says Zurn. "Preschools introduce phonemic awareness and sound-letter recognition, the understanding that each letter makes its own sound," she says. "By the time they go to kindergarten, they recognize their written names and the letters of the alphabet, and they are already associating sounds with them."
The adjustment to kindergarten is usually easier for kids who've had a good preschool experience, Zurn adds. "Not only do these children do better academically, but they already know how to follow directions, share, and take turns. Most important, they have a positive attitude toward school."
Some of the most valuable lessons of early education go beyond the ABCs. "There is so much group learning going on -- what does it mean to be a friend? To share? To take turns?" says Daniel. Fine-tuning social skills will help a child do well throughout school. For your child to get the most out of preschool, it's important for you to get on board -- no flash cards required. Nikki Manning looks for ways to reinforce preschool concepts with her 3-year-old daughter, McKenzie. "When we do laundry together, we count the clothes that go into the washer and the ones that come out of the dryer," says the Columbia, South Carolina, mom.
Most teachers welcome e-mail or phone calls; some schools even offer reports in addition to parent-teacher conferences. And, of course, parent volunteers are usually welcome for field trips and activities. "McKenzie's teachers asked us to help her make a family tree," says Manning. "She colored the tree and drew pictures of us; we talked about our family and what was important to us." Not surprisingly, the project turned out to be a priceless memory -- like all the best preschool moments.
Watch out for preschools that stress a hard-core approach to learning, says Jim Greenman, senior vice president of education and programs at Bright Horizons Family Solutions, which operates more than 600 preschools. Children who are pushed into too rigid an environment can become burned out -- or overly compliant. "In previous generations, lots of learning occurred during unsupervised play," he says. More than anything, preschoolers need one-on-one time with parents, during which the child takes the lead. "Hang out in the park, look at flowers -- have open-ended conversations," says Greenman. "That's where the best learning takes place."
Charlotte Latvala, a mom of three, is a writer in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2007.