Preschool No Longer Optional

Preschool-ClassOK parents, it’s that time. Your little ball of sticky, hyper-joy is almost ready for preschool. Yet here you are, clueless of what to do next to get your darling into the right place. Are they ready? Will they be OK? Are they old enough for school? Should you even bother with preschool or early learning centers? The answer, from many early childhood development experts, is “YES TO ALL!”

At one time, preschool was considered optional. Many kids went, and many did not, and no one really knew the difference, but now we do. It has been found that early learning is incredibly important for a child’s social and cognitive well-being.

In the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, researchers found that adults at age 40 who were placed in preschool as children had “higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to have graduated from high school than adults who were not given early childhood education. The same study even shows a marked improvement in marital longevity.

Karen Madsen-Barton of Sundborn Children’s House said, “We now know that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are imperative for creating a strong foundation.” According to her, early learning is so important to a child’s development that it should not be controversial. “Our goal should be to allow all children access to early learning environments,” she said.

Contrary to popular belief, preschool and early learning are not all about getting a child ready for kindergarten in the academic sense. Sure, they may learn some basic math skills, colors, shapes, and letters, but they will learn more important social skills by being in an early learning environment, things they would struggle to learn at home.

Self-regulation is a big one according to Madsen-Barton, and is developed in three ways: being given choices, being independent, and using concentration. These skills are easier to learn in the presence of children their own age, and around adults specifically trained to facilitate the learning of that skill.

Joni Darden, head of the Early Learning Center at Zion Lutheran School, agreed on the importance of early education. She said of children’s experience in early learning, “Children begin building relationships with people outside the family, a great skill for the school years. They learn to transition more readily, and how to persevere.”

Even the National Institute for Early Education Research had suggested that all children benefit from preschool programs, regardless of socio-economic status.

So now that you know you should want your children in an early education environment, how do you choose? Which one is right for your little blossom? Luckily, we’ve got your one-stop guide to preschool hunting.

First, Madsen-Barton and Darden both agree that parents should trust their intuition when choosing a place for their child. Madsen-Barton said, “Parents are a child’s first teachers,” meaning you know your child the best and you know how they learn. Darden added that the way a center feels to you is important. Is it welcoming and relaxing? Do you want to stay and play?

Most preschools begin registering for fall the spring before, so you want to start looking early. Darden suggested touring the facility, as well as researching to find out if it has a good reputation in the community. Make sure the teachers have the training and credentials that will provide a meaningful experience.

Visiting a class in session is important, too. “A good teacher talks with children, asking lots of questions and patiently answering theirs. There should be a buzz, a bit of chaos, indicating the children are engaged and learning,” Darden advised.

Madsen-Barton also commented that parents should focus on what their child needs from an environment instead of finding a place that only fits their needs as parents. For example, some children will learn more and will gain more skills from an all-day program than a three-hour one, so parents of those children should choose an all-day school, even if their schedule only needs three hours.

Finally, academics should be an everyday experience, but teachers should not necessarily be using worksheets according to Darden. “Numbers and letters, plants and animals, are part of our world. Meaningful cooking experiences, calendar time, counting time, and following directions are learning activities, too.” She added that children should be able to explore long-term projects to learn perseverance.

Choosing a preschool, as daunting as it seems, really isn’t rocket science. Just choose a place you would want to be, with good teachers and an exciting environment. You want your child to love being there, because kids who love going to school and seeing their teachers want to do well there, too.

By Kyra Blank