Why Preschool Matters
Childhood experts agree: Attending a high-quality program prepares kids for kindergarten and beyond. But finding the best option for your child takes time and research. To get you started, here are answers to some important questions.
1. What’s the difference between childcare and preschool?
Childcare centers provide an important option for working parents who need their children to be taken care of during the day. Some centers accept babies as well as toddlers and are full-time, full-year programs.
Preschool refers to an early-childhood educational class for 3- and 4-year-olds. Many offer a part-time schedule (for example, a few hours a day, two to five times a week) as well as full-day care, but only from September to May. The terms childcare and preschool are often used interchangeably. A childcare center with experienced, well-trained teachers and stimulating activities offers kids similar advantages to a preschool. “In fact, many preschools are part of childcare programs,” says Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies.
2. How important is preschool?
“There’s increasing evidence that children gain a lot from going to preschool,” says Kathleen McCartney, PhD, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“At preschool, they become exposed to numbers, letters, and shapes. And, more important, they learn how to socialize — get along with other children, share, contribute to circle time.”
W. Steven Barnett, PhD, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), reports that, compared to other kids who start kindergarten, children who attended high-quality preschool have
- Better pre-reading skills
- Richer vocabularies
- Stronger basic math skills
What preschools do that less formal classes don’t is teach kids how to be students. Your child will learn how to raise her hand, take turns, and share the teacher’s attention. What’s more, she’ll learn how to separate from Mommy. All of this makes for an easier transition to kindergarten.
3. What will my child learn?
In addition to strengthening socialization skills — how to compromise, be respectful of others, and problem-solve — preschool provides a place where your child can gain a sense of self, explore, play with her peers, and build confidence.
“Kids in preschool discover that they are capable and can do things for themselves — from small tasks like pouring their own juice and helping set snack tables to tackling bigger issues like making decisions about how to spend their free time,” says Angela Capone, PhD, senior program manager at the Arizona Institute for Childhood Development.
“Plus, 4- and 5-year-olds have begun asking some wonderful questions about the world around them — what happens to the water after the rain? Do birds play? Quality preschools help children find answers through exploration, experimentation, and conversation.”
4. But what about learning the ABCs?
“Young children can certainly learn letters and numbers, but to sit kids down and ‘teach’ them is the wrong way to do it,” says Smith. “They learn best through doing the kinds of activities they find interesting — story time, talking to their teachers about stars, playing with blocks.”
To help kids learn language and strengthen pre-reading skills, for instance, teachers might play rhyming games and let kids tell stories.
For small children, school is all about having fun and acquiring social skills, not achieving academic milestones. “Kids need to be imaginative and to socialize — that’s what fosters creative, well-rounded people. It’s not whether they can read by age 4 or multiply by 5,” says Amy Flynn, director of New York City’s Bank Street Family Center.
An ideal curriculum? Parading around in dress-up clothes, building forts, and being read to.