The moment has arrived. Your little baby has sprouted wings and is ready to leave the nest – at least for a few hours. Preschool looms on the horizon.
So how important is this? It turns out, very. Those crayons and pipe cleaners may look innocent enough, but how and where they're introduced can have long-reaching ramifications.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, preschool plays a large role in later academic success. "Children in high quality preschools display better language, cognitive, and social skills than children who attended low quality programs." They have longer attention spans, stronger social abilities, and better language and math skills well into their elementary school careers. In fact, 20 or 30 odd years after they've put down their wooden blocks and stepped away from the sand table, they're still reaping the benefits – they're more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to hold high paying jobs, even more likely to own their own house.
While most schools offer some amount of circle time and fingerpaint, they are not all the same. Here's how to sort through the preschool mumbo jumbo, and pick the right place for your child.
What to Consider
- Credentials. Currently, only Georgia and Oklahoma offer free preschool to all the kids in their state. Most preschools are privately run. That means they make their own rules. Make sure the schools you are considering employ teachers that have earned early childhood education degrees. Ask if the school itself is accredited. For more information, go to www.naeyc.org, the website for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
- Hours. There's a difference between day care and preschool. Day care often offers more hours for kids of working parents, in a less scheduled environment. Preschool programs tend to be shorter, and more structured. Decide your needs and look for a program that correlates.
- Discipline. We all hope to raise perfect angels, but let's get real – a major part of young development is testing boundaries. Ask how the school deals with behavior such as hitting or biting. Ask how they deal with conflict – do they believe children should work things out themselves? Do they believe in "time outs"? It's important that you agree with a school's disciplinary approach and trust their judgement – small children have a hard time with mixed messages.
- Nutrition. One of the great things about preschool is that children are positively influenced by their peers – they may not touch fruit at home, but if everyone else is eating apples, they might be coerced to try them. Of course, they may also be negatively influenced. Does the school provide lunch and/or snacks or will you pack them from home? If they supply the goods, ask what they serve. Pretzels and cheese cubes, or cookies and milk? Don't choose a school with a teacher who loves to bake if you don't want your kids eating sweets. If your child has food allergies, make sure they can ensure their safety.
- Look at the Art. A picture is worth a thousand words, so look at what's hanging on the walls. Does everything look the same? Is all the crayon within the lines? Some schools emphasize facts: "Trees are green." Others encourage imagination: "Interesting. I've never seen a baby growing on a tree before!"
- Visiting. Does the school have an open door policy? Can parents visit at any time, or are there set days for observation?
- Safety. How does the school ensure student safety? How do they keep track of pickups at the end of the day?
- Philosophy. More brain development occurs in the first five years of life than at any point thereafter. Educators have different views and approaches, even as early as the preschool years. Some schools are completely "play based," others have kids as young as three or four tracing numbers and letters to prepare them for kindergarten. It all comes down to learning style.