How do high-quality preschools benefit children’s learning and development? And what features should parents look for in a preschool program?
One answer to these questions is that the staff at high-quality preschools and child care programs understand the particular ways that young children develop and learn. And they organize space, time and activities to be in sync with children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical abilities.
Young children learn social skills and emotional self-control in “real time.” Three- and 4-year-olds learn through their experiences and good teachers make time for those “teachable moments” when they can help children learn to manage frustrations or anger. They don’t automatically step in to resolve children’s conflicts for them; they have a well-honed sense of when to let children work out their own problems and when to intervene. Without shaming a child, they encourage her to notice the impact of her aggressive or hurtful behavior on another child.
Teachers appeal to a young child’s desire day
to engage in “real work” by offering him chances to help out in the classroom, for example, by setting the table at snack time or feeding the classroom hamster. Children are expected to wash their hands before snack time, keep personal belongings in their “cubby,” and put away toys before moving to a new activity.
Preschool-age children’s language skills are nurtured in a “language-rich” environment. Between the ages of 3 and 5, a child’s vocabulary grows from 900 to 2,500 words, and her sentences become longer and more complex. In a conversational manner, and without dominating the discussion, teachers help children stretch their language skills by asking thought-provoking questions and introducing new vocabulary during science, art, snack time, and other activities. Children have many opportunities to sing, talk about favorite read-aloud books, and act out stories.
A young child’s cognitive skills are strengthened by engaging in a wide range of hands-on activities that challenge her to observe closely, ask questions, test her ideas or solve a problem. To nurture their curiosity and motivation to learn, teachers use children’s interests and ideas to create activities. And even a simple, chance event – such as a child’s discovery of a snail in the outdoor play area — can be turned into an exciting opportunity to learn.
Preschool-age children have active imaginations and learn through make-believe play. Teachers know that the line between reality and fantasy is often not clear to a young child. Sometimes this results in fears of monsters under the bed. But imagination also fuels learning. The imaginary play area in a high-quality preschool is well-stocked with costumes, “props,” and child-size household items such as stoves, sinks and cupboards. It’s often in this activity area that preschool-age children progress steadily from solitary play, to one-on-one play, to complicated group play.
Young children show growing interest in pre-math and pre-literacy skills. To prepare children for the academic demands of kindergarten, teachers offer a wide variety of games and activities that help children acquire the pre- math and literacy skills.
Engaging children in a discussion about an exciting read-aloud story encourages their listening, comprehension, and expressive language skills. Playing with magnetic alphabet letters may inspire a child to ask a teacher to help her write the first letter of her name.
Matching games, sorting games, counting games, and board games build children’s understanding of number, categories and sequence, which supports later math learning. Putting together puzzles encourages children to notice patterns, plan ahead and problem-solve.
To sustain children’s excitement and motivation for learning, high-quality preschool and child care programs introduce early literacy and math skills not as isolated exercises, but in the context of activities that are interesting and meaningful to children.
Physical coordination improves, allowing the child to explore her environment — and to challenge herself-in new ways. Young children are in motion for a good part of the day. High-quality preschool programs provide several opportunities daily for children to run, climb, and play active games. Activities are offered to help children develop fine motor skills, such as threading beads or cutting with scissors. And children are challenged through a variety of activities to build their hand-eye coordination and balance.
Fortunately, in selecting a preschool, parents aren’t forced to choose between protecting a child’s play time and making sure she’s ready for kindergarten. A high-quality early childhood education program will offer children both.