Tips for Getting the Most Out of Preschool

child with building toys
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When selecting an early childhood program for a preschooler, parents have many options. Some programs are “academically rigorous.” Children sit at desks or tables and do worksheets. They “write” their names by tracing letters on lined paper. They are told to color inside the lines and use specific colors for certain items (green for grass, blue for sky, etc.). Children learn the alphabet and numbers by rote. Other programs are much freer – so free, in fact, that there appears to be no routine, guidance or organization. The classroom is noisy and chaotic. Adults demonstrate little attention to the children and their needs. A third option is the recent development of online preschool. Children sit in front of screens for long periods without in-person interaction with peers and adults.

Many early childhood educators like myself are opposed to all of these types of programs. We believe that children need to be with other children and adults, having hands-on, creative experiences with physical materials to develop language, motor and social-emotional skills that enable them to participate in a positive way in the world around them. They need teachers who patiently model how to talk with each other, how to care for classroom materials, how to ask for assistance and how to resolve conflict. After nearly 40 years as an early childhood educator, I have developed the following suggestions for finding a high-quality preschool in which your child can thrive.

An orderly and flexible daily routine

Children feel secure when they know what is expected from them and what activity is coming next, so a flexible daily routine is important. A good preschool will include both teacher-led activities (opening and closing “meetings,” circle times, literacy/story times) and child-directed activities (painting, building with blocks, solving puzzles).

A daily schedule may look like this:

  • Breakfast (nutrition, social interaction)
  • Morning meeting (language development, gathering song, greeting, sharing, weather report, reading a chart, planning for the day, learning a breathing strategy)
  • “Work” time (fine motor skill activities, language development, creativity, social interaction, problem-solving activities, literacy/numeracy activities – these activities may be done individually or in small groups with a teacher)
  • Literacy break (stories and related activities: language/vocabulary development, comprehension questions, sequencing events, acting out the story)
  • Outdoor/gross motor time (running, jumping, climbing, throwing/catching activities, riding bikes, group games, social interaction)
  • Lunch (nutrition, social interaction)
  • Rest time (quiet time/sleep)
  • Snack (nutrition, social interaction)
  • Outdoor/gross motor time
  • Closing meeting (review day, closing song)

Routines should be consistent, but flexible, with each component lasting as long as necessary. A morning meeting may take as few as 10 to 15 minutes or as long as 30 minutes. When major changes are needed (owing to a rainy day or a field trip, for example), children should be prepared in advance, as much as possible. Additional structure may be provided by individual cubby spaces clearly labeled with each child’s name and a job or helper chart assigning tasks.

Discipline as a teaching opportunity, rather than punishment

Children have very little experience in the ways of the world and how to interact with other people and classroom materials. They are curious and will test limits. The job of the teacher is to be consistent about expectations and patient when boundaries are challenged.

Having strategies in place and opportunities to practice them regularly will help children handle challenging situations. Pictures can be posted to remind children what to do when they feel overwhelmed, and they can learn breathing strategies to help them calm down. Through role play, they can learn how to stand up for themselves in situations such as name calling (“That’s not my name. My name is _____”) or taking turns (“I’m using the cooking spoon right now. You can have it when I’m done.” “Can I have that marker when you’re finished?”).

When children make mistakes, teachers should reassure them that it’s OK and they will have another opportunity to try again. A motto for the classroom may be “Practice makes progress.” The more opportunities children have to practice handling difficult situations, the better and more independently they will be able to resolve them.

A variety of classroom activities that teach through creativity and play

An early childhood classroom should include several well-defined areas equipped with appropriate materials for a range of activities. These may include: painting (easels, newsprint, paints, paintbrushes); art (play dough, rolling pins, scissors, paste, crayons, markers); books (about seasons, friendship, feelings); blocks (including small vehicles and figures representing various ethnicities); dramatic play (clothes and accessories, toy telephones, kitchen items, baby dolls); writing (paper, dry erase boards, “magna-doodles,” pencils, crayons, markers, alphabet and numeral charts); puzzles and games (sorting and counting activities); listening (audiobooks and listening games); science area (magnifiers, kaleidoscopes, magnets, “feely bags,” “smelling boxes”); computer (literacy games on the alphabet, letter sounds, rhyming; numeracy games on counting, numeral recognition, sorting, patterning).

Children often prefer a favorite area to work in. Teachers should be observant and encourage children to try different work areas in the classroom so that they can learn from a variety of materials and experiences. For example, name cards or a “word wall” in the literacy area will help children learn to recognize their own name and those of their classmates, making the connection that what they hear can be seen and written. In the computer area, children can learn to take turns using the mouse while working together to solve literacy or numeracy problems. When they pretend to be a mommy or daddy in the dramatic play area, they are coping with, and learning to feel secure about, their parent leaving them at school and returning for them later in the day. Perhaps the child is adjusting to a new baby in the family and needs reassurance that he or she is still loved and can learn how to be involved with caring for the baby. Acting out familiar routines gives insight to the teachers so they can address issues with the child and family. It also gives the child confidence in his or her ability to cope with different situations. Props should be rotated throughout the year so that children can role play community workers like doctors, nurses, veterinarians, chefs, police officers, firefighters and construction workers.

One of the most important features of an early childhood classroom is a “cool down/chill out” area, a quiet spot where children can go when they feel overwhelmed. Pictures illustrating “calm-down” strategies and emotions are posted, books are available and squeeze items to relieve tension are on hand. Children know that this is a safe place to go when they need time to “get away from it all.”

The early childhood years are a unique time of growth and development. Children are learning how to be self-sufficient and independent. They are constantly refining gross and fine motor skills. They are increasing their vocabulary and figuring out how to express themselves. They are watching and listening. As parents and teachers, we are encouraging them along the way and challenging them to reach the next level. Finding a high-quality early childhood program that best meets the needs of your child is an important step in the process.