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Preschools: What are they for, and when should kids start?

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By Cecilia Matson, MA, Child Development and Parenting Specialist
Galoop – Child Development Classes for Babies and Toddlers and Expert Advice for Caregivers
Coolidge Corner, Brookline, MA
www.galoopclasses.com
facebook.com/GaloopClasses

 

Preschool and two-year-old programs are a hot topic among parents at my classes, so I wanted to weigh in. I’ll try and summarize my thoughts based on the latest research and my background in Child Development; I’ll also include a list of links to check out at the end of this post.

To start off: the studies show that early academic exposure does not correlate with later academic success, and it may generate more anxiety in kids. Young children – before and perhaps also after Kindergarten age – learn by playing, not by being taught math, reading, or writing.

According to Martha E. Mock, assistant professor at the University of Rochester Warner School of Education, “young children learn best through meaningful interaction with real materials and caring adults and their peers, not through the drilling of isolated skills.”

David Elkind says: “The importance of self-initiated play, particularly for young children, means that we need to give them the time and the open ended toys, like blocks, clay, and form boards that will give children the opportunity to create their own learning experiences. In many cases such learning provides the foundation for academic learning. A child building with blocks, for example, is learning both classifying (all blocks are made of wood) and seriating (blocks can be ordered by size). This play prepares children for learning cardinal (one, two, three) and ordinal (1st, 2nd, 3rd) numbers.”

That being said, a developmentally appropriate school environment that doesn’t focus on academics has other benefits: kids can engage in educational play and socialize with peers. Plus, Boston winters are long, and primary caregivers need a little time of their own to exercise, go to the store, do laundry, get organized, and more. While you’re doing those things, it’s good to know that your child is engaging in activities that are beneficial.

The bottom line: I personally believe that a child does not need preschool before age three, and you shouldn’t feel pressured into starting preschool early because your child would be “missing out” otherwise – it’s just not the case. The national push for Head Start programs mostly applies to children of impoverished households and kids with specific developmental needs, and if none of this applies to you, there is no real “need” for a formal school setting.

With that said, here are some of my tips for selecting the right preschool for you, based on what young children really need: they need to feel secure, to be nurtured, and to play!

  • Teachers: They should be caring and nurturing, and should LOVE spending their time with young kids. A teacher makes the school!
  • School environment: it should provide some structure and routine while allowing for free play and free choices. These are some examples of good choices: block/fine motor area, book area, art area, sensory table, dress up/pretend play area.
  • Outdoor time: Ideally, kids should be able to run around and explore outside every day regardless of the weather.
  • Go with your “gut” feel: when you go visit the school, you should love it pretty much right away. Don’t force yourself into liking it based on others’ opinions about the school. Never go against your instincts on this one. See how the children currently enrolled act: do they seem happy and engaged?
  • Distance: Huge benefit if it is close to home.

Hopefully now you’ve got a better idea of whether to enroll your child in a preschool, but of course you’ll want to do some more research on your own! Here are a few valuable resources I encourage you to check out.

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