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, we've answered your biggest
The Importance of Preschool
1. What's the difference
between childcare and preschool?
Childcare centers are generally an option for working parents who
need their children to be taken care of during the day; 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. Yet the terms 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. (To
learn more about high-quality childcare -- as well as preschool
programs -- log on to naccrra.org and download a free copy of
Is This the Right Place for My Child?)
2. How important is
"There's increasing evidence that children gain a lot from going
to preschool," says Parents advisor Kathleen McCartney, PhD, dean of
Harvard Graduate School of Education, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"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."
Statistics show that a majority of kids attend at least one year
of preschool: According to the National Institute for Early
Education Research (NIEER), more than two-thirds of 4-year-olds and
more than 40 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in a preschool in
2005. "Children who attend high-quality preschool enter kindergarten
with better pre-reading skills, richer vocabularies, and stronger
basic math skills than those who do not," says NIEER director W.
Steven Barnett, PhD.
"Every child should have some sort of group experience before he
starts kindergarten," says Amy Flynn, director of New York City's
Bank Street Family Center. Music and gymnastics classes are great,
but 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, who often stays in a music or gym
class. All of this makes for an easier transition to kindergarten.
"Kindergarten teachers will tell you that the students who are ready
to learn are those who come into school with good social and
behavior-management skills," Smith says.
In fact, educators have so recognized the importance of giving
kids some form of quality early education that about 40 states now
offer state-funded pre-K programs. “UPK”
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 Southwest Human Development's Arizona Institute for
Childhood Development, in Phoenix. "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
"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 -- storytime, 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. Keep in mind that 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 Flynn. An ideal curriculum? Parading around in dress-up
clothes, building forts, and being read to.
Choosing the Right Preschool
5. How old should my child
be when she starts?
Most preschools serve 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, and many kids
begin at age 4. (Some preschools will start accepting children at
around 2 1/2, but that doesn't mean your child will be ready when he
reaches that age.) You can choose from a part-time schedule or a
full-time one. Your choice will depend on your family's situation --
working moms might prefer five days a week -- and on your child's
Parents typically start investigating options about a year before
they want their children to attend. But if you live in a big city,
where competition for spots can be fierce, you'll want to start
applying even earlier and to more than one place.
6. How do I choose the right
Research, research, research. First, decide on location (close to
work or home?) and hours (half-day, two or three days a week,
full-time?). There are programs at private schools, daycare centers,
religious institutions (like synagogues and churches), state-funded
schools, and cooperatives run by parents. Start by asking for
recommendations from other moms. Next, check whether the schools are
state-licensed, which ensures the facility meets safety requirements
and has adequate staffing (visit naccrra.org). Many states exempt
religious-based preschools from all or some requirements -- although
many meet these standards anyway.
Call each school you're considering and ask about its fees,
admission policy, and curriculum. Once you've narrowed down your
choices, schedule visits. Most preschools run open houses during the
winter. Also, meet with the director and spend time in a classroom
to observe the teachers. Visit each school with your child and see
how she responds to the classroom, the teachers, and the activities.
7. What should I look for
during a visit?
Check out the basics: Is the facility clean and safe? Keep your
eye out for smoke detectors and first-aid kits. Is there a well-kept
outdoor play area? Are there plenty of art materials,
age-appropriate toys, and books? Are they in good condition? Is the
atmosphere friendly and fun? Student work should be displayed in the
hallways and around the classroom, hung at kid-level. "I tell
parents to pay special attention to the artwork on the walls," says
Dr. Barnett. "Would you be able to pick out your child's artwork? If
all the pictures look the same, then your child will learn to make a
bunny just like everyone else's. That's not really the goal."
The classroom should have a variety of activity areas -- a
reading place, an art station with materials on shelves that kids
can reach, a block corner, a puzzle area, and a place for naps.
Children should not all be doing the same thing at the same time;
they should be playing with toys or other kids but still well
Finally, do you feel comfortable? "You want to be confident that
once you drop off your child, he'll be happy and well taken care
of," says Mark Ginsberg, PhD, NAEYC executive director.
8. What makes a good
Find out about the teachers' training and credentials. Ideally,
head teachers should have a minimum of an associate's degree and
formal training in early-childhood education. "Research shows that
teachers with college degrees and specialized early-childhood
training have more positive interactions with children, provide
richer language experiences, and are less detached," says Dr.
Barnett. Also, consider teacher-child ratios. According to NAEYC
standards, there should be at least one teacher for every eight to
ten 4- and 5-year-olds, and one adult for every six 2- and
3-year-olds. Low child-teacher ratios are very important, since they
allow teachers to give ample attention to everyone, notes Dr.
McCartney. Talk to the teachers about how they work with the kids.
"Look for teachers who recognize the particular needs of different
children, and who know how to adapt a curriculum for those who are
ahead as well as for those who need additional help," she says.
Visit a class while it's going on. A good teacher talks with
children, asking a lot of questions and patiently answering theirs.
She makes kids feel welcome and fosters their self-confidence. Talk
with the teacher about a typical day, and ways in which she'll keep
you informed about your child's progress. If she's responsive to
your questions and you're happy with her answers and her classroom
style, you've found a good fit.
When you meet with the school's director, ask about the
Does my child need to be toilet-trained? Many preschools require
that a child be out of diapers.
How are parents involved in the school? A good sign is an active
parent association that plans programs like family picnics, holiday
parties, and parent socials. You might want to talk to other parents
-- the preschool should give you names.
How will the teacher let me know about my child's progress?
Parents should be kept informed with newsletters, e-mails, and
regular parent-teacher conferences.
What do you do when two children are fighting? It's crucial that
you agree with the school's discipline policy.
What's the daily routine? You want your child to have a sense of
predictability each day -- circle time, snack, reading.