Preschool: Choosing a Place to Grow

Park Lane ECC students experience daily hands-on learning.

Oklahoma parents are fortunate to have fully funded, voluntary 4-year-old preschool for every child. While many parents choose this route, others may choose private preschools or none at all. What do children gain from early learning, and how do parents know that their child’s school is developmentally appropriate for young children? Armed with knowledge, parents can make confident choices and be important partners in their children’s early education.

According to Dr. Anita Ede, professor of Early Childhood Education at Northeastern State University Broken Arrow, locating a good preschool is essential for ensuring that children are provided with a solid educational introduction that will positively impact their future experience in school.

“Attending preschool is important now more than ever because by the time they get to kindergarten, the expectations are so great—things have really sped up,” Ede said.

Although Ede personally is an advocate of play-based learning and does not support the ever-increasing academic demands that are being placed on an age group that is still learning self-help skills, how to share, and how to be empathetic toward others, she believes that high quality, developmentally appropriate pre-K programs are important because they encourage a love of learning in children that continues well beyond kindergarten.

Some of the knowledge that children acquire through preschool and pre-K programs include writing their first name, recognizing and writing letters, knowing letter sounds, and recognizing, writing and counting numerals 1-10.

Ideally, Ede said, “It’s going to be a gentle learning that they will receive through playing, listening to good literature and playing in centers.”

Three-year-olds also have much to gain from preschool programs that prioritize this type of learning experience. Because many children in this age group are still adjusting to being away from home, Ede says that parents may want to consider starting out with half-day programs or just a few days a week.

In addition to academics, developmentally appropriate preschool and pre-K programs provide young learners with life skills that will benefit them for years to come. As they interact and socialize with their peers and teachers, preschoolers develop the ability to share, show empathy and cooperate with others. They also are exposed to the idea that other people may see the world differently than they do.

At Broken Arrow Public Schools’ Park Lane Early Childhood Center, which serves 4- and 5-year-olds in pre-K and kindergarten, helping children learn to effectively and harmoniously interact with others is a goal that all teachers take very seriously.

Daily rituals such as signing in make students feel secure and independent at Broken Arrow Public Schools’ Park Lane Early Childhood Center.

As Park Lane’s principal, Dr. Barbara Jones, explained, “Social-emotional learning is a top priority for 4- and 5-year-olds. We focus on helping our students learn to work together by using daily rituals to build classroom community, model empathy, recognize feelings and teach them how to manage their emotions. We use class meetings and make class books to discuss issues and reinforce skills.”

Jones also said that teachers recognize that early childhood teaching and learning truly begins with helping children not only to develop positive social skills, but also to develop self-awareness and emotional self-control skills.

“We have learned through research and experience that until a child learns to manage their emotions, it is difficult for them to learn much content,” Jones said. “Our focus at the beginning of the year is building relationships and helping children learn how to regulate their emotions.”

In addition, Ede notes that preschool is sometimes a child’s first experience being away from familiar family members or individuals who typically care for them. With the guidance of their teachers, children learn how to take care of themselves by doing things that often are done for them, such as opening milk cartons, cleaning up after meals, and pulling up and down their own pants after using the restroom. At this age, mastering simple tasks, such as using a tissue, represents a shift toward independence.

“Being able to blow one’s own nose is a big deal in preschool,” Ede said. “Up until now, Mom has always been there ready with a tissue in hand.”

Academics and nose blowing aside, Ede explains that finding a good preschool is essential to establishing the foundation for a positive school experience.

“The primary job of any preschool teacher is to enhance children’s disposition toward learning,” Ede said. “You want them to enjoy coming to class. If a program is developmentally inappropriate, children will not enjoy coming to school. It is an unhappy place. This turns into a permanent negative disposition toward school that carries on as they get older.”

On the other hand, a positive and enriching preschool experience will result in children who are eager to go to school, learn and interact with others.

Choosing a Preschool

So how can parents choose the best preschool for their child and what should they look for in the available programs they consider? Although this decision can be daunting, especially to first-time parents, Ede reminds parents that if they know what to look for, finding a good match for their child should not be an overly stressful or complicated process.

When deciding on a preschool, it is important not to rely solely on word of mouth or information gleaned from websites. Ede recommends that parents visit potential preschools while they are in session, plan to meet with the director and teacher, and observe a classroom. This approach enables parents to ask questions and form opinions of the facility and the faculty while determining if the program will provide a developmentally appropriate and engaging curriculum.

#1. Teacher Certification

First, according to Ede, there is one factor that precedes the others in laying the foundation for a solid preschool program.

“The number one thing that you’re going to look for is your teacher certification,” she said. “When you have teachers that have no early childhood education at all, they will not know how to spot developmental problems, and this is important because teachers are often the first to notice these.”

Often, the preschool years are the time when children are first identified as needing glasses or hearing aids, having autism, or as needing additional support of some kind. Receiving necessary support as early as possible is crucial for ensuring children are able to thrive in school and in life.

Ede also notes that certified teachers are more knowledgeable about proper discipline for 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as what expectations and activities are developmentally appropriate.

“When teachers are not early childhood certified, they do not know how to handle behavioral problems and discipline,” she said. “They also are more likely to use discipline methods that are more suitable for elementary-age children, such as timeouts and turn your cards.”

This also is likely to happen if a preschool teacher is certified in elementary education rather than in early childhood education. While an education certificate of any kind may seem favorable, Ede asserts that preschool teachers need to be certified to teach in early childhood settings.

“Teachers often revert back to what happened in their own student experience,” Ede said. “So, if you have a teacher who is elementary certified and is used to teaching at the elementary level, preschool students are punished rather than taught.”

Because children who are between the ages of 3 and 4 are adjusting to the school environment and are still learning many of the social and emotional skills that elementary children already possess, they must be guided to learn acceptable behaviors rather than being sent to timeout to think about something in which they are not yet well-versed.

Due to the impact that proper teacher education and certification has within preschool classrooms, Ede urges parents to always ask the principal or director if teachers are certified in early childhood education (ECE), as some schools do not require teachers to hold ECE degrees.

#2. Curriculum and Perspective on Academics

Next, Ede recommends inquiring about the curriculum and the methods used for teaching. Parents should ask what kind of curriculum the school uses, as some schools use a purchased curriculum as opposed to the preferable teacher-created curriculum.

“When preschools use a purchased curriculum, they are making the assumption that all children in the classroom will be interested in the exact same material being taught in the exact same way all of the time. This does not take into account the diverse nature of classrooms,” she said. “In contrast, when preschools hire highly qualified teachers who take all of these things into consideration when planning curriculum, children are more likely to have a positive learning experience.”

Ede also suggests asking both the director and the teacher how they address academics.

“I would want to find out if the children are required to sit for an hour and do worksheets,” she said. “This is not developmentally appropriate. You really want them to say that the curriculum is play-based because children learn best when they play.”

It’s also important for parents to find out if teachers use lesson plans to guide their teaching to ensure that children are engaged in meaningful activities that are aligned to standards. Ede says that parents should ask to receive examples of lesson plans, as these should be posted and available for them to view. In the case that teachers do not use lesson plans, or they are not available for viewing, Ede advises parents to take their preschool search elsewhere.

Furthermore, Ede notes that quality preschool programs feature the following elements:

  • The use of thematic units that are based on the students’ interests
  • Classroom centers that are changed on a weekly basis (This not only challenges children but prevents boredom.)
  • Valuable experiences such as being able to have meaningful interactions with special visitors
  • The possibility for field trips

Overall, a curriculum and teaching methods that encourage children to actively engage in learning experiences is preferable.

Pre-K students who attend Union Public Schools’ Rosa Parks Elementary School are immersed in hands-on learning experiences every day.

“At Rosa Parks, we incorporate the Reggio Emilia philosophy which allows children to have freedom within limits, discovery through hands-on problem solving, and access to natural materials for imaginative play,” said Rosa Parks principal Jackie DuPont.

Classroom environments in which students play a role in their own learning process rather than passively taking in new information is what parents want to see when they visit preschools.

Holland Hall students work together on a puzzle. Learning to cooperate with others and regulate emotion is an essential part of preschool learning.

Because preschool is the first true school experience for children, it is of utmost importance for teachers to be flexible with the curriculum, as not all students will enter the classroom with the same knowledge and levels of prior experience. For Vanessa J. Jones, Pauline McFarlin Walter Master Teacher Chair at Holland Hall, differentiating instruction to meet the needs of every learner is an important part of being a preschool teacher.

“I think it is important to individualize, to meet each child where they are,” Jones said. “I often have 3-year-olds that start the school year with me reading. I obviously need to do different types of activities with them than with a child who is just starting to learn to name letters. And both are OK! Some children are quick learners and some children take a bit longer.”

Working on social-emotional skills also is an integrated part of Holland Hall’s curriculum.

“It is essential that teachers prepare children for the world. The foundation of this is a child’s social-emotional development. It also seems that schools (not Holland Hall) have a tendency to cut here first; instead, putting the focus on academic skills,” Jones said. “When thinking about a child’s social-emotional development, traits such as self-regulation, peer interactions, responsiveness and communication are essential for living in the world. I honestly see this as the most critical component of teaching young children.”

#3. Student-Teacher Interaction

Being able to observe a classroom and see students actively engaging with their teachers and peers is a major reason why Ede advocates for visiting schools while they are in session.

“You want to see that student-teacher interaction. You can’t tell anything when you go after hours,” she said.

During the classroom visit, parents will be able to assess their own feelings about the classroom environment, including the relationship between the students and the teachers, and whether or not the children seem to be content and engaged. Ede says that parents will easily pick up on the overall tone of the room as well as the level of responsiveness shown by the teacher.

“You’re looking for a teacher that’s warm and caring and isn’t dismissive when a child tattles for the 100th time,” she said.

#4 Physical Environment and Educational Materials

While state-of-the-art equipment and toys certainly can make a preschool seem impressive, Ede says they aren’t necessities. In addition to visible cleanliness, Ede advises parents to be on the lookout for the following features:

  • Child-sized furniture
  • Equipment for centers, including a dramatic play area such as a kitchen or housekeeping center
  • Well-maintained playground that includes:
  • A full fence
  • Safe, appropriately sized equipment (no access to equipment for older elementary children)
  • Opportunities for shade

Furthermore, much information can be gleaned from looking at the materials that are readily available for children to use. Ede explains that rather than seeing standard toys that do little to promote creativity, parents ideally should see materials that foster the expression of creativity and the development of problem-solving skills.

Union’s Rosa Parks Pre-K classroom features a kitchen center for dramatic play.

“I prefer to see loose parts—a nature center with leaves and rocks for children to investigate—a lizard to care for. I want to see many ways for them to express their creativity. Classrooms should have an art center with diverse colors to choose from so that all children feel valued,” Ede said.

Principal Jones at Park Lane shares the same enthusiasm for open-ended materials and environments that foster creativity, and this is evident in Park Lane’s classrooms and activities.

“As early childhood advocates and educators, we believe children learn best through meaningful, self-directed play,” she said. “We are committed and focused on providing a warm, inviting classroom filled with natural elements and materials that promote student inquiry, imagination, creativity and critical thinking.”

Diversity is another important element that Ede believes should be visible in both materials and décor throughout the classroom. For example, the housekeeping center should have dolls with a variety of physical features and skin colors. The same should be true of the classroom’s book collection, with diverse cultures, races, ages and other differences represented in age-appropriate books.

In addition, schools should celebrate the diversity that is present among students and their families. At Rosa Parks, for example, teachers ensure that everyone feels that they are valued.

“As a community school, we create ways for families to share their culture and traditions within the classroom,” said Principal DuPont.

When children have first-hand experiences that allow them to learn about families different from their own, they begin to establish the foundation for understanding that the world is viewed through more than one perspective.

Of course, Ede notes that the presence of books also is an essential component of any quality preschool classroom, as reading (even when children are still unable to actually read words) and being read to from an early age promotes the development of literacy skills and fosters a love for reading that endures throughout a child’s life. Ideally, a classroom should have a reading center with an array of books that are in good repair.

Happy Hunting

While the checklist of elements to look for during preschool visits may seem slightly overwhelming, directors, principals and teachers at any location should be knowledgeable and happy to help parents find the answers to their questions. Ultimately, the effort that parents spend on researching and finding a great preschool for their little ones will ensure that these youngest learners start off their school journey on the right path.

Categories: Education – Early Years