The Power of Preschool
Finding the best early learning environment.
Fingerplays and story time, puzzles and learning games, new songs, new friends and new experiences. Good early childhood programs are enriching intellectually, physically and socially for little ones, preparing them for kindergarten and beyond. A lot is occurring in the brain of the preschool child. In fact, in a baby’s first three years, her brain will grow faster than at any other time in her life. It is therefore important that a child’s early learning experiences be intellectually stimulating, physically challenging, emotionally nurturing—and fun!
Learning Through Play
According to noted play therapist Dr. Gary Landreth “A child’s play is his ‘work,’ and the ‘toys’ are his words.” This is never more true than in the preschool years. Whether a child spends his or her early years at home, in a childcare setting, attending a church preschool program, a Montessori school, or public school pre-k program, the emphasis should be on learning through play.
“Play on all levels is a discovery and exploration process,” said Beverly Kovach, M.N., Florida-based author of “Being with Babies,” and a nationwide consultant in early childhood programs, including Tulsa’s Day Schools. “It correlates with all domains of development—cognitive, social/emotional, physical, speech and language. It helps with imagination and problem solving. It is especially important that children have the freedom to choose what they want to play with and who they want to play with,” Kovach said. “When they are allowed to choose, they concentrate longer.”
Kovach is opposed to programs that cut children’s play time to focus on “academics.” She says that studies have conclusively shown that children who are allowed ample time to play, perform better in math and literature than those whose play time was decreased.
“Problem solving, self-identity, self-discovery, all come from being able to play,” Kovach said.
Benefits of Structured Early
One of the primary benefits from structured preschool programs is the social skills that children attain. “It’s important that we don’t skip over the social-emotional piece in early childhood education,” said Paige Whalen, QIE coordinator for Child Care Resource Center. “Children learn to function in a group setting. They need to learn how to take turns, use words instead of actions, how to share—not just toys, but ideas. All of these skills are really important in preparation for school.”
Whalen adds that children also benefit from discovering that the world doesn’t always revolve around them. “They need to learn that not everything is going to be a ‘yes,’ that they might have to wait.” She adds that it is age-appropriate for children to be ego-centric at this age, but that preschool is the time that they can begin learning the idea of sharing the spotlight.
Whalen also believes that preschool can teach children about diversity. “They can begin to learn that some children come from big families and some from small; that some people live in apartments and some live in houses; that some people have two mommies and some people have two daddies. All of these skills are harder to learn if they are only exposed to them once they are in school.”
Types of Early Childhood Programs
The Tulsa area offers a wide variety of early childhood programs. These include:
Childcare centers and family childcare home providers:
These are usually full day programs geared to parents who are employed outside the home. Licensed and accredited childcare providers, especially those who have Star ratings of One-plus, Two or Three, can be a strong choice in providing preschool education. These centers/home day care providers have worked hard to meet the criteria to receive the Two-star or Three-star ratings, meaning that they are staffed by individuals trained in child development, have master teachers on staff, have weekly lesson plans, involve parents, read to children daily. These centers are also safe, clean and have appropriate child-friendly toys and equipment.
Private preschools abound in Tulsa. Whether they are church or synagogue-based, or based on a particular teaching philosophy, such as Montessori, children can thrive in private preschools. Some private preschools have before and after care for parents who work.
Mothers-Day-Out programs: Typically a more flexible, less structured program than a preschool, mothers-day-out programs offer young children an opportunity to play and interact with other children and allow mothers time away from children to run errands or interact socially with their own peer group.
Public School Early Childhood (Pre-K) Programs:
Many public schools offer free pre-k programs for four-year-olds. Some are only half-day programs, while others are full day and/or offer before and after care for parents who work.
Created to help low-income children age three to five develop the skills they need to start school. There are numerous Head Start locations in Tulsa and surrounding communities.
Early Head Start:
Provides information, either on site or home-based, on health, nutrition, and normal child development to low-income families with infants and toddlers.
State-of-the-art model for early childhood education. Serves low-income families with children birth to age five and a few special needs children from all income levels. Provides full day, full-year, early childhood schooling as well as family and medical support services. With only 12 Educare schools nationwide, Tulsa is fortunate to have two Educare schools and another school in progress.
Parents as Teachers:
A home-based program that teaches parents how to play with their children from birth to kindergarten age to maximize healthy child development. Parents as Teachers believes that the parent is “the child’s first and most important teacher.”
Finding The Right Program for Your Child
According to Patty Banes, director of Boston Avenue Weekday School, one of the best ways to find a quality early childhood education is to ask for referrals from friends.
“If a preschool has a good reputation, people will come,” Banes said. Banes also encourages parents to call the Childcare Resource Center (834-CARE), an agency that offers referrals to child care in Tulsa, Creek and Wagoner counties, and provides support services to child care providers.
After you have gathered referrals, nothing is more important than visiting the program. Banes encourages parents to make their first visit to a preschool without the distraction of their children.
Signs of a Good Early Childhood Program
Not all early childhood programs are created equal. It is extremely important that parents carefully investigate each program they are considering to ensure it is right for their child. And don’t assume that just because it is offered by your local elementary school, or fits into your work schedule, that it is your best option.
Kovach encourages parents to look for programs that have “child-sized, friendly, manageable equipment that children can manipulate.” She says that children initially use all seven senses in learning, so parents should find a program that offers a “rich sensorial environment.” She adds that caregivers should act as guides, encouraging a child’s exploration.
The best programs will have “centers,” focusing on different areas of interest such as a fantasy area, kitchen area, gross motor, language, math and problem solving areas.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) encourages parents to ask themselves the following questions when touring early childhood programs :
1. Are the children in the program generally comfortable, relaxed, and happy, and involved in play and other activities? Happy, relaxed children who are enjoying themselves as they play and learn are one of the best signs of a good program. See if there is a variety of materials for children of this age group. Would your child enjoy this setting?
2. Are there sufficient numbers of adults with specialized training in early childhood development and education? The younger the child, the more individualized attention is needed. All age groups should have at least two teachers. Infants should be in groups of no more than six to eight children; two- to three-year-olds should be in groups of 10 to 14 children; and four- to five-year-olds should be in groups of 16 to 20 children. Specialized training in child development and early education ensures that the staff understands how children grow and learn so they can be more effective teachers and caregivers.
3. Do adult expectations vary appropriately for children of differing ages and interests? Groups for infants and toddlers will look quite different from groups for older children. Toys and materials should vary by age, as should teachers’ expectations for children. In addition, teachers and caregivers should recognize and respect individual differences in children’s abilities, interests, and preferences.
4. Are all areas of the child’s development stressed equally, with time and attention being devoted to cognitive development, social and emotional development, and physical development? High quality early childhood programs do much more than help children learn numbers, shapes and colors. Good programs help children learn how to learn: to question why and discover alternative answers; to get along with others; and to use their developing language, thinking, and motor skills.
5. Does the staff meet regularly to plan and evaluate the program? Planning should reflect a balance of activities between vigorous outdoor play and quiet indoor play. Activities should allow ample time for children to work and play individually or in small groups, with the focus on activities that are child-initiated as opposed to teacher directed. Flexibility, however, is also important. Staff should be willing to adjust the daily activities to meet children’s individual needs and interests.
6. Are parents welcome to observe, discuss policies, make suggestions, and participate in the work of the program? Close communication between parents and staff is vital. Staff should regularly discuss highlights of the child’s experiences with parents and show respect for families of varying cultures and backgrounds.
The Nurturing Parent
Though early childhood programs can be an important part of your child’s healthy development, nothing is as important in the early childhood years as nurturing parents.
“The most important thing that parents need to know is that their interactions with their infant, toddler and child literally help shape the biology of their child’s brain,” said Bruce Perry, M.D., neuroscientist and senior fellow at the Houston based Child Trauma Academy. “Through simple interactions such as holding, rocking, singing, reading, laughing and playing with their child, they are helping express the underlying genetic gifts of their child.”
Looking for a preschool program specifically for your three- to five-year-old?
Here are some additional tips on what to look for from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC):
- Children spend most of their time playing and working with materials or other children. They do not wander aimlessly, and they are not expected to sit quietly for long periods of time.
- Children have access to various activities throughout the day. Look for assorted building blocks and other construction materials, props for pretend play, picture books, paints and other art materials and table toys such as matching games, pegboards, and puzzles. Children should not all be doing the same thing at the same time.
- Teachers work with individual children, small groups, and the whole group at different times during the day. They do not spend all their time with the whole group.
- The classroom is decorated with children’s original artwork, their own writing with invented spelling, and stories dictated by children to teachers.
- Children learn numbers and the alphabet in the context of their everyday experiences. The natural world of plants and animals and meaningful activities like cooking, taking attendance or serving snacks provide the basis for learning activities.
- Children work on projects and have long periods of time (at least one hour) to play and explore. Worksheets are used little if at all.
- Children have an opportunity to play outside every day. Outdoor play is never sacrificed for more instruction time.
- Teachers read books to children individually or in small groups throughout the day, not just at group story time.
- Curriculum is adapted for those who are ahead as well as those who need additional help. Teachers recognize that children’s different backgrounds and experiences mean that they do not learn the same things at the same time in the same way.
- Children and their parents look forward to school. Parents feel secure about sending their children to the program. Children are happy to attend; they do not cry regularly or complain of feeling sick.