My most vivid memory from the preschool orientation I attended for my firstborn was another parent raising her hand and nervously asking, “What about sippy cups?” She wanted to know if her towheaded little boy could bring his. The answer was no. Her preschooler, the director assured her, would learn to drink from a cup, and needed to leave his sippy cup (as well as his parents) at the classroom door. It’s hard to be separated from things and people you love, but being able to be independent is just one skill your child learns by attending preschool.
Terry Thomas, a former childcare director with thirty-eight years of experience in the early education field, feels the most important thing children can learn in a preschool setting is social and emotional development -- things like waiting for a turn and following directions. “Adults need to incorporate opportunities in order for emotional and social development to occur,” said Thomas, who currently works as an Adjunct Professor of Early Childhood Education at Lehigh Carbon Community College.
The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University backs this up in a working paper published in August 2011: “The core features of emotional development include the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings, to accurately read and comprehend emotional states in others, to manage strong emotions and their expression in a constructive manner, to regulate one’s own behavior, to develop empathy for others, and to establish and sustain relationships.”
“When you visit a preschool you should see children engaged with one another and encouraged to explore their environment.” Said Thomas, “The adults in the classroom should be facilitating an environment that provides children with the opportunity to investigate, explore, and learn from their discoveries.”
What this means for parents is to look for a preschool that will give your child ample opportunities to interact with other kids in the form of unstructured play and in small and large group activities. According to a 2005 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, unstructured play helps “…promote executive functioning – a higher level skill that integrates attention and other cognitive functions such as planning, organizing, sequencing and decision making.” The article says that these skills will help children with later academic success and also in gaining independence.
Your child’s preschool should also have a structured circle time where the teacher introduces the concept of the day and gives instructions. Here I Grow Early Learning Program, owned by educator Dawn Detweiler and operated out of a room in the Forks Township Community Center, introduces three-and a-half to five- year –olds to all these things over the span of the one-and-a-half hours they spend at her school every Tuesday and Thursday. She also has arts and crafts, music and movement, and a snack for the twelve kids to which she limits her seven week sessions that start in the fall and end in the spring.
If your child is age three, and younger then the entry age for kindergarten in your school district, has special needs, or If English is not your first language, the Pennsylvania Department of Education might have a no-cost preschool opportunity available for your family. The Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts program boasts a small class size (normally twenty children per teacher with an aide) with classroom teachers who have a degree in early childhood education. This means that they know appropriate child development and will choose learning activities that are best for your child. The program does have income eligibility requirements and family wages need to be less than 300% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (for example a family of four needs to have an income of less than $69,150 to qualify). In the Lehigh Valley the program is administered by the following organizations: Bethlehem Area School District, Community Services for Children, Lehigh Valley Children’s Center Inc., Northampton Community College and The Cuddle Zone Learning Center. You can get more information about this program by visiting http://paprom.convio.net/site/PageServer?pagename=PA_Pre_K_Counts.