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The 3 Most Critical Questions to Ask When Choosing a Preschool

Preschool owners try to entice parents with an escalated curriculum, but moms and dads should be skeptical. Play, hands-on learning, and socialization are far more beneficial in the long-run.

Preschool owners try to entice parents with an escalated curriculum, but moms and dads should be skeptical. Play, hands-on learning, and socialization are far more beneficial in the long-run.

When Looking at Preschools, Parents Should Seek a Learn-by-Doing Approach and Avoid an Escalated Curriculum

Good parenting often involves ignoring what's popular and doing what's right. This is certainly the case when choosing a preschool for your child. There are so many enticing options, claiming to give youngsters the head-start that will launch them into promising futures filled with advanced placement classes, college scholarships, and job offers from NASA and MIT.

In the competitive preschool marketplace, owners now tout offerings such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), Spanish, French, and Chinese immersion, music lessons in piano and violin, yoga, art history, ballet, and sculpture. Scholars in early childhood education, though, caution parents about the dangers of such an "escalated curriculum." Instead, they urge moms and dads to choose what's been proven successful for decades: a learn-by-doing approach centered on socializing, playing, pretending, creating, experimenting, and exploring.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play IS serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.

— Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

What Parents Should Look For When Visiting Prospective Preschools

Moms and dads who do their due diligence and visit prospective preschools should be commended. Many of them, though, don't know how to determine whether or not it's a quality placement for their kids. In fact, some get impressed by the very things that experts in early childhood education frown upon: children writing quietly in workbooks, sitting passively during long circle times, and being prepped for kindergarten by learning the alphabet, letter sounds, numeral recognition, and counting.

According to experts, a quality preschool experience isn't one that seeks to ready children academically for elementary school. Rather, its scope is much broader than that as it aims to prepare kids for life. Its primary goal is to promote passionate, curious, and self-directed learners. Parents, therefore, should look for the following:

  • Kids interacting with one another the vast majority of the day: talking, sharing, compromising, negotiating, playing, and pretending.
  • A teacher who spends most of her time facilitating play: making sure everyone is engaged, asking questions that promote curiosity and further exploration, helping kids negotiate disputes, and giving them the guidance and materials they need to enliven and extend their interactions.
  • Plenty of outdoor time and an appreciation of nature.
  • Plenty of spaces, both indoor and out, that stimulate the imagination: a play kitchen, a stage, a puppet theater, a dress-up corner, a veterinary clinic, a hospital, a school, a dollhouse.
  • A schedule that provides ample opportunity for kids to choose their own activities and follow their unique interests, whether it's looking at books in the class library, riding tricycles on the playground, or building blocks on the rug. Above all us, it should be a child-centered environment.

1. Does Your Preschool Adhere to Developmentally Appropriate Practices?

Parents should ask this crucial question to determine if a preschool owner is aware of developmentally appropriate practices (DAP), the cornerstone of a quality early childhood education. An owner who follows DAP puts play above all else. She resists early academic instruction, knowing it can cause undue stress and turn kids off to learning while having no long-term benefits. Most significantly, she loves kids and is ready, willing, and able to advocate for them.

An owner who supports DAP employs teachers who act as facilitators in the classroom: letting children explore materials, asking questions to make them think deeply, and providing a variety of hands-on experiences. When planning class activities, these educators always ask themselves the all-important question: Is this developmentally appropriate?

A preschool that adheres to DAP is best summed up by Ben Franklin's quote: “Show me and I forget; Teach me and I remember; Involve me and I learn.” If an owner looks perplexed when asked about DAP, she likely lacks a degree in early childhood education. This is a strong indicator that the preschool isn't the right choice and should be eliminated from consideration.

2. Does Your Preschool Have an Escalated Curriculum?

If parents ask this question and an owner replies "yes," they can immediately scratch that preschool from their list. An owner who pushes an escalated curriculum is one who's struggling to stay in business at the expense of kids. She's ignoring the research in early childhood education that shows youngsters learn best through play. She's forsaking what's right and catering to anxious parents who want their kids academically prepped for kindergarten.

When looking at prospective preschools, parents should be on high alert when spotting these common signs of an escalated curriculum:

  • Themes that aren't developmentally appropriate

Many preschools use weekly or monthly themes to present new information in a fun and cohesive way. This is a perfectly acceptable practice, except when the themes don't reflect where kids are developmentally. Some owners select inappropriate themes in order to impress parents. In the process, though, kids are left bored, overwhelmed, and frustrated while getting stuffed with knowledge they're not yet ready to comprehend.

Themes such as planets, countries around the world, and famous artists in history, for example, are popular at preschools today. Because young children are egocentric, interested in themselves and their immediate surroundings, they don't connect with these. Therefore, when looking at preschools, parents should make a note of those that use developmentally appropriate themes such as my body, my family, my house, my pets, and my neighborhood. These are the places that understand young kids and aren't pushing them to grow up too fast.

  • Teacher-directed lessons

While STEM education is a positive thing for students in middle school, high school, and college, it's widely misused with preschool-aged children. Too many teachers, pressured by owners and parents to present structured lessons in science, technology, engineering, and math, are doing so even though it's developmentally inappropriate for this age group.

Instead of being impressed by teacher-directed lessons, moms and dads should be dazzled by kids exploring STEM through their unique curiosities. By doing what they've done for decades (building with blocks, pretending to cook in the play kitchen, and looking at bugs through a magnifying lens), preschoolers learn STEM in an organic way. They build a strong foundation that will support structured learning in the upcoming years.

  • Workbooks

Workbooks are a telltale sign that a preschool is the wrong choice. Not only are they developmentally inappropriate, they're a prime example of putting the cart before the horse. Parents who see kids writing in workbooks while touring preschools should definitely see it as a negative, not a plus.

Today, many kindergarten teachers complain that students struggle with fine motor skills. They can't hold a pencil comfortably and correctly. They can't cut properly with scissors. They can't tie their shoes, and they can't turn the pages of a book.

Occupational therapists say the erosion of fine motor skills is a new phenomenon caused by less play at preschool (and at home). Kids no longer do the activities that promoted fine motor skills: manipulating play-dough, putting puzzles together, painting at the easels, playing in the sandbox, and peeling stickers.These are the activities that strengthen little fingers and hands, getting them ready for writing in elementary school.

Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child's soul.

— Friedrich Froebel, father of kindergarten

Children need big blocks of time to choose their own activities and explore materials creatively and deeply.

Children need big blocks of time to choose their own activities and explore materials creatively and deeply.

3. Do The Children Have Ample Opportunities to Choose Their Own Activities?

If an owner answers "yes" to this question, her preschool should skyrocket to the top of the list. Many programs today are too tighty scheduled as kids get shuffled from one activity to another in 15 minute increments. The daily class schedule is displayed prominently at the front of the classroom to let parents know what an amazingly productive day the kids will have. It lists circle time, calendar time, show and tell time, story time, writing time, math time, and snack time but little or no time for what matters most: children choosing how they want to spend their time.

Studies show that letting kids make their own choices empowers them and promotes emotional well-being. They come to see learning as something within their control and not something outside themselves. Making choices promotes independence, builds confidence, and serves children well throughout their academic lives and beyond.

Furthermore, introverted children at preschool are more likely to thrive when given time to be alone—to work intensely on a project, to have peace and quiet, and to recharge their batteries that get drained by social interaction. Without ample opportunities to choose their own activities, both introverted and extroverted kids can be left feeling defeated by too many structured teacher-led activities. If an owner doesn't see the enormous benefits of letting kids select their activities, her preschool should most certainly be off the list.

Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.

— O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D., author,and play specialist

Final Thoughts

Armed with these three questions, parents can confidently tour preschools and discern which one is best. They can avoid the seduction of an escalated curriculum and choose what their youngster really needs: a child-centered environment with a learn-by-doing approach. This is not only what makes kids feel happy, challenged, and empowered, it's what the research in early childhood education supports.

Developmentally Appropriate Practices

I Love This Book That Champions the Power of Play

Questions & Answers

Question: My 4-year-old grandson is placed in time-out at preschool almost every day. When I pick him up, the teacher tells me he's not listening during calendar activities and is poking his friend. His parents get very worried about his behavior, but I think it's no big deal. What should I do?

Answer: When I began teaching 25 years ago, it was unheard of for a youngster to be placed in time-out at preschool or kindergarten. In fact, I don't even remember that term being used when I earned my credential and did my student teaching. In college classes, our professors drilled in us the importance of “developmentally appropriate practices,” meaning that young children learned best when moving, doing, exploring, talking, interacting, and discovering through their senses.

If there was a behavior issue, we were taught to re-direct the youngsters to another activity. If kids were getting frustrated with one another while playing blocks, for example, we'd say, “it's time to go outside and ride tricycles!” We'd never think to put preschoolers in time-out where they would feel shame and not understand why they were being reprimanded. That would be considered cruel.

Now, when I visit various preschools throughout the year, it's rare when I don't see a child in time-out (almost always a boy and more often than not one of color). They're typically removed from the group for some “horrific” offense like being unable to sit still for a long and boring circle time, not being able to remain silent while the teacher drones on about the calendar and weather, or itching to play with their buddies in the sandbox rather than hearing the teacher read yet another story. The normal behaviors of 4 and 5-year-old children are now seen in our society as disruptive, naughty, and cause for great alarm. While most countries celebrate each stage of a child's development and see no need to rush it, we in the United States want kids to grew up too fast.

In the past 25 years, I've seen a huge decrease in play time at preschool and kindergarten as we push little kids to learn more and more at younger and younger ages. There are more teacher-directed lessons, longer circle times, more paper-pencil tasks, and more rote learning. Preschool is no longer that joyful time to make friends and to develop a love of learning but a means to prepare kids for kindergarten. Most likely, your grandson is the victim of that misguided mentality, and that's why he sits in time-out.

I 'd be concerned that your grandson is getting the message that something is wrong with him when there isn't. The children I see placed in time-out at preschool and kindergarten are typically the brightest ones: curious, independent, and energetic. They get bored easily when the teacher does her spiel, wanting to get up and explore the stimulating environment around them, not just sit and listen.

Your grandson's parents, like so many moms and dads these days, are naively impressed with the early academics now presented in preschool and kindergarten. They see it as a good thing, believing it will give their kids a competitive edge. They're not familiar with the research (Dr. Peter Gray, Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, and the organization, “Defending the Early Years”) that shows the decline of play over the past 50-60 years corresponds to the increasing number of mental health issues in children and teens: depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide.

I recommend your grandson switch to a play-based preschool that adheres to developmentally appropriate practices. I'm sick and tired of parents getting the message from preschool teachers that there is something wrong with their children when there absolutely isn't. Unfortunately, preschool teachers are under enormous pressure now to get kids ready for kindergarten: writing their names, knowing their letters and sounds, counting to 100. They're not looking at the bigger picture: getting little children excited about learning and building the belief that learning stems from their own curiosity, not from a teacher.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


Kathryn L Hill from LA on December 21, 2015:

This is a totally amazing article, Nancy! I am learning so much from all you have written. Thank You.

I was thinking about taking twenty four units of child development classes and I never heard of DAP. I will look in to this program.