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What to Look for in a Preschool: 5 Critical Questions to Ask

Updated on June 23, 2017
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As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, I see early childhood education moving in a harmful direction with less play and creativity.

Preschool Graduation Ceremonies Illustrate How Absurd an Escalated Curriculum Is

A graduation ceremony for preschool? Unfortunately, it has become all too common. Children thrive in preschools that emphasize a learn by doing approach and skip the ceremonies!
A graduation ceremony for preschool? Unfortunately, it has become all too common. Children thrive in preschools that emphasize a learn by doing approach and skip the ceremonies! | Source

Look for a Learn by Doing Approach and Avoid an "Escalated Curriculum"

Good parenting often involves ignoring what's popular and going with what's right. This is certainly the case when choosing a preschool for your child. There are so many enticing options, claiming to give your child the head-start that launches her into a promising future filled with advanced placement classes, college scholarships, and job offers from NASA and MIT. In the competitive preschool market, owners are now touting an early childhood education that includes STEM (science, technology, math, and science), Spanish, French, and Chinese immersion, music lessons in piano and violin, yoga, art history, and sculpture. But early childhood scholars caution parents about the dangers of this escalated curriculum and advise them to choose what's proven to work. A learn by doing approach in early childhood education is key because it emphasizes socializing, playing, creating, experimenting, and exploring.

Find a Preschool Owner With a Background in Early Childhood Education Who Supports Developmentally Appropriate Practices

When starting my job as a nervous rookie at an elite private preschool, I looked for guidance from the seasoned early childhood educators on staff. However, as we sat together at a faculty meeting before the school year began, I mentioned that Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP) guided my instruction. I explained that my two children had attended a parent-cooperative preschool that strictly adhered to the guidelines set forth by the National Association for the Education of Young Children: learn by doing, hands-on discovery, open-ended art, and lots of time to play, socialize, and make choices. Instead of seeing heads shaking enthusiastically in agreement, I saw a wall of faces staring blankly at me. It was as if I were speaking about nuclear physics – in Mandarin!

I soon came to realize that the owner of the preschool was not a fan of DAP and instead favored an escalated curriculum as this is what she felt parents wanted. She was a former elementary school teacher with no background in early childhood education. I was in the real world now, where preschools needed to turn a profit, and what I had learned in college became merely idealistic notions. From that eye-opening experience, I began to advocate for what works in early childhood education, urging parents to think critically and ask the following questions of preschool owners:

Question #1: Does Your Preschool Follow Developmentally Appropriate Practices?

When checking out potential preschools, parents should ask: "Do you support Developmentally Appropriate Practices? Do you follow the guidelines set forth by the National Association for the Education of Young Children?" Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP) describe an educational approach that's based on the latest research into how young children best learn and develop. At its core is the belief that teachers should meet children where they're at developmentally and not overload them with content and experiences they're unable to handle.

The DAP teacher understands the stages of early development and appreciates differences among youngsters. She acts as a facilitator in the classroom – letting children explore with new materials, asking questions that challenge them to think deeply, and giving them a variety of hands-on experiences. When choosing what to present, she always asks: “Is it developmentally appropriate?” The DAP approach 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 the owner is unaware of Developmentally Appropriate Practices and their importance in early childhood education, hightail it out of there!

Playing in the Sandbox Promotes Conversation, Sharing, Hand-Eye Coordination, Fine Motor Skills, Measurement, and the List Goes On!

Playing at the sand table is an example of Developmentally Appropriate Practices.
Playing at the sand table is an example of Developmentally Appropriate Practices. | Source

Question #2: Does Your School Have an "Escalated Curriculum?"

Unfortunately, many preschool owners stray from DAP's research-based approach, caving into demands from anxious parents clamoring for accelerated academics. Parents worry that their neighbor's four-year-old can speak Spanish and write complete sentences while their kid just plays in a sandbox and builds with blocks. Preschool owners feel pressured to adopt an escalated curriculum even though there's no evidence supporting it.

An escalated curriculum guided our instruction at the preschool where I taught. It's based on the widespread belief that teachers can present any content at any age as long as they do so in the right way. It has become common as preschool teachers adapt the elementary school curriculum to use with their young learners.

At the preschool where I taught, the owner selected a school-wide theme for each month . Sometimes she chose developmentally appropriate themes, ones that tapped into the children's profound curiosity in themselves and their immediate surroundings. They included: My Body, My Family, My House, My Neighborhood. These themes were successful because they were meaningful in the children's lives. Since young children are egocentric, they love themes that focus on themselves. They have recently moved on from parallel play and are just beginning to interact with peers, build friendships, and share.

Other times, however, the owner forced themes upon us – both teachers and children – that were not developmentally appropriate. These escalated themes included: Planets and Outer Space, Countries Around the World, and Famous Artists. These themes caused great frustration because young children are not yet ready to move beyond their immediate world to look at places and people who live far away. Why did the owner pick such unsuitable themes? She did so to impress parents and keep them satisfied, selling them a bill of goods that their children were on the fast track to academic excellence. This is sad and unnecessary as young children have plenty of years ahead of them to learn about different people, places, and cultures. There's no need to rush.

Knowing the inappropriateness of an escalated curriculum for my students, I gradually added DAP without the owner realizing or objecting. Unlike other teachers who did long Circle Times -- taking center stage to present information and read books to a passive audience -- I got my students involved in every aspect of their learning. Just like a mom sneaking vegetables into her child's meals, I stealthily added DAP such as: 1) learning and exploring in small groups, not whole group 2) empowering students by giving them choices 3) providing open-ended art, not craft projects.

Question #3: What Is Your Position on "Circle Time?"

I often saw colleagues holding students captive, conducting ridiculously long whole group activities during Circle Time. It became clear to me that the teacher got more out of the experience than her glassy-eyed students who sat quietly and passively while she had all the fun. With DAP, whole group instruction is kept to a minimum and the teacher is rarely center stage. Children learn and explore in small groups with the teacher's guidance. The children are active participants. The small group experience encourages social interaction, team work, curiosity, and discovery.

Don't Get Impressed by "Circle Time." Kids Learn More When They're Exploring, Doing, Talking, and Interacting.

Teachers love being center stage at Circle Time, but whole group activities should be kept to a minimum. Young children need to be active learners.
Teachers love being center stage at Circle Time, but whole group activities should be kept to a minimum. Young children need to be active learners. | Source

Question #4: Do The Children Have Opportunities to Choose Their Own Activities Throughout the Day?

DAP embrace opportunities for students make their own choices about what to do and with whom. Students are not required to stay on course each minute of the day. Making choices empowers them. They decide whether they wish to do solitary activities such as stringing beads, drawing a picture, doing a puzzle, or reading a book. They may decide to pursue social activities with a group of buddies such as building with blocks, cooking in the kitchen, or playing a game. Making choices promotes independence, builds confidence, and increases well-being. Many introverted children thrive when given chances to be alone -- to work intensely on a project, to have peace and quiet, and to recharge their batteries that are drained by social interaction.

During this period of choice, the teacher walks around the classroom and asks the all-important DAP question: How? How will you build your tower higher without it falling? How will you make green with those paints? How will you continue that pattern? How will you play that game and give everybody a turn?

Children Learn Through Play and Hands-On Discovery!

Young children need opportunities to choose their activities. The teacher facilitates the discovery process by asking: How?
Young children need opportunities to choose their activities. The teacher facilitates the discovery process by asking: How? | Source

Question #5: What Is Your School's Philosophy on Teaching Art?

DAP encourage open-ended art such as easel painting, watercolor painting, finger painting, collage, clay, printmaking, and drawing. DAP discourage teacher-directed craft projects. In DAP there are no samples that the children try to duplicate. There are no step-by-step directions. Children do not ask the teacher: “Is this right? Does this look okay? Why doesn't it look as good as yours?”

DAP art is about the process, not the product. It's about children exploring new materials and discovering new techniques. Art is a relaxing and joyful experience meant to soothe the soul, relieve stress, promote independence, and encourage creativity. Children make sense of their world through art and the art is entirely their own.

With An Escalated Curriculum, Students Duplicate the Style of Famous Artists. With a Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum, Students Discover Their Own Style!

Easel painting is an example of open-ended art. It promotes creativity, independence, and decision-making.
Easel painting is an example of open-ended art. It promotes creativity, independence, and decision-making. | Source

Final Thoughts: Best Practices in Early Childhood Education Are About Building Strong, Independent Learners

Parenting a child is a long process that requires much patience. Moms and dads who acknowledge and celebrate each stage of development will enjoy their children more and not become tempted by an escalated curriculum. By doing a little research, parents will discover that best practices in early childhood education don't involve becoming bilingual, learning how to play the violin, or painting like Picasso. Learn by doing in early childhood education is best because youngsters become engaged with hands-on discovery, open-play periods, and small group activities.

I Love This Book That Champions the Power of Play

As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, I highly recommend this book to parents who are searching for a preschool. The author is a huge advocate for young children, championing their right to play, explore, and learn by doing. She point out the pitfalls of “too much, too early” as preschoolers are now expected to learn math, second languages, handwriting, and pre-reading skills. Parents today, who are so anxious about their kids getting ahead, really need to read this book, take a step back, and think about what's best for their little ones.

Developmentally Appropriate Practices

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    • Kathryn L Hill profile image

      Kathryn L Hill 19 months ago from LA

      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.

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