Early Childhood Education: Choosing a Preschool Program
Gross Motor Play at Preschool
Early childhood is a time of amazing brain development and growth. While a child is born with all of the brain cells they will ever have, the important connections between the cells occurs as the child grows and learns through his or her environment. They typical three year old child has a brain that is twice as active as an adult brain! Early childhood experiences help brain connections to form: a child must have quality interaction with people and his or her environment to develop to his or her full potential.
When contemplating preschool programs, however, remember this: expensive toys are not critical for healthy early childhood development. Caring interactions and social bonds are far more valuable than physical objects in a classroom. The article below will highlight important questions and considerations for parents who are in the process of choosing a preschool program for their child.
Nursery School Facilities
The physical grounds of a nursery school are not the most important aspect of choosing a preschool, but the location and preschool classrooms do deserve consideration. Some very important questions to ask about the preschool building include:
- Is the preschool located in a safe neighborhood?
- What are the security protocols for people entering the building?
- Are the exterior doors locked when school is in session?
- What are the sign-in/sign-out policies?
- Is there an outdoor playground, and is it fenced?
- Are toileting facilities attached to the classroom or easily accessed by the children?
- Is there adequate lighting?
Security is obviously a very important concern. Verify that the preschool has a solid policy on who may pick up a child, and ensure there is adequate office staff to monitor entrances to the building and the sign in sheets.
An outdoor playground is a wonderful addition to a preschool program. Surprisingly, not all preschools have a play area in the great outdoors – if the school in question does not have an outdoor playground, determine if there is an indoor gym or large-motor activity area. Gross motor skills (running, jumping, riding a bike) are critical in the development of young children, and a preschool building that does not provide opportunity for growth in this area is lacking a vital component!
Music and Dance in Preschool
The Preschool Classroom
The classroom is another physical component of early childhood education. While not as important as the teacher qualifications and the curriculum, the classroom can be a good indicator of the quality of the program.
Are there opportunities for social development? A home life play center, kitchen center, and dress-up center are common classroom additions to foster social development among young children. A preschool that provides diverse opportunities like a wood-working center or a puppet theater/dramatic play area will increase the number of experiences a child has in the classroom. Many preschools will rotate the centers and add new experiences as the year progresses.
Using Dance to Enhance Gross Motor Skills
The song “Popcorn” is a wonderful example of the use of dance and music to develop gross motor skills. The song (with movements) is:
I’m a piece of popcorn
Put me in a pan (child crouches down low)
Shake me, shake me, (Child shakes and wiggles)
as fast as you can…
and I will POP! (child jumps as high as he or she can)
Gross Motor Play in the Classroom
Is there time set aside for gross motor skill development? Gross motor skills can be addressed on an outdoor playground or in an indoor gym, and are usually incorporated into the preschool curriculum. Dancing and music are a wonderful way to develop gross-motor skills: check to see if the school in question uses music and dance as part of the daily routine. Jumping, running, isolating body parts, developing an awareness of the body in space, and crossing the midline are all very important skills for young children to develop. By integrating these skills, children learn to control their bodies and to develop crucial coordination that will be required for future academic and recreational activities.
Fine Motor Skills in the Classroom
Fine motor skills are vital, too, as a child learns to control his or her hands in preparation for learning to write. Some very important fine-motor skill activities are:
Cutting: A child must be able to cut on a line prior to developing writing skills. A quality nursery school curriculum will provide ample opportunity for cutting and snipping. Often, plastic play scissors will be used with play dough to help strengthen a child’s hands.
Play-dough: kneading and manipulating play dough helps to strengthen a child’s hands and to develop coordination. A good play dough or clay center will include rolling pins, plastic scissors, cookie cutters, molds, plastic cutting wheels, and other tools to encourage fine-motor development.
Coloring and Art: painting with fingers and with different types of brushes helps to develop eye-hand coordination and fine motor control. Look for varied activities: painting with popcorn, balloons tied together as a brush, painting with fingers and sponges, and coloring with crayons are all wonderful activities. There is one thing not to be concerned about: a tub full of small, broken crayons is actually a good sign. Small crayon pieces help to promote a proper pencil grip – so do not be concerned at the sight of broken crayons, particularly in a pre-kindergarten program!
Many fine motor activities can be incorporated in other play centers as well. A center with small building blocks, a dress up area with zippers and buttons, and items such as lacing cards and beads and strings provide small motor skill opportunities.
Print Rich Environment
Observe the classroom interior to determine if the environment is “print rich.” This means there should be a lot of written material in and around the classroom. While children of this age cannot read (in general), the presence of print helps to increase awareness of letters and reinforce the concept that written words have meaning. Many preschools will label familiar objects (like the word “door” on the door, or “window” on the window). Books should be accessible with a comfortable reading center. Story time should be incorporated into the daily routine.
Sensory Opportunities in the Classroom
Experiencing different textures and sensations is important for the integration of the nervous system in young children. Some children are very sensitive to sensory stimuli, and other children crave a lot of sensory input. Look for sensory opportunities within the classroom:
Textures: Is there a sand table? Is it changed out with different objects (such as beans, packing peanuts, and other materials with different textures)? Does the preschool provide finger painting experiences? Playdough, shaving cream, and “floam” also provide different texture experiences.
Scent: There are many ways to provide this sensory input. Scented play dough may be used at the fine motor center, or cookies may be baked during a cooking project. Be sure there are no overwhelming scents, however: young children have very sensitive noses, so unpleasant and strong odors are not a good sign!
Vestibular: Young children love to swing and spin. This love of motion is because the sense of motion and balance is still developing. The inner ear controls the sense of balance, and swinging and spinning cause disequilibrium, stimulating the brain to develop balance. Are there swings on the playground? Is there a teeter-totter or spinning toy available? Are there rocking horses for the children to play on?
Sight: Is the classroom visually appealing? Look for a well-designed classroom with bright colors and a good layout. Blank, white walls are not generally conducive to stimulating young minds!
Sound: The classroom should not be a cacophony of noises. Look for a quiet preschool program with a rich musical curriculum to enhance language and rhythm concepts.
Discipline at School
Parents should ask about the discipline policies used by the preschool. Some common behavioral modification tools are:
- Redirection: the child is simply redirected to another activity and away from the negative behavior.
- Removal: A thrown toy is removed from the child’s possession.
- Time Out: a child is seated away from the activity and given time to calm down before rejoining the group.
- Contacting the Parent: a parent is called to come and pick up a child if the behavior is out of control.
More important than discipline, perhaps, is the school's use of positive reinforcement to encourage desirable behavior. A common program is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) - this program can be used in the home environment as well as in the school environment. This system allows teachers to prevent negative behavior outcomes by implementing positive rewards and developing classroom management techniques to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.
Determining the preschool’s discipline policy is critical, as some preschools may not have a discipline plan that aligns with a parent’s preferences.
Children love routine – it helps to provide a framework and boundaries around new experiences. Ask the preschool teacher about their daily routine – the general flow of activities should be the same from day-to-day. A preschool routine might look something like this:
9:00am: Greeting and Circle Time/Story
9:15am: Weather and Calendar
9:25am: Play Centers
9:45am: Outdoor Gross Motor Play
10:15am: Snack Time
10:30am: Clean up
10:35am: Classroom Project
11:00am: Music and Dance
11:15am: Free Play
The routine will vary greatly by the preschool program – the particular order of the routine is not as important as the fact that the preschool has a routine.
An Excellent Preschool Toileting Area
Many preschools require that children be potty trained prior to starting school. Ask about the exact requirements regarding toilet training: occasional accidents are to be expected among preschool aged children. A few important questions might be:
- Are pull-ups allowed or discouraged?
- Must a child be completely independent in all toileting activities to attend this preschool?
- What does the preschool do in the event of an accident (both solid and wet)?
- Are child-sized toilets and shorter sinks available?
- Is the restroom easily accessible to the children?
- Are toileting times part of the preschool routine, or must children ask to use the toilet?
Nearly every preschool will have a policy with regard to ill children. Ask about the policies in place – both to protect your child, and to protect the other children in the classroom. For example, most preschools specify that any child with a fever over 100.1 degrees may not attend. On the other hand, preschools may have varying policies over runny noses and mild colds – it is good to know what the exact policy is prior to enrolling your child.
Preschool and Teacher Accreditation
Not every preschool has accreditation – the important accreditation in the United States is the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). The NAEYC sets “standards of excellence” that early childhood education programs must achieve prior to membership. The NAEYC has a wonderful search feature on their website: this will help any family find an accredited preschool in their local area.
In addition to the preschool’s accreditation, ask about the qualifications of the teachers in the classroom. How many Early Childhood Education (ECE) units must a teacher have prior to employment? Surprisingly, many preschools only require 6 ECE units for a preschool teacher – this is the equivalent of only 2 classes! A preschool teacher with an Associate’s degree (or more) in early childhood education will have much more education in the field.
Educational Philosophy and Approach
Nearly every preschool will have a stated philosophy and mission statement. A few questions about the preschool’s philosophy might be:
- Are the activities teacher-directed or child-directed?
- Is the curriculum progressive throughout the year (i.e. change as the children mature)?
- How is communication between the parents and teacher handled?
- What type of curriculum is followed?
- How diverse is the preschool?
- How is religion handled in the preschool classroom?
There are many different types of preschools, including Montessori, Waldorf, religious church-based preschools, preschool co-ops, universal Pre-K programs, Head Start, and other developmentally based approaches. Each program has its own philosophy and goals for the children in the program.
Finding a quality preschool program that suits individual family preferences and belief systems is a difficult process, but well worth the effort! A quality early childhood education program will help a child develop to their full potential, and will prepare them for the social and academic world of tomorrow.