10 Things to Look for in a Preschool and 10 Things to Avoid

Updated on December 11, 2019
letstalkabouteduc profile image

During her years as a teacher and mother, Ms. Meyers discovered that not all praise was equal and some kinds were even deleterious to kids.

Preschool shouldn't be about preparing kids for kindergarten. It should expand a child's world, not narrow it!
Preschool shouldn't be about preparing kids for kindergarten. It should expand a child's world, not narrow it! | Source

10 Things to Look for in a Preschool

  1. a child-centered classroom where kids learn by doing
  2. a teacher and director with degrees (or units) in early childhood education
  3. a play-based approach where kids spend the vast majority of their time talking and interacting with one another
  4. classroom spaces that promote imagination: a play kitchen, a puppet theater, an animal hospital, a doctor's office, a pirate ship, a doll house
  5. lots of outdoor time
  6. a large area for block play
  7. easels
  8. open-ended art activities (painting, coloring, drawing, printmaking, collage creating) that emphasize process over product
  9. a teacher who asks questions so children discover things on their own
  10. no circle time (or a brief one), no whole group calendar activities

10 Things to Avoid When Looking for a Preschool

1.an adult-centered classroom where the teacher is seen as the source of all knowledge

2. a teacher and director with K-12 teaching credentials but no units in early childhood education

3. an academic approach where the teacher is striving to prepare kids for kindergarten by teaching letters, sounds, numbers, patterns, counting, and handwriting

4. workbooks

5. limited outdoor time

6. structured lessons in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)

7. teacher-led craft projects where kids duplicate a sample

8. craft projects that are intended to impress parents with a focus on product over process

9. a teacher who likes to be front and center, filling the kids with information

10. a long circle time, calendar activities led by the teacher

An early childhood educator who doesn't advocate for play is dangerous to children and our society.

The Notion That Preschool Should Prepare Kids for Kindergarten Is Supremely Cruel

The notion that preschool is meant to prepare students for kindergarten is a new one: utterly absurd, supremely cruel to young children, and not based on any sound research. It reminds me when my father (who knew nothing about child development) took my siblings and me to Disneyland for the first time. It was a long ten-hour drive, filled with imaginings of Pirates of the Caribbean, the Matterhorn, and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. When we finally arrived, though, my dad insisted we go first to the theater on Main Street to watch the stage show called “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” where a robotic Abe droned on about liberty, independence, and tyranny. We were 12, 8, 6, and 4!

Preschool Is About Doing, Not Sitting and Listening

While there's nothing wrong with learning about Abraham Lincoln, a visit to Disneyland is not the time and place for that unless you're over 50! Disneyland is a magical adventure for kids—full of incredible sights, sounds, and smells. Every moment should be savored to its fullest.

In that way, it's like a quality preschool experience where everything is learned through the senses, imaginations are encouraged to soar, and interacting with your surroundings is how you discover the world. Why waste your time at Disneyland listening to a robotic Lincoln and why waste your time at preschool writing in workbooks, learning letter and number symbols, and sitting passively at circle time while the teacher prattles on about the days of the week and the numbers on the calendar? There will be plenty of opportunities for all that in the future, but preschool is a time for doing!

Jean Piaget Is Rolling Over in His Grave

Anyone who studies early childhood education encounters the four stages of cognitive development set forth by the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. Piaget studied how youngsters develop intelligence and his findings have profoundly influenced how students are educated around the world. Sadly, however, Piaget is rolling over in his grave now as he sees how far preschools in the United States have moved away from what he discovered, totally dismissing his life's work in favor of academic rigor: workbooks, on-going assessments, long circle times, teacher-directed lessons and less play, creativity, and exploration.

What Is a Child-Centered Classroom?

A child-centered classroom focuses on the learner as an individual with their own unique interests and abilities. It's the antithesis of the one-size-fits-all approach we see at many preschools in the United States. It's characterized by learning centers, dramatic play areas, and a wide variety of hands-on materials. Youngsters are encouraged to explore and learn on their own, making discoveries through their senses.

Child-Centered Preschools Are Disappearing in the United States

Piaget deemed the years between 2 and 7 as the “preoperational stage,” characterized by a child's language development, egocentrism, and imagination. At this stage of development, Piaget would favor a child-centered classroom where youngsters explore materials, interact with one another, and have lots of opportunities to engage in dramatic play—pretending to be chefs in the kitchen, construction workers in the sandbox, and police officers in the courtyard. Since this is a period of rapid and expansive language development, he'd want children to have endless opportunities to express themselves, learn new vocabulary, and communicate in meaningful ways with one another.

Piaget would surely shake his head in despair at what he'd encounter in many preschool classrooms today in the United States. He would be dismayed that the teacher is now front and center, the source of all knowledge. Instead of supporting the children in their own learning, she's force-feeding them information that they're not developmentally ready to handle and is meaningless to them.

Play is the work of children.

— Jean Piaget
Preschoolers learn best by doing and discovering. A teacher should facilitate exploration but not set the educational agenda. Each child should construct their own.
Preschoolers learn best by doing and discovering. A teacher should facilitate exploration but not set the educational agenda. Each child should construct their own. | Source

Preschools Shouldn't Be Adult-Centered Environments

Piaget would be distressed by how preschools in the United States have shifted from child-centered environments with youngsters playing, painting, and pretending to adult-centered ones where the day's activities are organized to fit a grownup's need for structure. Preschoolers don't need circle time, calendar time, lessons on the weather and days of the week, and monthly themes about dinosaurs, planets, transportation, pets, and trees. They need time to play and discover the world by themselves. Their personal curiosity should lead the way, not something imposed by the teacher. The saying “when the student is ready, the teacher appears” is extremely apt for Piaget's preoperational stage.

A Child's Curiosity Is the Starting Point for Learning

If Lily is fascinated by dinosaurs, she needs a teacher who shows her books about them in the class library. If Jackson is into cars, he needs a teacher who suggests he build some with recycled materials in the art center. If Amber is enthralled by pets, she needs a teacher who adds a dog bowl, stuffed animals, and cat toys to the dramatic play corner so it becomes a veterinary clinic. These kids don't need teachers who are experts on everything from physics to robotics to botany. They need teachers who act as facilitators, working deliberately and quietly behind-the-scenes to enliven their unique interests and help them experience the magic of discovering new things.

Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.

— Abraham Maslow

Preschools in the United States Kill Creativity

Employers today are screaming out for workers who are creative thinkers and keen problem solvers but are struggling to find them. This isn't surprising since students in the United States have shown a marked decline in imaginative thinking over the past two to three decades according to results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). These results aren't at all shocking to scholars in early childhood education, who predicted a dramatic decrease in creativity with the decrease in play at preschool (as well as kindergarten and the other primary grades).

The decline in student creativity has long-range implications for our country.
The decline in student creativity has long-range implications for our country. | Source

The Decline in Creativity Has Long-Range Implications for Our Nation

Professor Kyung Hee Kim, who analyzed student scores on the TTCT, writes: "children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle."

If this isn't cause for alarm and a call for action, what is? By becoming hyper-focused on teaching children how to read and do math in kindergarten, we've turned preschool into a period of preparing kids for elementary school with disastrous results and no obvious benefits.

What Is Learned Helplessness?

When people or animals have no control over their situation, they tend to give up and surrender. A dog in a cage at the pound, for example, will bark, whine, and scratch at the bars to get out when he first arrives. But, over time, he'll stop these behaviors and accept his fate. People who experience learned helplessness often suffer severe mental health issues such as increased stress levels, depression, and a lack of motivation.

Children Feel Powerless at Preschool

When we shifted from a child-centered approach at preschool to an adult-centered one, we took power away from kids. We made them less responsible for their learning. We gave them less time for unstructured activities of their own choosing as we packed on the teacher-directed lessons, the workbooks, and the academic rigor.

With less control over their situation, many kids experience a feeling of learned helplessness. They don't have autonomy over their lives at preschool as they're constantly being told where to go and what to do. This leads to despair and frustration.

Even when kids are outside in the play yard, they're often being led by adults in structured activities such as tag, duck-duck-goose, and mother may I. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for them to use their imaginations and to play as they desire.

When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.

— Jean Piaget

Children Need Play at Preschool to Develop Socially and Emotionally

According to Professor Peter Gray, a researcher who studies play from an evolutionary perspective, kids need more of it, not less. He says that play is how young mammals learn crucial social and emotional skills such as sharing, cooperating, communicating, and empathizing. It helps them develop fit bodies, strong minds, and brave hearts so they can take on new challenges and risky situations.

When experiments have been conducted on young rats and monkeys that deprive them of play, the results are absolutely heartbreaking. The animals become emotionally and socially crippled: fearful and aggressive. As we look at the increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide among children, teens, and young adults today, it aligns with the decrease in play at home and at school. Children need preschool to be a time of unadulterated play and discovery, and we should be ashamed of depriving them of that.

Dr. Peter Gray argues that kids need more play, not less.

This Book Will Help Preschool Parents Develop a Long-Range View of Their Child's Education

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life
Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life
When I talk to parents of preschoolers about the importance of play, I get the impression that they think I'm full of crap, airy-fairy, and impractical. So, it's a great relief to have the backup of Dr. Peter Gray, a prominent psychologist and research professor, who's studied the value of play from an evolutionary standpoint. With examples from both the animal kingdom and human history, Gray explains how play is essential to promoting mentally and emotionally healthy beings. He explains how children become smarter and more confident when they're in control of their own learning and how we're making them less creative and capable with too many structured activities and not enough free play.

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      2 years ago

      Yes, Catherine, this is a dark period in early childhood education as academic rigor gets pushed and play gets reduced. However, I think the tide is beginning to turn as I see more interest in "forest schools," where children spend most of their day outside.

      Unfortunately, we have people making decisions about early childhood education who know little or nothing about it. It reminds me when I was a first-year teacher. The principal and vice-principal made an executive decision that the kindergarten classroom should be the smallest room in the school. Their reasoning was: Little kids, little room! It made perfectly good sense to them. It never occurred to them to ask the kindergarten teacher with 20+ years of experience!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 

      2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      This is such a valuable article. I hope children and parents read it. We don't let children be children any more.The parents want to be able to boast: "My Jesse was reading at three." It's so sad.


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