For many families, preschool is the first time a child is away from family and caregivers. It's also the first experience with learning. So it's understandable that families want to send their children to the best program they can. But what makes a preschool program the "best?"
Often families look for programs that focus on academics. Parents think that getting a head start on reading and math will give their children a leg up when they get to elementary school. This is not necessarily the case. While some academics are helpful, they aren't actually the most important thing for a child this age to learn.
Here's what you should look for in a preschool program:
- Lots of opportunities for play. Play is actually the work of childhood. Through play, children learn problem-solving skills, patience, turn-taking and empathy. They learn creativity and how to focus. In particular, you want a program that offers:
- Open-ended, unstructured play. Look for toys that let children use their imaginations: blocks, dress-up clothes and pretend kitchens.
- Active play. Most preschoolers aren't getting enough exercise these days.This is particularly worrisome since it's during the early years that children learn the habits that will stick with them throughout their lives. Look for a program that gets kids really moving — and often.
- Support for socialization. Some children learn to make friends easily. Other kids have a harder time. Look for a program that encourages kids to play together, and helps those who are shy or socially clumsy.
- A nurturing environment. Preschool can be overwhelming for lots of kids, especially if it is their first time out of the house. As they make that transition and begin to explore the bigger world, you want them to feel celebrated and cherished.
- An approach to academics that emphasizes concepts and fun over rote learning. If kids learn their ABC's but never learn to love books, they may not become the avid readers you want them to be. If they learn their numbers but don't understand the ideas of "less" and "more," they won't be very successful in math. The best way to teach these, actually, is through play: reading aloud and talking about stories, building things and making patterns with beads, measuring flour for cookie or playdough recipes.
- A program that fits your child's personality — and needs. This is particularly important if your child has any physical, emotional or learning challenges; if this is the case, talk to your doctor as you begin to look at preschool programs. But even so, every child is different. To the extent that it's possible, look for a program that best suits your child's temperament and learning style.
- A program that is welcoming and supportive to parents. The children are and should be central. But the best programs find ways to include parents, and offer them support through educational programs, newsletters and parent-teacher conferences.
Ask around about programs in your community. Get ideas and reviews from friends, neighbors and your doctor. Then go visit. Once you've narrowed down your search, you may want to bring your child for a visit.
Remember, though, that you are your child's first and best teacher. While it's important to find a good preschool, there's way more to life than preschool — and what you do at home is just as important.
Read books together, play outside, bake cookies, visit museums, draw pictures, invite neighborhood children to play. These things build your child's future as much as any preschool ever will!
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.