A typical preschool day for Katelynn includes circle time with her classmates, songs, stories, and games in the “Muscle Room” (aka, gym).
“It’s not super structured,” says mom Casey. “It’s more play-based.”
All those fun activities have a purpose, however. A game played with dice, for example, is actually designed to introduce young minds to numbers, counting, and the importance of taking turns.
That’s what preschool is all about – what feels like play to children is actually the start of their academic future. But before they blast off on their education journey, there’s plenty you can do to help them prepare.
A Need-to-Know Basis?
Parents may wonder if there are certain skills or tasks their child should have mastered before entering preschool. Not really, according to Angie McDonald of 4C for Children, a childcare resource and referral network.
“Just being a child is all you need!” says McDonald, adding that while it certainly helps to work with your kids on what she calls “self-help skills” – think potty training, but also the ability to identify a helpful adult and ask for help when needed – preschools and programs will vary on what they expect of their students.
Katelynn’s school did request she be potty-trained, but Casey points out that it wasn’t a deal-breaker for the school if Katelynn hadn’t been trained. The program takes children as young as 2-and-a-half years old, and staff is used to working with little ones on big tasks.
At the Summit Country Day School (summitcds.org), Montessori Director Kathy Scott explains that while the school doesn’t necessarily have “expectations” of potential preschoolers, they do like to conduct an assessment that will help give their teachers a starting point for working with children.
“Parents are very attuned to things like ABCs or counting,” she says, adding that while exposure to letters is great, it’s not a requirement. Instead, Summit staff looks for qualities like the ability to follow simple directions, comfort level around other adults and children, ability to “attend” or control self, and how well does he interact with the environment, meaning does he approach other children or materials with curiosity. Scott adds that the staff also looks for whether or not children have reached widely accepted milestones for their age – can they speak some words to communicate their needs, can they stand and walk independently and do things like climb stairs, all of which demonstrate balance? These things help a child to function in the classroom, she points out.
“We look at the whole package for preschool readiness,” she says, “then adapt and address individual needs. He doesn’t have to know his ABCs – we start with the child and where he is.”
What You Can Do
Still feeling unprepared for your little one’s big first day at school? There are a couple steps you can take. McDonald says that Mommy & Me classes are “absolutely” helpful, and good for developing social skills for little ones. An added bonus is that parents get to meet and connect with other parents working through the same issues, concerns and accomplishments. Scott recommends looking for classes that allow parents to step back a little and let kids explore and play independently – giving them both a confidence boost, and a chance to learn separation from Mom or Dad. To that same end, Scott adds that playgroups and activities that are short in nature can help children learn to be around other children.
4C for Children has teamed up with the local library systems for Play & Learn, a biweekly gathering parents and their children ages 0 – 5 who are not in a formal child care program. The groups are led by facilitators trained on the national Kaleidoscope Play & Learn® Program – families spend 90 minutes on developmentally appropriate play activities, with additional materials for parents to use at home. A complete schedule can be found online at 4cforchildren.org.
What Can You Expect?
“The best thing parents can is be ready for children to get messy!” says McDonald. “That’s how they problem-solve and learn.” She adds that the state of Ohio has developed what are known as Early Learning and Development Standards (education.ohio.gov), markers of a child’s social/emotional, cognitive, language/literacy, and gross/fine motor skill abilities. There is also attention paid to Approaches Toward Learning, which looks at a child’s attitude toward learning, initiative, curiosity, level of attention and motivation to try new experiences. Preschool programs can use these standards as a guideline for what children will accomplish during their time at school.
Katelynn’s school operates much like a co-op, according to Casey – parents are expected to take a day to help and be a part of the classroom experience. It gives teachers a chance for some one-on-one time while a parent leads a story time with other students, the benefit being that parents can see how to take what’s happening in the classroom and continue those lessons at home.
Summit’s First Steps Program, for ages 18 – 36 months, introduces children to the Montessori philosophy and prepares them for the Toddler Program for ages 3 – 5. At Summit, there are four major goals, according to Scott. One is Independence and helping children take on more tasks on their own – like setting their own table at lunchtime. It may not be perfect, says Scott, but it’s in the general area, and accomplishing these sorts of tasks helps build a child’s confidence. A second goal focuses on Control – teaching children to do things without making a mess, or cleaning the mess afterwards, for example. Developing Concentration is a third goal; and lastly, children learn about Order – that everything has its place, there is a beginning, middle and end to tasks, and it’s important to return items where they belong. (This will come in handy as students progress to higher grades, Scott says.)
When researching preschools, McDonald advises parents to look for Ohio’s Step Up to Quality program, and Kentucky’s All STARS program. Both are rating systems of childcare and preschool programs in which schools participate voluntarily. Completion of certain milestones, like a low student-to-teacher ratio, gives the school a higher rating. Learn more about each program at stepuptoquality.org or kentuckyallstars.ky.gov.
Preschool readiness and success will really come down to finding the program that best suits your family’s needs. Casey wanted a program for Katelynn that was kind to children and incorporated a lot of fun. Convenience and a flexible schedule were also on the wish list. “I think you have to find what works for you and your family,” she says. “It’s about where you fit in best.”
“Kids have only been around for three years,” says McDonald. “Expecting them to be ready is a lot to ask.” So allow the school to be ready for your child! McDonald suggests touring and observing programs, and bring your future preschooler with you to see how he reacts to the environment and the staff. Plus, visiting and interviewing with the school, like children do at Summit, will give the faculty a chance to learn about their students’ starting points so they can teach to the best of each child’s ability. “If you provide the right environment, kids can do so many things,” says Scott.