The year before school is an important link year in helping children to prepare for the formal learning environment that is school. Carol Allen, Executive Director of the Kindergarten Parents Victoria, explains what you should look for in a good preschool program.
A growing body of scientific evidence points to a number of important factors in improving the developmental outcomes for young children. They are:
- good nutrition
- responsive caregiving
- well thought out early childhood development programs
These things set the base for competence and coping skills that have an effect on learning, behaviour and health in the years to come.
Children learn through play. Simple things, such as reading to a 18-month-old child, joining in with a three-year-old playing with water and sand and talking about what is happening or helping a four-year-old to kick a ball are all powerful stimuli. Experiences such as these lay the foundations of brain development.
Young children attending preschool or kindergarten programs in the years prior to school will benefit from developmentally appropriate programs provided by early childhood trained teachers.
What should parents look for in a pre-school or kindergarten program?
Rather than having an expectation that by a certain age a child should be at a certain stage, it is more realistic to understand the general principles that underpin kindergarten programs. All children will follow a cycle from developing awareness, to exploring, to inquiry, and then putting it into practice in relation to what they have seen, heard and learnt.
Awareness comes from experiences with events, objects, people and concepts. The more experiences children have at this stage, the more they will learn.
Exploration - children playing with water, for example, may feel it, weight it, measure it, taste it and pour it into different size containers. This is the exploration process of figuring out how things work in relation to events, objects, people and concepts.
Inquiry is the process of developing and understanding commonalities across events, objects, people and concepts. For example, all animals walk on four legs but there is a difference between cats and dogs.
Utilisation is the practical level of learning when children apply the understanding of events, objects and people.
Early childhood teachers are trained to encourage children to go through these stages of development while at the same time fostering the child’s self concept and values. The early childhood teacher plans for the child as an individual learner. Children’s first learning experiences are linked to their immediate family before extending to the wider community.
The early childhood setting should be child centred and adult supported, as well as physically and emotionally safe. Teachers will create a learning environment introducing new objects, events and people.
They will invite interest by posing problems which respond to children’s interests or shared experiences. Teachers will also facilitate children’s learning through exploration and provide opportunities for extension of play.
Open ended questions, such as “What else could you do…” “What happens if …” help children to make connections by providing meaningful situations to use their learning skills.
There are several different preschool programs available to families, such as:
- the traditional preschool program, which is based on the developmental approach and provides experiences for children to grow and develop, incorporating their family and social context. This approach is practiced in most preschool services.
- the Montessori program which is based on observations that 3-6 years of age are the key years for learning when a child absorbs all they see and do. During this age there are sensitive periods when children are drawn towards specific areas such as language, order, co-ordination and numbers. The groups are multi-aged with 3-6 year olds in the same group. The teacher is only a guide and observer, treating the children as capable thinking individuals. The purpose of the Montessori approach is to nourish the natural learning ability of the preschool child at a time when they are most keen to learn.
- the Steiner Preschool which is based on the philosophies of Rudolf Steiner who lived in Austria at the turn of the century. With the emphasis on critical thinking and an artistic teaching method, Steiner education aims to develop self-confident, independent thinkers with the ability to deal creatively with all that confronts them. The years 0-7 are thought of as the vital years where children learn through imitation and doing. The aim of Steiner is to educate the whole child – the will, the heart, the intellect – so that they can seek their own unique paths.
What makes a quality preschool program?
You can get a real feel of the place by going there and spending a couple of hours just quietly observing what is happening in the room. Talk to the teacher and ask her to tell you about the program. These are some of the things to consider when deciding on where to send your child:
- Do you feel welcome and comfortable when you enter the room?
- Is the room light, interesting, warm, cool, a ‘good’ place to be?
- Do staff seem to interact warmly with the children?
- Are the children happily involved in their play?
- Are both the room and the playground well organised and appropriately equipped?
- Does the program include both individual and group activities?
- Are children encouraged to participate in activities, which require listening and concentration?
- Are activities wide ranging and include art, craft, music, movement, physical activities, with children being able to select their own activity?
- Are you invited to participate in the program by contributing your own experiences and are you encouraged to ask questions about the program and your child’s development?
- Is the program clearly displayed?
- Is your culture and language reflected in the program and are interpreters available if needed?
As each child is an individual and will grow and develop differently, so too is each preschool. Make sure that you are satisfied that the aim of the service is to help your child grow in self-confidence, independence and competence to meet the challenges of the years ahead. Then you can feel assured that your child will benefit from their preschool year.
By Carol Allen
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2001. Updated July 2009.