An early childhood setting in which children combine learning with play within a comprehensive program run by professionally trained adults.
In spite of the inclusion of the word school in preschool, preschools have traditionally been more concerned with social skills, emotional maturity, and cognitive development than with formal academic schooling. Although children are most commonly enrolled in preschool between the ages of three and five, those as young as two can attend. The term preschool is sometimes used interchangeably with nursery school and child care center. In 1990, 28.8% of three-year-olds and 49.1% of four-year-olds were enrolled in preschool programs, about twice what it had been a generation earlier. Reasons for this dramatic increase include a rise in the
Preschools vary widely in setting, affiliation, format, and educational philosophy. They may offer either all-day or half-day programs, either every day or several days a week. They may be completely independent, affiliated with a school or religious organization, or part of a nationwide chain. So-called lower schools, which are affiliated with private schools, maintain an educational philosophy in accord with the parent institution, although the children they enroll are often as likely to attend public school or even a different private school. A growing number of states have begun funding preschool programs offered at public schools, called pre-kindergarten (or pre-K) programs. They may be administered by the local school board or by an independent contractor paid by the state. Like private school programs, they may run for half a day or a full day. Preschools offered by a day care or child care center are generally all-day programs running from early morning to dinnertime or later to accommodate parents with full-time work schedules. Nursery schools, or play schools, usually offer half-day programs or even more flexible scheduling that allows a child to attend for a time period that the parents select. Cooperative (co-op) preschools are distinguished by the role that parents play. In return for lowered tuition costs, they assist trained teachers in supervising children and perform a variety of other administrative and physical tasks that keep the school going, such as serving on committees, repairing toys, and helping maintain the school building. A final type of preschool setting is Head Start, a free federally funded program for "at-risk" three- to five-year-olds from low-income families. These programs, available in all 50 states, are offered in a variety of formats, including both all-day and half-day programs, some of them held at the public school a child will eventually attend. Head Start programs in rural areas may be home based.
Whatever their format, preschools offer parents and children certain typical benefits. Working parents can give young children a level of care that is more stimulating to their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development than leaving them with a babysitter. Through its structured play activities, a good preschool program can help children develop their gross and fine motor skills, improve their language and communication abilities, and exercise their creativity. Children, especially those with few playmates, can develop valuable social skills, learning to relate to other children their own age and interact in groups, as well as to relate to adults other than their parents. Preschool can promote self-esteem, independence, and a sense of identity. It can also create a positive attitude toward the upcoming school experience.
However, in spite of their potential advantages, preschools are not for everyone, and there are several valid reasons against enrolling a child in one. While most youngsters enrolled in preschool experience a brief period of distress over separation from their parents, separation anxiety in some children is acute enough to indicate that they are not yet ready emotionally to make the transition from being looked after by a parent or other individual caregiver. In addition to tolerating separation from parents, three- and four-year-olds who are ready for preschool should be able to dress and feed themselves and express their needs verbally. Also, most programs for children this age expect them to be toilet trained. Preschool can be expensive, and some parents simply cannot afford it. Also, attending a preschool can do more harm than good if it is run by either authoritarian or overly permissive teachers. After investigating preschools in their area, parents may not find any to their liking and conclude that their child is better off being looked after at home and socializing with friends and neighbors.
In the 1980s, many parents began to approach the preschool experience as a form of accelerated education that could give their children a competitive edge by putting them on an academic "fast track." The so-called "hothousing" trend toward providing highly structured, intensive academic programs for preschool children has been decried by many respected child development authorities, including pediatrician and author T. Berry Brazelton and David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and Miseducation. Critics of academic saturation programs have pointed out that the trend toward turning out "superkids" creates inappropriate expectations relative to the developmental level of most three- and four-year-olds, who cannot truly learn at an elementary-school level. They claim that what appears to be early learning is often little more than rote memorization that does less for children's real intellectual development than less structured traditional play activities that allow them to explore and experiment. Another common criticism is that any lasting academic gains made by hothousing are negligible, especially in light of the emotional stress often created by the pressure these programs place on children.
Parents choosing a preschool for their youngsters need to consider a number of factors in making their decision. If their state or locality has licensing requirements for preschools, they should know whether the facility is licensed. They should inquire about the background of the director and staff. Special training in child development or early-childhood education is more applicable to preschool teaching than experience teaching older children. Questions can also be asked about the age and background of teachers' aides, who spend a substantial
It is universally recommended that parents visit any preschool they are considering while it is in session before deciding to send a child there. The physical environment should be safe, spacious enough for vigorous exercise, and clean (although not perfectly neat). Parents should note whether there is an adequate outdoor play area, either right outside the building or nearby. There should be a good selection of appropriate indoor and outdoor play equipment, including blocks, puzzles, sand, dress-up clothes, and tumbling mats for indoor play and climbing equipment, tricycles, and slides for outdoor play. Parents should also look for signs of ongoing creative and fine-motor activity, including a good supply of crayons, scissors, and paint brushes. The atmosphere of the preschool is also important. Parents should note whether the children are free to be active and enjoy themselves, but also whether it is clear that an adult is in control. Other items that merit attention are quality of food service (if applicable), provisions for medical emergencies, and fire safety.
Many preschools have phase-in programs to help minimize separation anxiety during a child's initial adjustment period. After an introductory parent-and-child visit to the facility, the preschool may have a teacher visit the child at home to help bridge the gulf between home and school and give parent, child, and teacher a chance to get acquainted. Children who are to attend preschool for a full day may go for a short period of an hour or two the first day, and then stay a little longer every succeeding day until the full day is attained. In addition, for the first several days or weeks after school begins, parents are often allowed to stay at the facility for all or part of the time their children are there.