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How academic should a preschool be?

The best preschools blend play time and "seat work," helping develop academic skills while allowing children to learn through play.

By Pam Gelman, M.A.

How do you know which academic skills your child should learn in preschool to be ready for kindergarten? How academic should preschool be? Visiting programs and asking teachers the right questions will help you decide if a particular preschool will adequately prepare your child and is a good match for your child's learning style.

Evaluating academics in preschool

"This is a challenging question, even for researchers," says Leanne Barrett, a policy analyst for Rhode Island Kids Count."Get teachers to articulate how the curriculum helps children in the domain areas listed in the standards."

You'll hear language from teachers, such as "developmentally appropriate," "child-centered," and "whole child" — ask how these words relate specifically to the program. Another reliable indicator is teacher education.

"Look for programs with teachers who have some college-level training in early childhood education," advises Barrett.

Differing philosophies

As you visit preschools, you'll learn about different approaches for preschool curriculum design, including "school readiness" and "developmental." In practice, these philosophies typically blend to meet the needs of all the children.

The school-readiness approach

An approach focused on school readiness will be structured with learning through direct instruction. Children may be expected to work on specific assignments. While some kids can focus for a period of time on an activity, many are not ready and this frustration could affect a child's enthusiasm for learning.

The developmental approach

A developmental perspective favors learning through play. Early childhood educators believe learning occurs by building on the child's interests, and the social development through play is invaluable for later success in school. Kids who prefer to learn through hands-on interactions are better suited for the developmental approach. Parents may walk into these classrooms and note that the kids are happy and having fun, but are they truly learning their ABCs that kindergarten teachers will expect them to know?

Blending the two approaches

The best approach to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten has been an ongoing topic of discussion among educators and policymakers, both wanting to meet the academic needs of all children. Research has shown that children in academically geared programs must also have time for social engagement with peers through play, and developmentally based programs must provide time for all kids to nurture literacy skills in preparation for kindergarten.

Most preschools blend the philosophies. "There should be a good balance," Laura Drake, a preschool teacher in Danville, Calif., says. "Pre-K can provide a unique opportunity to embrace a preschool learning environment that contains a kindergarten-readiness structure while remaining play-based and developmentally appropriate."

Comments from readers

"I love this site; we are first time parents who are tyring to arm ourselves with all the tools needed to make educated choices. THanks!"