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."

What to look for

Reading and writing

Literacy is a common benchmark for parents to gauge the academic rigor of a program. Books, words, letters and writing materials should be accessible for all children throughout the day. Pre-reading skills can be developed through children's experiences with letters and words in writing stations, art projects, reading nooks, music and more. Literacy can also be supported through the daily routine in the classroom, such as putting initials on helper charts or labeling where supplies are stored. Preschoolers must have opportunities to cut with kid-safe scissors, squeeze clay, or explore other materials that develop muscles and coordination necessary to hold a pencil and write.

Math and science

Placing one block on another, arranging seashells in patterns or counting up the number of cereal pieces at snack time — these activities contribute to future understanding of mathematical concepts. In the classroom, kids need to experience materials and activities that promote thinking about the spatial relationships between objects with dice, dominoes, manipulatives, blocks and puzzles.

Like math, science helps kids make sense of their world by prompting them to ask questions, problem-solve and think critically. Preschool teachers build on children's natural curiosity when gardening, caring for classroom animals, following the changing seasons or studying an object under a microscope.

Play and social learning

Play is paramount to learning and preparation for the academic experience in kindergarten. The ability to work with others cooperatively is learned through the development of play. Understanding how to negotiate, compromise and process the disappointment when not getting one's way are all important skills for working on a team. Expressing needs to adults and ideas to peers can be challenging for young children, so the practice provided in preschool sets the stage for language expectations in kindergarten.

Independence and self-help skills

Being able to separate from loved ones is another critical piece toward academic learning. If children are worried or sad because they're missing their parents or caregivers, they'll be distracted and will distract others. Preschool teachers must be prepared to help kids who have trouble saying good-bye, so that they'll be able to master this skill by kindergarten. And kids who know how to take care of themselves, such as hanging up their jackets or washing their own hands, will feel more confident when asked to do so in the kindergarten setting.

Know your school district's expectations for kindergarten readiness

All high-quality preschools promote learning, but nowadays teachers also need to be aware of what will be specifically expected in kindergarten. Drake adds, "It is beneficial if the preschool knows the readiness skills expected of entering kindergartners in the local school district. Every district varies. In this respect the school can gear academic programming to the readiness skills expected."

The bottom line for academic preparation is to find a preschool that works for the individual child's learning style, temperament, needs and interests. Judy Kriege, a childcare resource and referral counselor at BANANAS, Inc., in Oakland, Calif., says, "I receive calls from parents wanting a specific experience for their children in preschool. People have to trust that children have the innate ability to learn." Being happy about going to preschool and enthusiastic about learning are good signs the academic skills are developing to launch your child successfully into elementary school.

Questions to ask when visiting preschools