What Is Preschool?

By Kathryn Walsh
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The types of preschool programs vary but the goal is always the same: a child enrolled in preschool should learn educational and social skills that will benefit her when she begins school. Understanding what a preschool program does -- and what it doesn't do -- is the first step in making school choices for your little one.

What Preschool Is (and Isn't)

Preschool is the education that precedes kindergarten in a child's life. Children enrolled in preschool are usually between 3 and 5 years old. The typical preschool setting is a classroom with play spaces, tables, an open area for the class to gather and some outdoor space like a playground or fenced yard. Some preschool programs run year-round, with some being half-day and others lasting a full day. With guidance from teachers, children have time for free play and structured activities. In preschool, children should develop pre-literacy skills like letter recognition and pre-math skills like sorting and noticing patterns, while learning how to work with peers. Preschool is not mandatory, and a child who doesn't attend may still thrive in kindergarten. It's also not necessarily the same as daycare. In the right preschool, your child will have one-on-one attention from trained teachers and be in a class of children her same age.

Types of Preschools

Some preschools have relationships with universities or local school systems; others are independently run. The former can be especially useful if your child has special needs, as she may be able to receive early intervention services operated by the same district in which she'll begin kindergarten. Each preschool also has its own philosophy, of which there are many. The non-profit GreatSchools.org lists 12 different preschool philosophies; the one your child's school abides by may dictate her day-to-day experience. For instance, Montessori preschools emphasize individuality and personal responsibility, while a preschool built on the Waldorf philosophy will be structured, with its students following consistent schedules each day. Other preschools are structured especially for children with special needs. Your school district's special education department can help you find the right program for your special needs child.

Does Your Child Need Preschool?

Preschool should be enjoyable for children, a place full of friends and discovery. But that doesn't mean every child must attend. A highly socialized child -- for instance, one who has several weekly play dates and interacts with peers at children's events -- may enter kindergarten feeling confident, able to make friends and understand the mechanics of social interaction (for instance, how to share and take turns). A child who isn't in close, frequent contact with peers will benefit from attending preschool. So too might a child who has never attended daycare or been in a classroom setting, since preschool teaches children how to be students and how to follow a teacher's directions. And if a child's parents work, placing her in preschool might be more useful than sending her to a general daycare, where pre-literacy and pre-math skills might not be emphasized.

Finding Your Perfect Preschool

If preschool's in your child's future, start scheduling visits to prospective schools. Contact your local department of social services to verify that any school you're considering is licensed and has regularly passed safety inspections. At each school, PBS.org suggests, try to picture your child in attendance. Consider how she would react to eating lunch at a table with many other kids, or whether she'd be bored by playing in the small play yard. Pay attention to whether children look bored or engaged and the tone with which teachers address them. Ask about discipline policies, class sizes, enrollment fees and the educational requirements for teachers. Look for children's art on the walls, plenty of age-appropriate toys and supplies, and smiles on the students' faces before signing any enrollment papers.

About the Author

Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.