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And Many Happy Returns

Preschool tips for parents

I know, I know. On some level, referring to the bringing up of children in economic terms can be seen as demeaning or way off point. But I really don’t mean it to be. Rather, I use the investing analogy to help prove the point that our deep goals for our children can be served best if we make intentional, purposeful choices when our children are young. Choosing a great preschool will do much to put your child on a path for long-term school and life success.

Strong early childhood educational programs are different from day care. They provide more structure, are staffed by trained teachers, and are more purposeful in the activities they provide for the children. And while the daily schedule in early childhood programs does revolve around play like day cares, it’s very purposeful play that is designed to help children learn skills that will serve them well throughout their school years.

Young children need structure. They must learn to follow instructions, relate to each other and play in a respectful manner. They must learn that there is an order to things. The activities and routines practiced in early childhood programs (circle time, calendar time, center time) provide that structure and order. Each activity is a building block for future success.

Here are some characteristics of great preschools.

  • Preschool is a busy place! It is neither reasonable nor is it good practice for young children to be expected to sit quietly for long periods of time.
  • Teachers work with individual children, small groups, and the whole group at different points during the day.
  • Children work with play dough and cut with scissors — activities designed to develop muscles in the hands so writing doesn’t hurt.
  • Children engage in creative, dramatic play, bringing the ideas from their imaginations to their interactions with others. This translation is a key element of language development.
  • Teachers read books to individual children and/or small groups throughout the day — not just during whole group time. As part of the reading, teachers ask questions to help the children learn to discuss and predict, discern what came first and next and explore cause and effect. These activities should include lots of how and why.
  • Children are exposed to numbers, colors, the days of the week and other vocabulary to build a foundation for future learning.
  • Children learn to recognize patterns (ABAB, ABCABC) by using colorful manipulatives (tangible shapes or pieces like Legos that they can move).
  • Children learn about science and social studies concepts (the names of body parts and organs, plants, the seasons, helpers in their community, transportation modes) often through song and movement.
  • Activities are not one size fits all. Attention is given to children at the level they each need it, whether the child is advanced or needs additional help.
  • Recess or unstructured play time is also vital. It’s in this setting that children learn to collaborate, get along with others, create games and, most importantly, work out problems.

All these activities build upon children’s natural curiosity. They help to cement their intrinsic motivation to become lifelong learners. And they ought to be fun! Early childhood programs are about learning how to learn in a social setting. The best way to help children meet this goal is for it to be fun!

Though all of these things are important, the most significant element of any early childhood learning experience is the teacher. This is because learning occurs through human interactions. The best early childhood teachers are those who know how to play and find joy in the process. You’ll often find these teachers sitting on the floor with the children, interacting with them in their creative play. These teachers understand how to communicate, listen for understanding, challenge students, provide feedback, observe important developmental milestones and report to parents. The best teachers are those who are genuinely interested in their students. They are the ones who are best equipped to provide the necessary instructional and emotional support that create excellence.

Finally, the hallmark of any great school is that the children must enjoy attending. Crying and complaints about feeling sick should be rare. Happy children make good learners and happy parents are satisfied that they are doing all they can to invest in their child’s growth. The desired return is a young adult who is independent, confident, skilled and grounded by all the attributes of outstanding character. Early investment is the most reliable route to this ultimate success.

Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes, a PreK3 – 12th grade independent school in the north Tampa area. For more information, visit

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