Lately it seems that everyone is talking about pre-K. When children attend high quality pre-K, they enter school more prepared and are more likely to be successful. But what happens if parents are working and they need child care? Does that mean their child can't get the benefits of pre-K? What exactly is the difference between pre-K and child care?
What distinguishes child care from pre-K is simply an issue of structure: child care is a service that allows parents to work, and pre-K is an educational program offered to young children. Child care is typically offered as a full day, year-round service; pre-K is more likely to be offered as a school-day, school-year program.
The much more interesting question to ask is what kind of learning is going on in these programs. Are children getting what they need for success in school? The good news is that this can happen anywhere in church basements, in family childcare homes, in storefronts, in converted buildings, in buildings designed from the ground up for young children, in Head Start programs, or in public schools.
The critical ingredient is the teachers. Clean, bright classrooms are good; educational materials and equipment help; a good outdoor space is a plus; strong business practices make everything work better. But the teachers are key.
Good teachers understand child development; they set up learning experiences that build on children's natural curiosity and create space for open exploration and play. They listen to children about their ideas, their questions, and their fears. High quality teachers help children through social/emotional turmoil with respect and warmth while finding ways to include everybody. They can communicate confidence and love, which make children thrive. These teachers build the skills that allow them to be successful team members and learners, and their literacy and numeracy skills grow steadily.
Unfortunately, too many programs are not offering these high quality learning environments. In some situations, children are loved but not challenged. In some, unfortunately, they are neither loved nor challenged, but basically warehoused. Some programs are challenging in ways that are not developmentally appropriate, with an academic focus on producing right answers and sight knowledge that can end up backfiring when future learning contexts require them to problem-solve and think.
You can't tell the difference from the outside. The most unimpressive exterior can house a jewel of a program while a bright and appealing fade can be just window-dressing. The interior offers a little more, but can still mislead. A classroom filled with pint-sized tables and chairs, with walls papered in bright posters of letters, numbers, and cute TV characters might look like a child's dream come true. But a classroom that's less eye-catching, with less busy commercial input, more nature, plenty of space to play may offer more opportunities for children to explore and learn.
The best thing to look for is stunningly simple: happy children and happy teachers. Look to see that the teachers seem glad to be there. It should be clear that they like the children and their communication includes affection and respect. If children are busily engaged in a variety of different activities some of their own choice chances are that the foundations are being built for success in school and beyond.
In our desire to get our young children off to a strong start, we must remember: it is not the type of program, physical setting, or appearance that matters, but what is happening between human beings. This is the heart of quality preschool program.
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