Preschool certainly looks like a lot of fun but you may be wondering: will my child really learn anything? And in today’s tough economic climate, is it worth the expense? Most definitely, say early-childhood experts, who insist that play is the ideal way for 3- and 4-year-olds to develop essential academic and social skills. Here are some of the important lessons young children will absorb under the guise of play.
- How to behave at school. The typical preschool classroom can seem pretty chaotic to a casual observer, but there are still rules and routines. “Preschoolers learn how to postpone acting on their first impulse which is so essential,” says Lilian G. Katz, Ph.D., Professor Emerita & co-director of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting (CEEP) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They begin to understand the concept of taking turns and, pretty soon, everyday tasks like lining up to go outside and sitting in a circle for story-time become second nature.
- How to ask for help. By the age of 3 or 4, most children are adept at asking for help at home. But what happens at school when a shoe becomes untied or they don’t quite make it to the bathroom? “In preschool, children have the opportunity to acquire and polish the social skills they’ll need to interact successfully with adults, particularly adults they don’t know,” says Dr. Katz. Research shows that a positive experience with a first teacher helps children gain confidence and form productive relationships with future teachers and adults.
- How to investigate and explore. Endless opportunity for learning exists during playtime. “The optimum environment is both fun and educational and the astute teacher sets out to create just that,” says Stella Leonard, director of the Palm Desert Community Presbyterian Church Preschool and Kindergarten in Palm Desert, CA. “It’s what play-based learning is all about. Measuring cups should always be within reach in the sandbox—that’s an elementary math lesson right there. And introduction to science happens when children are encouraged to follow the flight path of a butterfly who happens upon the playground or to study a ladybug up close.”
- How to make friends. You’re probably in the habit of setting up playdates for your youngster, but preschool gives him the chance to forge friendships on his own and settle differences without the help of a parent or caregiver. “Preschoolers learn how to approach other children and be comfortable around them,” says Dr. Katz. As time passes, they’ll figure out how to start up a conversation by focusing on the other person so that initial interactions become less a case of one-upmanship. Asking “What are you doing?” will win him more friends than the conversation starter “I can dig a deeper hole than that” ever will, but children only gain this social savvy through trial and error amongst their peers.
- How to be independent. In the interest of time management, many parents tend to automatically help their 3- or 4-year olds with the small tasks of everyday life, such as fastening buttons and zippers or opening a packaged snack. But preschool teachers, who may need to get 12 or more kids quickly into their coats and out onto the playground, encourage students to take more responsibility. “Children learn how to put on their own jackets, open their own juice boxes, and remember to wash their hands after going to the bathroom,” says Leonard. Early practice in self-care skills will boost your child’s confidence in other settings such as a visit to a friend’s house where you’re not around to intercede. It will make your life easier too!