When we toured preschools, a longtime preschool director (and mother of 2 small kids) told us about an important skill for preschool readiness called ‘focus muscle’. She explained to slowly build up focus muscle by not interrupting and letting a toddler concentrate on a toy or a task. For example, if a toddler is playing with a toy, let him play…let a toddler perform each task longer and longer…waiting to take away the toy to change the diaper or feed him. This focus muscle is essentially the predecessor to a child having the ability to concentrate and is essential for future learning.
As first time parents, we asked what pluses there were to sending to a preschool for a 2 year old (neither of us went to school at 2 years old). We were told that a classroom environment with peers provides socialization, learning via peer pressure (yes! even for a toddler there is peer pressure), improvement of speech and vocabulary, separation anxiety, among other benefits. At preschool, toddlers learn good behavior such as waiting your turn, standing in a line, and sitting in a circle.
Another question we were asked was: Do you have a small table and chair set at home? Get your toddler used to sitting at a table, to play or to eat a snack. If your toddler doesn’t sit at a table at home, how can he or she do this at a playgroup or preschool? Also teach your toddler that it is not okay to stand on the chair or table (because this is not done at school either).
We were also told there was a play camp vs. an academic camp for preschool curriculum. Play-based preschools are more child-directed. Walking into a classroom, you can see the different themed stations such as a painting station, a puzzle station, and a building blocks station, while teachers assist and guide students at each station. Academic-based preschools are teacher-directed and what you would typically think of a traditional classroom. Kids learn through structured lessons of phonetics, numbers, vocabulary, and art, etc. We visited a school like this and saw 2 year olds pointing out all the yellow seahorses (then counting how many in total) on a smart board.
There are several philosophies for preschool, such as Montessori, Emilia Reggia, and Waldorf. Reggio Emilia is project-based curriculum, lessons are based on the interest of the students. A school showed us a whole series of classes based on an ambulance, after the kids saw an ambulance and asked to go inside one. For the next few weeks, they made drawings and paintings of an ambulance, reconstructed an ambulance with paper mache, learned and discussed the role of ambulance and read books on ambulance and rescue vehicles. Montessori schools lean towards academic, but child-paced (students learn at their own pace). A babysitter who works as an assistant teacher at a Montessori school said the students are busy with stations such as puzzles, beading on a string, buttoning, Montessori toys called manipulatives. Sometimes classrooms are mixed age (say 3 and 4 year olds together). Waldorf (play-approach) is creatively predictable…and lots of nature (natural materials like wood, leaves…no computers or iPads or other electronics) and outdoors. Kids learn via activities such as acting, singing, dancing, gardening, baking, reading, sometimes with mixed-aged classrooms and no desks, no homework, no quizzes.
Schools will help students meet milestones and prepare for later schooling. An important milestone is tackling separation anxiety that preschools are usually very good at transitioning into. Also, we were told it is very helpful to use some of the same learning toys at home, to start introducing educational toys at home to stimulate curiosity and encourage problem solving.
When selecting a playgroup or preschool, the choice is very personal for each family. In general, what matters to most parents is location, commute, type of curriculum, facilities, safety, teachers, placement or continuity into grade school, and cost. Other factors to evaluate are schedule (8 am vs 9 am start? morning session vs. afternoon session?), accreditation, ease of drop off/pick up (any car parking? stairs?), any specific needs (nut-free school?), and uniforms. The ideal fit depends on the child and what parents seek. What may be best fit for your child and your family may also differ later as circumstances change (new baby, new job, kid can develop a new condition, new childcare). One advice: Consider delaying purchasing a house or apartment, because soon your child may be attending a different school across town.
One father had his 2 year old son at a school across the street from his office, but he said with serious intermittent separation anxiety, his toddler would visibly be anxious and shake every time they approached the school…after a year he decided a fresh start would benefit his child, so enrolled at another school for the next year. One mother was saying she noticed the toddler program was too strict and had her son memorizing letters and songs, so switched to a play-based program. “I want my kid to be a kid and play at this age, especially as my culture is rigid”, she said. She wanted her kid to be painting freely, instead of instructed to copy a drawing of a house. Other parents found that their energetic toddler son was calmer with more structure, so chose a more academically-inclined program plus sport (with lots of active physical exercise like swim and gym classes). A mother with one kid stayed home with her son and everyday spent hours reading, talking, playing and doing puzzles and activity books with him. She planned to go back to work when her son is older. One couple really stressed foreign languages, so enrolled their daughter in two different half-day language immersion schools and their daughter is thriving, now speaking two languages in addition to English.
What works for one family may not be the same for another family, but researching and visiting programs can give you more insight and options. You may discover your opinions and goals change as you visit schools. There is no cookie-cutter approach, but there are numerous options and opportunities. Overall it is quite exciting for us parents to prepare our toddlers for school!