Whether you're in the process of selecting a preschool for your little one, or visiting the one he's already attending, here's what you should see as you look around the classroom:
1. The right student-teacher ratio. There should be one teacher for every seven to 10 students and no more than 20 children per classroom. While those are the recommendations issued by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, state laws vary and some permit higher ratios. Choosing a school that follows the NAEYC guidelines will ensure that your child receives enough attention and that her teachers will get to know her as an individual.
2. Daily circle time. During this group meeting, children practice important social skills, such as taking turns, listening to each other and sitting still. They'll also hone their language skills by listening to stories and singing songs. In fact, singing is very important in preschool. "As kids get older they can link song words to written words and that encourages literacy," says Barbara Willer, Ph.D., deputy executive director of the NAEYC. Songs also help children recognize rhythms and count beats, which enhances their understanding of math.
3. A language rich environment. Children should be read to every day. The classroom should have plenty of books available, as well as words posted all over the walls: signs labeling objects, weather charts, and posters describing the children's activities. Even preschoolers' artwork can be used to promote literacy; teachers should write the children's dictated descriptions ("Here is my brown dog.") on the bottom of their pictures.
4. An art center. This should be stocked with easels, chunky paint brushes your child can hold easily, and other materials such as crayons and clay. While art is certainly fun, it also allows children to express their thoughts and concepts in a way they may not be able to in words. In addition, art helps kids develop fine motor control and a basic understanding of science concepts, such as seeing what happens when different colors are mixed and how different media create varying textures. It also gives children a sense of how things change as time passes--paint dries and clay hardens.
5. A block corner. Building with large blocks has been shown to help children develop crucial spatial and problem-solving skills. For example, your preschooler will learn that two of the small square blocks equal one of the longer rectangular blocks--a fundamental principle of geometry. Boys tend to gravitate to the block corner more than girls do. To help interest girls, some teachers have found it helpful to place doll-house furniture in the block corner, because girls often like to play house with the buildings they create.
6. Chores that rotate on a regular basis. Besides developing a sense of responsibility and accomplishment, many chores your child will be asked to help out with in preschool foster math basics. For instance, handing out cups, paper plates, or napkins at snack time introduces the key math concept of one-to-one correspondence.
7. Manipulatives. These are small items such as beads or puzzles that the children can easily "manipulate" with their fingers. All manipulatives help build the fine motor skills that are necessary for writing. In addition, puzzles strengthen spatial skills; sorting and counting buttons or beads help develop early math skills; and Peg Boards and stringing beads help develop eye-hand coordination, which is also an important part of learning how to write.
8. A water table and a sand table. Not only are both of these materials fun, but children can explore so much with them--space, size, weight, force, pressure, and volume, says Lilian Katz, Ph.D. codirector of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Of course, 3- and 4-year-olds will understand these concepts only on a very rudimentary level, but when they're older, they'll be able to build on their preschool experience," Dr. Katz. says.
9. Physical activity every day. Sure, your child's class will head out to the playground when the weather is nice. But the school should also have equipment (mats, climbing apparatus, tricycles, or other riding toys) and space for the kids to play actively indoors on rainy or snowy days. Preschoolers are still developing their coordination and need a chance to practice their large motor skills, says Dr. Katz. Plus, she points out, "we have a serious obesity problem in this country and if preschoolers get some exercise everyday it could be the start of a healthy, lifetime habit that could help them from ever developing a weight problem."
10. New materials introduced frequently. Some schools have an official "discovery table" for displaying items such as autumn leaves or beach glass, while others simply have teachers bring in materials to a designated area of the classroom. "Bringing in new items for the children to explore leads to discussion as well as longer-term projects," says Dr. Katz. For example, an assortment of leaves may prompt a discussion of different types of trees and plants and then inspire the class to plant seeds to see how plants grow, as well as gain an appreciation for the living world around them. "Kids need the chance to wrap their minds around a topic in depth," says Dr. Katz, "and to know there's something they can come back to and explore the next day."
5 signs of a great preschool teacher
Of course, no matter how great a preschool is, your child's experience there will be dictated by whether or not he has an engaging and energetic teacher. According to Barbara Willer, Ph.D., deputy executive director of the National Association for Young Children (NAEYC), teachers should:
1. Have a bachelor's degree or a formal credential in early childhood education. "The research is very clear that a teacher with a degree makes a big difference in the quality of the program," says Dr. Willer.
2. Greet your child by name and with a smile each morning.
3. Come over and crouch or kneel down to talk to the children at eye level. She should not call to them from across the room.
4. Structure the daily curriculum around the children's interests and questions and give kids freedom to choose at least some of the activities in which they will participate.
5. Keep you well informed of the day's activities and any issues your child may be having.
*This article originally appeared in Parents magazine, Sept. 2001.