What age do kids start preschool? Should your little one attend preschool? How much does it cost to send them to an early childhood program?
For all of these questions, we spoke to Detroit-area early education professionals for some insight and answers.
Q: Does preschool really matter?
There are many benefits to sending children to an early childhood program before they enter kindergarten. Yet there are some common misconceptions about preschool, too
“People commonly assume that it’s just day care or babysitting, and really it’s not,” says Shawness Woods-Zende, a former quality improvement consultant at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. She says that being in groups and socializing while in preschool “contributes to (a child’s) brain development.”
Another misconception? “That they play all day,” Woods-Zende says. A quality preschool program includes early reading and math lessons, hands-on projects, field trips and more.
Sure, some curricula, she says, are play-based, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t learning going on. Woods-Zende calls it “active learning.”
“(It’s) putting together experiences so the children can actively engage with those things,” she explains. “So for them, it’s playing. But when you have a classroom that’s well put together, there’s a method behind that.” Stacking blocks, for example, might be a lesson in colors, spatial relations or counting, she adds.
Preschool affords kids much more in the way of preparedness for life, too.
“It will build language, social skills, emotional skills – they’ll learn so many things that they need that will help them in kindergarten,” Woods-Zende says.
Plus, she notes, “Even if they don’t come into kindergarten knowing how to read or knowing how to write, the things that they’ve learned in an early childhood environment will now help them to quickly adapt and pick those things up.”
Q: When is my child ready for preschool?
A: The earlier, the better.
So, what age do kids start preschool? While it can often depend on the family, the child and their needs, many early childhood experts recommend early is the way to go.
According to Denise Smith, executive director at the Flint Early Promise Collaborative, “a lot of parents are hesitant when their children are babies” to send their kids to an early childhood program.
However, “By the age of 3, a baby’s brain has reached almost 90 percent of its adult size,” according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway’s “Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Brain Development” report.
It notes, “The growth in each region of the brain largely depends on receiving stimulation, which spurs activity in that region. This stimulation provides the foundation for learning.”
In addition, preschool programs help develop a child’s social and emotional capacity.
“When children are around others, they learn to share,” Smith says. They also learn to self-regulate, which means kids learn thoughtfulness about their actions — and patience.
Woods-Zende says the earlier kids are in an early learning program, “the better.” They will be used to the class environment when they move up to kindergarten, know how to socialize with others – and there’s a benefit for parents.
“It gives you a chance to look around and see what’s out there, see what’s available, talk to other parents, see where their children are going,” she says. “And it just gives you an opportunity to see, ‘OK, this is where I want to go’ instead of waiting until they’re 4 and saying, ‘Oh, they’re going to be in kindergarten next year, I want to get them ready.'”
And while attending a pre-K program is not necessarily required for kindergarten, “They’re ready,” Toni Hartke, former director of Wayne County Great Start Collaborative, says – making it a great reason to research and grab a preschool site visit checklist.
“The children can learn those things. So why wait?” she says. “They are more apt to be successful, then, when they get to kindergarten.”
Hartke continues, “We don’t want to keep seeing so many children getting to kindergarten who had no exposure to anything and then they’re flunking kindergarten – being held back in kindergarten.” Plus, Hartke notes it’s also not good to have “children passed forward who aren’t ‘getting it’ – and then they’re going to be behind forever.”
She says that as long as kids are in a program at age 3 or 4, “You’re good.”
Kids can attend Head Start, the federally funded preschool program, starting at age 3. Michigan’s Great Start Readiness preschool program requires kids to be 4 years old by Nov. 1 of the school year.
Q: Are children required to go to preschool?
A: No, but they need early education of some kind.
Some parents may choose not to send their children to preschool, opting to keep them home with them or in the care of a friend or relative. That’s OK, says Hartke, as long as “families give their children the most advantages that they can to be ready for school.”
That means parents and guardians have to ensure that whomever is with their child during the day is making a point of engaging the child in specific ways to help with their development.
“What we really want is to have education for parents, so they know – here are some experiences that children need. You know, (kids) need to have socialization so that will help with language; they need to be read to,” she says. These are things that can be done at home.
However, if there aren’t books, toys and stimulating experiences available at home, “then you want to go into a preschool,” she says. And by age 3 “or for sure at 4,” even if you have these components available at home, “I think it’s a good experience,” she adds. Plus, as numerous studies have shown, kids who attend preschool have greater odds of lifelong success.
Q: How much does preschool cost?
A: It depends. But in southeast Michigan, there are plenty of free programs.
Preschool is not mandatory, though it is highly recommended. As a result, it’s not part of the traditional, free public school K-12 program. That means parents and guardians have three options when it comes to paying for preschool for their kids.
This option is the most straightforward in picking the perfect preschool: Select a high-quality program that’s convenient for you, inquire about the price and sign up your child (if the preschool has openings).
The full cost of the preschool program is the family’s responsibility to pay without help. The cost varies depending on the program, but Smith estimates the cost at anywhere from $400 to $1,600 a month. If going this route, be sure to ask when and how often payments are due.
“If you are a parent who is eligible for financial or support services through the state because of your income,” then you are probably eligible for subsidized preschool for your child, says Monica Duncan, who has worked with First Children’s Finance Michigan office and is now director of early childhood services at IFF. “Subsidized” means someone is helping to pay for that expense. In this case, that “someone” is the state of Michigan.
You can apply to the Michigan Department of Human Services asking for “child care” help, which includes many licensed preschool providers. When looking for a preschool, be sure to ask if it accepts the DHS child care subsidy.
There are a several options for free preschool for low-income families:
This federally funded program offers educational, social, food and health programs to children living in low-income households. There are two programs: Early Head Start, which provides services to pregnant women and children from birth to age 3, and Head Start, which offers support services to children ages 3-5, says Hartke.
The term “Head Start” is often used to reference simply the preschool component of the larger federal program.
To qualify for the Head Start program, income must be at or below poverty level, or the family must be homeless, have children in foster care, or be receiving Supplemental Security Income or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, according to the national Head Start website.
Visit the Michigan Head Start Association website for a program locator or call the association at 517-374-6472.
Funded by the state, this program also serves families living in low-income households, except GSRP accepts children living in homes at 101-250 percent of the poverty level, Hartke says.
In addition, children living in households over 250 percent of the poverty level who also have other risk factors are accepted as well, she notes. On the state’s website, you can find the income eligibility guidelines.
To apply for a GSRP preschool, call your local intermediate school district (ISD) or call Great Start’s toll-free hotline at 877-614-7328.
Title I provides federal financial assistance to districts and schools with a high percentage of kids who live in low-income households to reduce achievement gaps.
The schools/districts determine how to spend the money. Children must be 4 years old by Nov. 1 of the school year to attend.
This post was originally published in 2013 and is updated regularly.