Not too long ago, kindergarten was considered a child’s first experience with formal education, and everything that came before kindergarten was optional fun — but not necessary for a child’s success. This misconception about the value of early childhood education continues, leaving parents to ask why preschool is important, says Sarah Davey, Director of Early Childhood at Walled Lake Consolidated Schools.
Early childhood education is focused on teaching essential skills that form the foundation for success in kindergarten and beyond, Davey says. “Many children come to kindergarten and are just not ready, and readiness is different for each child and depends on experiences at home and in society as well as exposure to other groups of children,” she says.
Children who don’t attend preschool miss the chance to build skills they’ll need for kindergarten, including participating in a group, waiting their turn, sharing supplies, listening to the teacher and following directions, even resolving conflicts. “The challenge for a kindergarten teacher is that some children come with little knowledge of these tasks and it takes time to learn these things. Preschool serves as a child’s first step in learning how to function in a classroom successfully,” Davey says, adding that these fundamental skills come before even learning how to hold a crayon or use scissors.
Working cooperatively in a small group, where they listen to suggestions and come up with a plan are critical skills every student needs, even before kindergarten starts. And these aren’t skills kids will necessarily learn on their own, Davey says. “This is where a teacher comes in to facilitate and give children words to use and ways to focus on problem solving. The goal for preschool is that by the end of the year, kids will begin to work on solving their own problems and coming up with plans individually and in a group setting,” she says.
Two decades ago, students got their first exposure to literacy and math in kindergarten, but expectations are higher for today’s kindergartners. “With increasingly higher expectations for kindergarten, it’s really important they have some exposure before even getting to kindergarten,” Davey explains.
Much more than play
In classrooms at Walled Lake Consolidated Schools’ brand new Early Childhood Center — or at any early childhood classroom in elementary schools within the district — students explore the foundational skills needed for their K-12 education through what they do best — play.
Whether children are participating in the district’s tuition-based, federally funded Head Start or state-funded Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), they’re engaging with credentialed teachers and evidence-based curriculum and assessment programs, assuring a high-quality experience.
“If you glance into a classroom, it really looks like play, but what you don’t see is all that is going on behind the scenes,” Davey says. “If they are playing in the house area, for instance, they are pretending to cook, but they are also practicing social skills, math and problem solving. They’re taking turns and negotiating. They’re creating processes and following their own directions by figuring out what they need to change a baby’s diaper and making mental lists. They’re developing those important cognitive skills by developing a plan and following through with the plan.”
All of these essential cognitive processing skills, Davey says, transfer directly to various subject areas including writing, when, later on, students check to make sure they have paper, a pencil and an idea to work with.
Wherever and whatever children are exploring, there’s discussion happening. “Teachers listen and learn the students’ thoughts and ask open-ended questions during their play. The best conversations come out when the children are engaged and relaxed,” Davey says.
The preschool classroom is ideal for student-led learning, capturing the interests of children in the moment and blending academic concepts in a real-world context.
“If the kids are interested in trains, we incorporate science and math and explore with students where trains go and how long the tracks need to be. Trains carry people, but what goods do they carry? We can create a map of our classroom and explore where the trains can go. It all looks like play, but there are so many elements, including literacy when we draw pictures and write. The whole project is based around our students’ interests,” Davey says.
Seek quality early childhood education
When searching for an appropriate preschool program for your child, make sure you select a licensed center. “This is important because it means proper background checks and protocols for a safe and effective preschool program have been established. The teachers and director should have appropriate credentials and training,” Davey suggests. “It might not seem like a big deal but it shows the facility went through the process to make sure they are following health and safety rules and regulations, especially with the pandemic still on our heels.”
Ask about routines. “Kids really thrive on schedules and routines and it doesn’t have to be rigid, but it helps children regulate when they know what to expect and what’s coming next,” Davey says. Maybe the day starts with breakfast, followed by group time, then work time, then outside time. “Knowing there is a flow to the day and predictability helps ease separation anxiety, too.”
Learn about the school’s curriculum and teaching philosophy. “At Walled Lake, we use the High Scope curriculum and it aligns with the COR Advantage research-backed assessment tool,” Davey says, adding that at Walled Lake, grant-funded programs use the same high-quality assessments and curriculum and teachers have the same qualifications as tuition-based programs. “It’s a huge goal in Walled Lake to make sure our programs are equitable across the board.”
Finally, know that preschool isn’t all-or-nothing. Grant-funded Head Start and GSRP are full days, Monday through Thursday, and there’s flexibility within Walled Lake’s tuition-based preschool.
“We want parents to know that there are options and any little bit makes a difference. Maybe your child doesn’t need five full days each week; parents know their children and what they think is the best fit for their needs. There are half-day and full-day, two-, three- and five-day tuition-based programs,” she says.
Learn more about Early Childhood Education at Walled Lake Consolidated Schools. Visit wlcsd.org/programs/preschool.