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Preschool 101

Courtesy of University City United Methodist Church Weekday School

Can your 5-year-old son tie his shoes by himself? Should your 3-year-old already know her alphabet? Does your child know how to raise his hand to be acknowledged? What about sharing? And, most importantly, can she stay in a classroom for at least a couple of hours without Mom around?These are all questions parents of young children may begin to ask themselves as they contemplate the prospect of kindergarten. Many conclude that preschool is the most logical answer to looming worries about their child’s scholastic future. This answer, however, only brings more questions about what kind of preschool to choose. “Parents need to decide what they want for their child. Do they want academic instruction or play-based curriculum, and should religion be taught? Then, they should research schools with those in mind,” says Sharon King, director of Piedmont Progressive Preschool on Mallard Creek Road. “Visit the preschool, preferably during classroom time, to see the school in action. Observe how the teachers talk to the children to make sure you feel comfortable with their style of communication. How is the noise level? Are things arranged for the ease and comfort of the adults, or for the greatest benefit of the students? One thing to notice: does all the children's artwork look the same? If it does, that means that the children are not free to unleash their creativity – they are merely following directions. Preschool should be a place for children to be able to explore and create in their own way, within reasonable limits.”King’s school is a nonprofit organization that currently serves close to 40 children, ages 2 to 5 years old, and features a developmentally appropriate, child-centered, play-based curriculum.“The focus is on social and emotional development so that when they enter kindergarten, they are ready to learn academics and can focus on them much better,” says King. “Our school is very nature-based, so the kids spend a lot of time outside both playing and gardening, going on our nature trail for walks, and often just observing the natural world around them. There is a great deal of focus on art, creativity and critical thinking.”University City United Methodist Church (UCUMC) Weekday School, a much larger preschool with approximately 270 toddler to pre-kindergarten aged children, also utilizes a play-based curriculum. “UCUMC Weekday School believes that a child’s work is play,” says Debbie Swartzel, director of UCUMC Weekday School. “The preschool years are for exposure and exploration with less emphasis on mastery. I like to think of preschoolers as collecting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The completed puzzle is a child ready and eager to learn in kindergarten and beyond. Each new experience, each new skill attempted is a piece of that puzzle. Our goal is that in the years that children spend in our classrooms, they will have collected all of those pieces, and many of them will have begun snapping the pieces in place as they get closer to entering kindergarten.”When it comes to choosing the right preschool, Swartzel says she believes that one of the most important and often overlooked aspects parents should consider is philosophy.“Does the preschool’s philosophy about early childhood education match the parents’? If the two have very different ideas about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ children should be learning, there is going to be inevitable discontent,” she says.The University City YMCA Preschool program, which currently serves 93 2- to 4-year-old children, offers a curriculum that focuses on YMCA’s Five Building Blocks: socialization, fine and gross motor skills, education and healthy choices. Children in the program also have access to an indoor pool where 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers swim weekly, Spanish classes for 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers, and a performing arts studio where 2-, 3- and 4-year-old classes participate in weekly music and movement classes taught by YMCA performing arts instructors.University City YMCA Family Services director Kelley Carter offers these suggestions when researching area preschools:“Start by making a list of what’s important, like full-day/half-day care, curriculum, level of academic focus, and recreation learning. The internet is full of great information and a great place to start, but utilizing the ‘mommy network’ is crucial to finding out what programs parents recommend. Once you narrow down the list, visit the preschools. Speak to not only the director, but to teachers and parents. Ask to visit classes while in session.” See below for more good questions to ask according to Kelley Carter. The process may seem daunting at first, but once you’re armed with self-evaluation of your needs and the right questions to ask, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Questions to ask to find the right fit What is your teaching philosophy?

What experience do the teachers have?

What is the daily routine and curriculum?

What is the balance between education and recreation?

What is the level of parent involvement?

Is there time set aside for the parent/teacher meetings?

What is the policy for taking care of sick or injured children?

How is discipline handled?

Does the school have an outdoor space and how often is it used?

What is the vacation and holiday schedule?

For a comprehensive list of UCity's preschools, pick up a copy of our January issue!