Little Kids

Everything you need to know about preschool

When do kids start preschool? And is my kid really ready to start? Teachers share their insider tips so you’ll know what to expect when it comes to preschool. 

Everything you need to know about preschool

Photo: iStockPhoto

Sending your little one off to preschool is a major milestone. Before the big day comes, you'll probably have a lot of questions. We went straight to the source and got the scoop from preschool teachers. Hopefully, knowing what to expect will make the experience much smoother for you and your child.

What’s the difference between preschool and pre-K?

While they may not seem all that different, and some people use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference between preschool and pre-kindergarten (or junior kindergarten as it’s called in Canada). “Pre-K starts around age four and serves to prepare kids to be successful in kindergarten at age five,” says Lemi-Ola Erinkitola, the founder of The Critical Thinking Child, a program that provides parent workshops and tutoring sessions for kids. “Parents often enroll their child in pre-K to make sure they are prepared and developmentally ready to transition into kindergarten. On the other hand, preschool, which begins at a much earlier age, allows children to work on other skills, such as social needs, without focusing on the explicit purpose of preparing children for kindergarten.” There is still an educational component to preschool, with kids focusing on social-emotional, pre-reading and numeracy skills, explains Erinkitola.

When do kids starts preschool?

Depending on the school and region, the age when kids start preschool can vary. “Children may enter preschool as young as two and a half years old and as old as four,” says Dara Kane, a pre-K head teacher. “The right age to send your child to preschool is an individual decision and should be based on the needs of your child and your family.”

Is your kid ready to start preschool?

The kinds of things preschoolers must be able to do before they begin will vary from school to school. Each school will have its own rules (some require kids to be potty trained, while others don’t), so check the policies of the preschools you’re considering sending your child to. 

“Obviously the younger they start, the fewer requirements the school will have regarding potty training and such for that child,” says Adam Cole, a teacher with the music program Innovative Approaches to Music. “Half-day preschools will not necessarily offer naps, but full-day preschools most certainly will.”

If your child doesn’t meet some of the requirements, speak with school administrators to see how you can proceed. “As an educator, I believe preschools should accept a child where they are developmentally and work individually with the child and parents to help the child develop to their fullest potential,” Kane says. 


But even if a preschool doesn’t have specific requirements, there are some basic self-help skills your kid should know. “They should know how to follow simple two- and three-step instructions, and be comfortable with naptime routines,” says Erinkitola. “Verbal skills are helpful, allowing students to repeat sentences back and clearly make requests. However, many non-verbal children also do well in a preschool environment. They should also be able to separate from their parent and handle new experiences outside of the home. Some children may struggle with this, so it’s important to pay close attention to each specific situation.”

Is preschool mandatory?

No, there is no universal requirement for children to attend preschool in the United States.

In most cases, there is a fee associated with attending preschool, so families should weigh the pros and cons of sending their child. “Educational experts have long discussed the cost benefits and academic value around educating kids prior to kindergarten,” Erinkitola says. “Preschool and pre-K provide opportunities for academic growth and improved critical-thinking skills that are simply not available to many children who stay home during these years. Historically, funding has been the main drawback to creating a mandatory preschool requirement. Some states have implemented laws that require public schools to provide limited preschool services to three- and four-year-old children who are deemed at risk of having limited English-language skills, but preschool is not mandatory across all states.” You should check with your state’s law to see if there are regulations regarding preschool.

What are the benefits of preschool?

“The first five years of a child’s life offer a limited window of opportunity. During this time, a child’s brain can learn the most information in the shortest period of time,” Erinkitola says. “Because of this, a positive preschool experience has countless benefits. It helps to build the foundation for a lifetime of learning, allowing kids to enter kindergarten feeling fully prepared.”

Here are a few of the benefits of preschool:


1. “Children who attend preschool are exposed to a wide range of experiences that may not be easily replicated at home,” Kane says.

2. Being in pre-K takes away the jitters of entering kindergarten when they turn five, says Len Saunders, an elementary pre-K to grade five physical education teacher and author.

3. Enrolling your kid in pre-K helps build verbal communication skills and the ability to work with others, explains Erinkitola. “For example, a social-emotional activity could include working with a partner to complete a puzzle or drawing, allowing a child to engage in problem-solving in a fun, playful way. As a result, students—particularly shy students—are able to practice becoming more comfortable in their social environment,” she says.

4. Preschool classrooms provide structure by creating daily routines and procedures that children thrive on, explains Kane.

5. It sets children on the right academic path. “With more demanding classroom curriculums, children are expected to enter kindergarten with more knowledge than ever before,” Erinkitola says. “It’s important to expose them to pre-reading and early numeracy skills so they feel comfortable and confident in their kindergarten setting.”


6. The playground isn’t just a place for sliding and swinging—it’s where your child is developing a variety of essential developmental and life skills. “Hopscotch, tag, Mother may I and other playground games help children learn to follow directions and rules, increase attention span, play co-operatively and take turns,” Kane says. “Gross motor skills are strengthened by climbing, jumping, hopping, running, biking and scooting.”

What to look for in a preschool

First, you need to decide what you want in a preschool. “It should fit both your child’s learning style and your lifestyle, so everything from hours of operation to classroom structure is potentially important,” Erinkitola says. “Write down information that’s critical to your child’s preschool experience, such as how often you want them to attend and what learning environment you want them to experience. You should know in advance whether you are looking for a preschool with an academic, structured learning environment or a flexible, play-focused environment.”

An easy place to start finding options is within your social circle. “Recommendations from friends should always be number one on any list,” Saunders says. “But always try to visit the school multiple times to take a tour and learn about the staff and the environment.” Be sure to start the hunting process early so you have time to evaluate your options without feeling rushed into a decision. And when you visit each center, be sure to think about these 15 questions you should ask on your tour.

Here’s what to look for in a good preschool:


Community: “Good preschools should cultivate a community and develop strong bonds between home and school,” Kane says. “Does this preschool reflect your family's values and beliefs? Do you feel welcome and comfortable?”

Curriculum: “You want to find a good balance between creative play and education, with a child-to-teacher ratio that allows your child to feel seen and heard,” Erinkitola says. “Critical-thinking skills depend on the ability to ask questions and explore, and a positive learning environment is necessary.” Two critical questions to ask on your tour: What are the teacher-to-student ratios in the classroom and can you see an example of what an average day is like so you get an idea of what the structure and curriculum are like.

Classroom environment: “Classrooms reveal a lot about the school and its educational philosophy,” says Kane. Are materials accessible to the children? Are the walls covered with the children's work and accompanied by documentation that explains the children's work process? Are the classrooms clean? Is the furniture and equipment of good quality and safe?

Administration and teaching staff: Do you feel that the administrators and teachers are knowledgeable, caring and will be good partners with you?

Stimulation: “The more stimulating the environment in which they spend their time, the more opportunities they will have to learn,” Cole says. “By stimulating, I mean age-appropriate, sensory and social stimulation, an environment with challenges for them to explore and overcome, things that make them curious, things that make them laugh, smile and even get mildly frustrated, such as age-appropriate puzzles and games that require them to work out a solution.” Look around the classroom and take note if it’s full of colorful displays and age-appropriate toys. Are there lots of books? Are the toys new or do they look worn down?


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