I remember worrying that my daughter would spend her first morning at preschool curled up in a corner, fending off greetings from her teacher and new classmates. That Monday, I helped her find a spot for her lunchbox, hugged her, and predicted, “You’re going to have fun.” Then I turned to leave and she faced the big day on her own. Your 3- or 4-year-old will gradually grow more independent from you this year, but her journey isn’t designed to be a solo experience. Along with your child’s teacher, you are a key part of the preschool team. You’ll celebrate accomplishments and help reinforce classroom lessons at home. Prepare to be amazed and proud the first time your daughter writes her name or your son shares news that he has a new best buddy. “The 3-year-old classroom is fun. We know that the children are learning, but they think they’re just having fun,“ says Michelle Gross, director of the Early Childhood Center at Memphis Jewish Community Center.Learning Through Play Early childhood educators strive to make the preschool classroom a safe and welcoming place where children can follow their curiosity and develop a love of learning. “Kids need to be able to look around the environment and say, ‘Wow. This is my place,’ ” says Mary Palmer, director of Southwest Community College’s Early Childhood Education programs. Through stories, music, art, and dramatic play, kids learn language, math, and science skills. Many preschool classrooms have stations for free play and exploration, stocked with manipulatives, blocks, art materials and books. “Children are always learning, but we need to be intentional. If it’s not information they can use, they will discard it,” says Palmer. Gross notes that preschool education has always been regarded as important in helping children learn social skills. But she adds, “Now there are increasingly higher expectations for children in kindergarten and first grade, so preschool helps prepare them for those challenges.”Self-Help Skills At preschool, children soon discover what it means to learn and play in a group. They’re working on things like cooperation. “In 3-K, we want kids to be comfortable participating in a group, playing with friends, approaching friends, waiting turns, and taking turns,” says Gross.
Practicing self-help skills is also a big part of preschool. Teachers ask children to pick up toys, put away backpacks, wash hands, and sit patiently during mealtime. In addition, the fundamental elements of reading and math begin. Children learn how to hold a pencil and print uppercase alphabet letters, as well work on writing and recognizing numbers. During the year, a major focus is on building language skills. Silly rhyming songs become more than just child’s play. “We work on phonological awareness, the sounds of language that are foundational skills in learning to read,” says Gross. “We also build oral language skills through storytelling and work on extending conversations with other kids as a building block for written language.” Adds Palmer, “By spring of 3-K, we hope that things come together and a child recognizes the numbers zero to 10, recognizes lots of uppercase letters, has increased vocabulary, and better fine and gross motor skills,” says Palmer.Structure Increases in 4-K In the 4-K classroom, “Children are much more independent. There’s less playing and more focus on work, but we try to keep it fun and engaging,” says Gross. “We kick information that was covered in 3-K up a notch. Children will start to recognize uppercase and lowercase letters and to write their full names.” Older preschoolers learn to use standard and nonstandard measurements, figuring lengths by using rulers and drinking straws. The classroom calendar is a versatile teaching tool as children learn about patterns and sequencing. Students also make hands-on discoveries by planting seeds, studying objects with a magnifying glass, and stacking nesting cups.Continue Learning at Home It’s important you remain involved throughout the year. Here are things you can do at home: • Discuss the school day with your child. Read the teacher’s newsletter to learn what is being taught each week. • Read to your child every day. Ask questions about the book, what will happen next, what color is her dress. Get your child actively involved as you read. From birth to age 5, children may receive a free book each month through the Shelby County Books from Birth program. Go to booksfrombirth.org to learn more. • Support your child’s emerging math skills. Use setting the table as a time to practice. Ask your child how many people are coming to dinner? How many napkins do you need to place on the table? Have him write each number. • Most preschools are governed by the Department of Human Services (DHS) or the Tennessee Department of Education. DHS uses a three-star rating system. Look for three-star centers and or those accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.