It's a big milestone – sending your little one off to preschool. Those first years of school are vital to forming a child's life-long relationship with learning. Every parent wants to make the best school or daycare decision for their child, and it can be helpful to understand the many educational philosophies and methods out there.
In recent years, many states have made a push toward regulating early childhood Education programs to help children prepare to enter kindergarten. The Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) has issued the "Foundations to the Indiana Academic Standards," which provides guidelines for educating children from birth to age five. The Foundations are based on national research that indicates the skills and concepts children need to master to excel in school.
"The Foundations are the building blocks that lead to developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood classrooms," says Mary Lowe, special education supervisor for Indianapolis Public Schools. "Schools and teachers have the flexibility to develop their own methods and lesson plans aligned to the Foundations."
Embedded in the Foundations are lessons in language arts, math, science, social studies, physical education, health, art and music. According to the IDOE website, "Readiness includes ready children, ready families, ready communities, ready early care and education, and ready schools. It is the responsibility of schools to meet the needs of children as they enter school and to provide whatever services are needed to help each child reach his or her fullest potential."
Public preschools in Indiana are required to utilize the Foundations; however, private daycares and preschools may choose alternative methods. Cara Paul, director of the Children's Circle Preschool of Second Presbyterian Church, says her school doesn't adhere to the Foundations, but follows a developmentally appropriate, play-based Creative Curriculum. This proposes that young children learn best by doing. It encourages active thinking and using one's senses to discover how things work.
"We believe that learning comes through play – everything from reading to math," says Paul. "Children learn best by using all of their senses. That means they might get messy in the sandbox or doing art, but they are learning."
Lowe agrees that learning through play is essential for young children. "What children need most in order to thrive in school is the freedom to explore, to figure out how things work and the opportunity to build social skills such as negotiating, waiting, sharing and taking turns."
Reggio Emilia and Montessori are traditional approaches that are widely regarded as excellent teaching methods, and can be used in conjunction with the Foundations. Both are based on the "constructivist theory," which allows children to learn through exploration of their environment, as opposed to direct instruction by a teacher. "The teacher is a partner in learning, versus the purveyor of knowledge," says Lowe.
Another technique that is often used in early education is known as Conscious Discipline. This is a method of helping children learn to regulate their emotions and actions by recognizing and acknowledging how they feel. "It's about being able to say, 'I'm mad,' and what made them mad, and that it's okay to feel mad," says Paul. "It's about taking ownership of their feelings."
Self-regulation is a powerful indicator of school readiness. Social and emotional development is also one of the core components of the Foundations program. Lowe states, "Children need to be given opportunities to learn self-control and to learn that it's okay to make mistakes. Children need to be surrounded by adults who love them unconditionally and allow them to be children, not little adults. Let them run, play, make noise and get dirty."
This is why preschool is so important, say educators. Children learn best through experiencing the world around them. While they are playing, they're learning how to share their toys and to work together to clean up. "Preschool is very important in terms of social skill building," says Paul. "They have to learn how to navigate social situations and problem solve."
The preschool experience can be a wonderful first learning environment for your child. By learning about the foundation and philosophy of the various schools available, you can choose the best option that aligns with your own priorities for your child and your family.