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Child Caring

Mom asks, "Is preschool necessary?" Here's a tutorial

Hi Barbara,

I was wondering about preschool. Is it required? if not, is it necessary? What is the difference between it and kindergarten besides the ages of the children? It seems crazy to send my dd twice a week for three hours when she is already in a daycare setting with kids her own age and teachers that she loves and learns a lot from. On the other hand, I would hate to do her a disservice by not sending her and then having her being behind right from the start. Am I over-thinking the whole thing? Any words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated here. Thanks!

From: Over-thinking mom, Marshfield, MA

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Dear Over-thinking mom,

No, preschool is not required, but I suspect you are not alone in wondering whether it is "necessary."

I checked in with Barbara Willer for a brief tutorial. Willer is the deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, NAEYC, which was established in the '80s precisely to help parents identify quality early childhood programs. NAEYC chose to do it through accreditation. Today, ask the director of any early childhood program and he or she will confirm that accreditation from NAEYC is coveted and prestigious because it is a rigorous process that goes far beyond whatever an individual state might require. (In fact, most state standards are safety/health related and don't get into what's developmentally appropriate.)

A little history helps explain what what accreditation is. As more women entered the workforce in the 70's and 80's, day care ( a passe term, btw, that's been replaced by child care) came to mean all-day care . Pre-school was generally a half-day program several times a week with a learning-based focus intended to prepare children to be academically ready for kindergarten.

As more and more families came to need day-long child care, the line between "day care" programs and pre-school programs has blurred, according to Willer. "Child-care programs have added educational components so that they are more like preschool programming, and preschools have added a wider range of options to cover families' needs for all-day services," she said.

So here's the first thing you need to know: NAEYC doesn't care what a program is called. "Labels can be misleading," said Willer. "We will accredit any kind of child care program in a center- or school setting."

About definition. "We're pushing for a balanced view of child development that stresses cognitive skills like language and literacy as well as social and emotional aspects," said Willer. "A high-quality program meets all the needs of children’s development and learning while also supporting families all day long." (That's my emphasis, not hers.)

Over-thinking Mom, it sounds like you think that if it's child care, something is missing that would be present in preschool. That isn't true if the program has an NAEYC accreditation. Click here for a list of accredited programs.

It gets complicated, though, if your child is in family child care. What draws many of us to family child care is its small size -- generally six children per caregiver, depending on state regulations -- and that it's in a home setting with children of mixed ages. More and more, family caregivers also are accredited (by the National Association for Family Child Care) so lack of professionalism need not be the concern it was a decade ago, if you find an accredited family care. But the very smallness that you like about family care for a young child does not provide a 3- or 4-year-old with the social experience of center-based care. And that may be a reason to move to a preschool experience.

In fact, that's exactly what Barbara Willer did.

"With my daughter, I opted for family child care that was run by an early childhood educator," said Willer. That satisfied her need for professionalism. "But when my daughter reached preschool age, I wanted her to have the experience of a larger program [with a classroom-like environment] because it would make the transition to kindergarten easier." She didn't eliminate the family care, she added preschool to it.

"I could work from home, so I could do the shuttling from one program to other. Not everyone can do that," she said.

Bottom line? (1) If your child is in center-based child-care that is accredited by NAEYC, it's unlikely that you need to switch just because the program doesn't call itself a "preschool." Satisfy yourself by visiting a few preschool programs for comparison. (2) If your child is in family child care, even if it's wonderful and accredited by NAFCC, you may want to change to provide the experience of interacting with many more age-mates in classroom setting that is closer to what kindergarten will look like physically, programmatically and socially.