A child’s first experience into the group learning environment is absolutely loaded with life lessons. Make sure you make the most of the sponge-like brain your little one has during this period of life!
Playing dress-up, finger painting, pushing trains around a track … preschool certainly looks like a lot of fun but you may be wondering: Will my child really learn anything? And, in today’s tough economic climate, is it worth the expense? Most definitely, say early-childhood experts, who insist that play is the ideal way for 3- and 4-year-olds to develop essential academic and social skills. Here then are some of the important lessons young children will absorb under the guise of play.
How to behave at school
The typical preschool classroom can seem pretty chaotic to a casual observer given all the different play centers and activities going on. Appearances to the contrary, there are still plenty of rules and routines in place that teach children how to conduct themselves in a school setting and be part of a group. Some will take risks before learning. “Kids are supposed to test boundaries — that’s how they learn,” says Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years (Sterling; 2010). They begin to understand the concept of taking turns and pretty soon everyday tasks like lining up to go outside and sitting in circle for storytime become second nature.
How to ask for help
By the age of 3 or 4, most children are adept at asking Mom or Dad to pour them a glass of milk or help them reach a toy on a high shelf. But what happens at school when a shoe becomes untied or they don’t quite make it to the bathroom? “In preschool, children acquire and learn to polish the social skills they need to interact successfully with adults, particularly adults they don’t know,” says Berman. Sure, they’ll probably have to elbow past other kids all clamoring for the teacher’s attention, but that will teach them to assert themselves. Research shows that a positive experience with a first teacher helps children gain confidence and form productive relationships with future teachers and adults.
How to investigate and explore
Endless opportunities exist during preschool for young children to learn about the world around them, and they will do this through play. “Free play’s important — it causes the brain to wire in a healthy way,” says Berman. A good preschool focuses on social and emotional needs over cognitive learning, so children are free to focus on activities that interest them — when they focus, they are trying to master a skill or concept.
The preschool setting may seem relatively unstructured, but studies show that children learn best when teachers and preschools create an environment that provides kids interesting materials and new ideas to explore. The added benefit is that feeding and nurturing a child’s natural curiosity will foster a lifetime love of learning.
How to make friends
You’re probably in the habit of setting up playdates for your child, but preschool gives him the chance to forge friendships on his own and settle differences without the help of a parent or caregiver. “Preschoolers learn how to approach other children and be comfortable around them,” says Margaret L. Bauman, author of Your Successful Preschooler: Ten Skills Children Need to Become Confident and Socially Engaged (Jossey-Bass; 2011). As time passes, they’ll figure out how to start up a conversation by focusing on the other person so that initial interactions become less a case of one-upmanship. Asking, “What are you doing?” will win him more friends than the conversation starter, “I can dig a deeper hole than that,” ever will, but children only gain this social savvy through trial and error amongst their peers. Setting the stage for social competence at a young age benefits kids as they get older and for when they need to work on school projects in pairs or groups.
How to be independent
In the interest of time management, many parents tend to automatically help their 3- or 4-year-olds with the small tasks of everyday life, such as fastening buttons and zippers or opening a packaged snack. But preschool teachers — who may need to get 12 or more kids quickly into their coats and out onto the playground — encourage students to take more responsibility. “Children learn how to put on their own jackets, open their own juice boxes and remember to wash their hands after going to the bathroom,” says Bauman. Early practice in self-care skills will boost your child’s confidence in other settings such as a visit to a friend’s house where you’re not around to intercede. It will make your life easier, too!
June Allan Corrigan is a freelance writer and the mother of two children.