How Preschool Works

preschooler coloring
Preschool may look like fun and games, but it's an important preliminary education that prepares your little one for formal schooling.

Preschool -- a wonderful world filled with finger painting, sing-alongs and nap time! Perhaps you went to preschool but don't remember a whole lot more. Here's a rundown of what this type of schooling amounts to today.

As its prefix suggests, preschool happens before a child starts his or her formal education in kindergarten. It lays the foundation for a child's entire academic learning career. Also known as nursery school in the United States, preschool is -- or should be -- a place where a child interacts with others his or her age in a structured environment. It's not mandatory, nor is it a necessary prerequisite for kindergarten.


Kids typically begin preschool between three and five years old. However, when your toddler is actually ready to attend preschool has less to do with age and more to do with developmental maturity.

Patricia Henderson Shimm is Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York and co-author of "Parenting Your Toddler." She recommends asking yourself and people who know your child well -- such as your partner, nanny or pediatrician -- a series of questions to determine whether your child is socially, cognitively, emotionally and physically prepared for preschool:

  • Is your child relatively independent?
  • Has he or she spent time away from you?
  • Can he or she work on projects independently?
  • Is he or she ready to participate in group activities?
  • Is your child accustomed to a regular schedule?
  • Does he or she have the physical stamina for preschool?

If the collective answer to this set of questions is "yes," and you want to enroll your little one because he or she genuinely seems ready (not because you simply want time to yourself), it's probably a good time to begin preschool. And how much time he or she spends at school is largely up to you.

There are full-day programs that last up to six or more hours per day, as well as half-day programs that last approximately three hours per day in either the morning or afternoon. Some programs even let you choose how many days per week your little darling will attend. September through June is a fairly standard yearly schedule for preschool.

But not all preschools offer the same experience. Check out the next page for a rundown of the different kinds out there.


Types of Preschools

Ultimately, preschool is an opportunity for toddlers to learn invaluable social skills, which impact their personality and future success in various areas of life. It's here where they learn to socialize with others, wait their turn and listen, among other skills.

But nursery school also lays the groundwork for future academic learning. Songs children sing here eventually help them understand phonetics and develop reading skills later on. Building blocks they play with or containers they fill with sand help them grasp math concepts down the road.


A child's socialization and academic preparedness are two fundamental qualities that define the preschool experience. However, there are different types of preschools, which can vary from one another in significant ways.

In most states, you have a handful of options: federal-funded Head Start programs, state-funded preschools, government-funded special education programs, and for-profit and not-for-profit providers.

Head Start is a federally funded public preschool program that began in 1965 as part of the "War on Poverty." Now a full-year program, it's designed to boost disadvantaged children's skills so they can close the achievement gap with more advantaged students. Head Start provides many services to this population, including day care, education, nutritious meal plans, health care and various services to parents.

Public preschools are also free, but they're funded by the taxpayers of state governments. They exist in many states and usually provide early education to three- and four-year-olds. While such programs are meant to serve families of all financial backgrounds, public preschools' goal in offering subsidized education to low-income families is specifically intended to provide a stable environment for toddlers during a crucial developmental stage. Otherwise, many low-income kids are left at home in an unstable environment during the day, or single parents may stay home to provide care instead of going to a job.

Private preschools charge tuition based on full- or half-day programs and the number of days per week a child attends. Tuition ranges from about $2,000 per child per year to more than $30,000 in New York City and other urban metropolises. Admissions procedures vary by school. It's not uncommon for parents to wait in line to get an application, tour the facility, obtain letters of recommendation from family or friends, or even write admissions essays. Sometimes, toddlers must gain entrance through tests, interviews or observations (which are conducted while children are playing).

Continue on to find out the pros and cons of sending your child to preschool and what ethnicity has to do with it.


Pros and Cons of Preschool

preschooler assembling a puzzle
Assembling puzzles is a task preschoolers can repeat so that they learn shapes, colors and spatial reasoning skills.

Preschool isn't for all children or all families. Weigh the pros and cons of preschool carefully when deciding whether it's right for your little one.

The benefits of preschool are numerous and include advantages for you, the parent. Even part-time programs provide you with an opportunity to get things done that otherwise would be challenging with a toddler alongside -- from running errands to working on a career. Simply having time to yourself is also important for your own sanity, whether you use it to see friends, exercise or take a nap.


Of course, this type of schooling foremost benefits the child. Kids get to repeat activities, interact with many different materials and objects, and observe other children taking on challenging tasks. As mentioned earlier, preschool powerfully shapes the foundation for a child's academic learning.

In what specific ways can you expect preschool to influence your child for the better or worse?

That really depends on your child's ethnicity and socioeconomic status, according to a report released by the University of California, Berkeley, called "The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children's Development Nationwide: How Much Is Too Much?" The report finds that on average, the earlier you enroll your child, the slower his or her social development will be; however, he or she will display stronger pre-reading and math skills if enrolled at two or three years old.

But those are just averages. Hispanic toddlers with basic English proficiency appear to benefit from preschool the most in regard to cognitive development. The experience has no detrimental effect on their social development. African American children also benefit when it comes to language and pre-reading skills, but preschool doesn't seem to improve their cognitive abilities regarding math concepts.

There are also downsides to preschool. Missing your child when he or she is away, bearing the financial burden of private school and having less control over your child's diet are some drawbacks. Also, being around so many other kids -- and all the objects they're handling throughout the day -- makes your child more susceptible to getting sick.

The Berkeley report also states that white, middle-class children suffer in regard to sharing, cooperation and engagement of tasks if they attend preschool for six or more hours per day. In fact, children from high-income families -- regardless of ethnicity -- who experience long hours in preschool suffer most strongly emotionally and socially.

Singing and story time might sound like fun and games, but go to the next page to discover what they have to do with your child's cognitive and academic development.


Preschool Curriculum

There are many different types of preschools -- from parochial (run by churches) to private institutions -- all with their own curriculums and schedule of activities. Each type addresses various areas of a child's development, such as motor skills, social and emotional development, oral language, print knowledge, phonological skills and math concepts. Some of the many activities designed to develop these areas include art appreciation, story time, music and nursery rhymes. It's in preschool that kids learn the alphabet, numbers, the seasons, weather, holidays, animal names and much more. There are many things that happen in a typical day at preschool. There's some kind of structured group activity, like learning a letter of the alphabet, and activity time, such as finger painting or making pottery. Kids play outside and engage in structured activities. Snack time and lunch are often followed by nap time, which can last up to two or more hours. Children engage in dramatic play with dolls, dress-up, puppets and more. Toy cars, art supplies, building blocks, musical instruments, puzzles and sensory activities with sand, water or noodles are all fair game. Make no mistake: While there's a lot of opportunity for children to create and let their imaginations run wild, this education is still a structured experience. (At least, it should be in order to complement toddlers' developmental stages.) Some schools fall short of providing this ideal culture for kids at this age or following standard preschool curriculum. To avoid these lackluster schools that don't offer real benefits to children, do your due diligence. Interview staff members or observe the classroom before making a decision. What kind of credentials do preschool teachers have, anyway? Go to the next page to find out.


Preschool Teacher Requirements

preschool teachers with preschoolers
A good preschool teacher can make or break your child's education. Ask to observe a teacher's class before enrolling your child in that preschool.

Preschool teacher requirements vary dramatically from state to state, as each state has its own licensing requirements.

Employers will always insist teachers be first aid- and CPR-certified and have a high school degree. Sometimes that's enough. Some schools and child care centers require additional education, such as an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree in early childhood education, elementary education or something equivalent from an accredited, four-year university. These new graduates may be expected to complete a student-teaching program at a preschool where they plan to work and train under the supervision of professional teachers.


Some preschools start off new instructors as assistant teachers to see how well they interact with the class. Such places may require these new teachers to have a certain number of hours of classroom experience before they can become a lead teacher.

All public preschools require teachers to be licensed; private institutions may not impose this requirement. Other credentials include the Child Development Accreditation and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification.

Requirements also vary based on the type of funding the preschool program receives and the employer's expectations. For example, Head Start programs need to meet federal standards for teacher requirements. Usually, teachers are obligated to complete a minimum number of training hours each year.

All of these requirements are important, but so are personal characteristics. Preschool teachers should be organized, patient, creative and, above all, enjoy working with kids. Strong communication skills are key, as teachers must interact with toddlers, colleagues, parents and administrators. They need to be able to earn children's trust as well as motivate them and meet their emotional needs.

You already know why nursery school can be a significant part of a child's education. But do you know if preschool attendance can influence crime rates? Let's look at how preschool impacts the bigger picture on the next page.


Why Is Preschool Important?

The benefits of preschool are well-documented. Let's look at what the experts say.

Research and reports have shown that preschool can have an impact on whether kids turn to crime and how long they stay in school, according to Public School Review, a free online tool for finding schools in your area.


James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, says there's an enormous cost-benefit advantage in decreased jail time for those who were low-income children and attended preschool. He asserts that, in general, preschool attendance can lead to fewer behavioral issues, better self-esteem and a higher IQ. It even has been shown to increase literacy among families, as parents become more involved in their children's education.

W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D., works with the National Institute for Early Education Research and is a proponent of universal preschool for all children. He cites other benefits of preschool: higher test scores; superior social skills; better graduation rates; fewer incidents of teen pregnancy, abortion and smoking; and less need for special education and grade repetition.

There are so many big pluses for sending kids to preschool. When isn't it recommended?

Perhaps your child isn't potty-trained. Or maybe there isn't a quality nursery center near you that you trust. Or, you're excited and able to provide a similar structured experience at home. There are certainly great reasons to skip preschool altogether -- it's a personal choice.

But both sides of the preschool debate acknowledge the importance of providing a child with a preschool-like experience -- whether that's in preschool, your home or somewhere else.

If you decide to go the home-preschool route, check with your local YMCA or community center for parent-and-child courses, and visit a playground frequently where your toddler can interact with others his or her age.

Keep in mind that because preschools are regulated by state and sometimes federal law and held to a high standard, the caliber of what they offer is likely to match or exceed that of other establishments.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Apple Tree Preschool and Child Care Home. 2005. (Feb. 26, 2010).
  • Barnett, W. Steven, Ph.D. "Research on the Benefits of Preschool Education: Securing High Returns from Preschool for All Children." National Institute for Early Education Research. Jan. 10, 2006. (Feb. 26, 2010).
  • "The Benefits of Preschool." 2010. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Teachers -- Preschool, Expert Special Education." 2010-2011. (Feb. 26, 2010).
  • Chen, Grace. "Pros and Cons of Public Preschool: The Debate." Public School Review. Oct. 21, 2008. (Feb. 26, 2010).
  • EducationBug. 2010. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • Education Resources Information Center (ERIC). (Feb. 26, 2010).
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  • Maclay, Kathleen. "New report examines effects nationwide of preschool on kids' development." UC Berkeley News. Nov. 1, 2005. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). (Feb. 26, 2010).
  • "Preschool Education: Funding for Preschool Programs." Museum of Learning. 2010. (Feb. 26, 2010).
  • "Preschool Teacher: Career Outlook for Preschool Teacher." Sept. 10, 2009. (Feb. 26, 2010).
  • "Preschool Teacher Requirements and Career Information." 2010. (Feb. 26, 2010).
  • Purple Wagon. Purdue University. 2007. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • Shimm, Patricia and Sarah Henry. "How to tell if your child is ready for preschool." BabyCenter.(Feb. 25, 2010).
  • "A Typical Day." The Nurtury Preschool. 2008. (Feb. 26, 2010).
  • Wellen, Liz. "A fight for pre-k: Core function or not?" EarlyStories -- Commentary on Coverage of Children's Learning." March 4, 2010. (Feb. 26, 2010).