School districts have begun enrolling children for next school year’s preschool and kindergarten-prep programs, and several parents may wonder whether their children are ready for such programs or even what their children could learn in preschool.
Dr. Dawn Foley (Ph.D.), Higley Unified School District’s director of curriculum and instruction, is an expert on early childhood development and learning. In this interview, she answers many of those frequently-asked questions she hears from parents.
Question: How would a parent know if his or her child is ready for a preschool program?
Dr. Foley: Parents are their child’s first and most important teachers. Children learn at home through talking, playing, and reading with their parents.
For example, going to the grocery store can provide a great lesson in mathematics as your child counts the number of items put into the cart. This same trip to the grocery store is also a great phonics lesson when we practice letter sounds, like the “j” in “juice.”
These everyday activities introduce children to foundational learning skills. However, socialization with peers is critical to a child’s development, and this is why preschool is so important. Learning opportunities in an appropriate educational environment such as preschool are hard to replicate at home. When children have an appropriate preschool experience, they can learn those critical socialization skills, such as sharing and team work, with other children and teachers in a classroom setting.
Q: Why are preschool and kindergarten-prep programs important for child development?
A: We like to say that college and career readiness begins before kindergarten, and an appropriate pre-k program is a perfect place to begin.
Children learn foundational skills in these early years - including reading and writing and language. An appropriate preschool experience is critical for children because brain research has shown that a child’s neurons are developing quickly and intensely for children from the day they are born through the age of 5. That’s a period in our lives when all of our neural pathways are being made, which impacts how our brains will learn for the rest of our lives. Providing age-appropriate learning opportunities and pre-reading experiences, such as letter recognition and sound, experiences with numbers and counting, and language opportunities in preschool, establish the foundation for a child’s development and educational career.
Q: What educational standards exist for preschool and kindergarten prep programs?
A: The “Arizona Early Learning Standards” guide parents and teachers on what children should learn in the areas of reading, math, and language in preschool programs.
These standards also are the building blocks to our Common Core Standards, which are now used in classrooms throughout Arizona, and they outline the skills children should learn in a pre-k program, such as knowing their letters and their sounds. In our preschool programs, some of our students are actually already reading “sight” words and are reading books independently at pre-primer and kindergarten levels.
Also in preschool, they learn math skills, such as counting and addition. Perhaps most importantly, our pre-K programs at Higley are designed to build confidence in our youngest learners. This is important for child development and educational success. The more confident, comfortable and safe a child feels, the more likely he or she is going to succeed.
Q: What do children learn in the Higley preschool and kindergarten-prep programs that they might not learn at home?
A: Our curriculum and pre-k programs are diverse. We read, we sing, we dance, we do math, we cook. These learning opportunities emerge through thematic integration and through meaningful context. For example, we may read a story to the children that we then have to solve together using math. Our dramatic play center may become a vegetable stand where we’re weighing vegetables and counting change to apply what we just learned in math.
Through these thematic, integrated experiences, we’re building their confidence, as well as their skills, through this whole process. These learning opportunities are intended to enhance and extend what parents do at home.
Q: How academically intense are the preschool and kindergarten prep programs?
A: Our programs are very developmentally appropriate, and they provide enrichment to children who need acceleration.
We have preschool students who come to us already knowing all their letters and their sounds, and we help them continue to grow academically. Our programs are designed to be developmentally appropriate for each individual child, for their age and for their respective learning level.
Emily Gersema is a public relations officer for Higley Unified School District.