Many if not most America parents take a standardize approach to ensuring their child’s educational development. The process, which now runs to 21 or so years (if they don’t get a graduate degree), begins with child care in a home or at a child care center. Kids tend to hit preschool around 3 or 4. At that point, the child is expected to transfer to a more intensive educational setting before entering into Kindergarten with a slate of intellectual skills. They are, pracitically speaking, on the train. But knowing when to step on board isn’t easy — at least not for parents prioritizing the right things. The skills a child needs to cultivate prior to kindergarten are, it turns out, less about reading, writing and math and more about socializing.
The misconception that there is an ideal preschool age rests in a misunderstanding of the difference between quality child care and preschool. “Childcare provides preschool, but preschool doesn’t provide care,” explains Nikki Darling-Kuria, Program Manager of Professional Development at child development nonprofit ZERO TO THREE and author of Brain-based Early Learning Activities: Connecting Theory and Practice.
Darling-Kuria notes that parents who already have their kid in a good childcare setting may not need to transition to preschool at all. That’s because the skills that a child is learning in the child care setting are very well aligned with the most important skills they will require when they reach Kindergarten. “High-quality child care means children are able to receive care but they’re getting it in the form of high-quality environments where relationships are key,” she says. “Those relationships set them up for good learning for the rest of their life.”
Those essential pre-kindergarten skills include the ability to play, communicate and collaborate with others, the ability to listen to and follow instructions, and the ability to wait in line or sit still. Knowing the alphabet, colors, shapes and being able to count often feel important, but research hasn’t borne that out. Importantly, the purpose of kindergarten is to make sure all children have the same foundation before entering the first grade no matter what skills they have developed before kindergarten.
Is this to say preschool shouldn’t be a consideration? Not at all. Many preschools offer excellent opportunities to build the social and play skills kids need to be successful. Others are important in that they offer children a faith-based foundation consistent with their cultural expectations. But making the transition to a preschool is less about reaching a preschool age and more about making sure a child can meet preschool enrollment expectations and has been emotionally prepared to make the transition away from their child care setting.
Many preschools ask that children have a certain level of independence before entry. They may need to be reliably potty trained, able to feed themselves, or capable of washing their hands. Because children reach these milestones at wildly different ages, it’s possible that some children might be ready to enter preschool as young as 30-months old or as old as two-and-a-half-years. Other children may not be ready until they are over four-year-old.
More important than skills, however, is understanding if both children and parents are ready to make a transition. In some cases transitioning a child away from child care that’s already providing good social education opportunities can be traumatic. And some parents who have children at home may simply not be ready to separate from their child.
Regardless of age, experts agree that whether a child stays in a high-quality child care environment or enters preschool, relationships are key. “Find a preschool with low teacher-child ratios so the teacher has time to nurture each individual child,” says Christine Kyriakakos Martin, founder and owner of Sunshine Preschool in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, and author of You’ve Got This! Keys To Effective Parenting For The Early Years. “The most important factor is finding a safe, nurturing environment where your child can feel comfortable to trust their caregiver. Children grow socially, emotionally and cognitively when they bond with a familiar caregiver.”
Martin notes that the best programs are those where children can socialize, play and discover the world around them. “Children can succeed in a preschool setting at any age as long as the environment or classroom is developmentally appropriate for the child’s needs,” she says.