The right preschool can set children’s lives on track for social and academic success later on in life. As parents how do we know what Preschool is best for our children?
In Australia, Preschool programs are not mandatory for children, and to confuse things for parents even more, are called different things in different States and Territories.
What we can agree on however, is this is the year before formal schooling starts. Most Preschool programs across Australia are funded by Education Departments for around 15 hours per week during the school term.
Preschools can be facilitated as part of a child care centre, a stand-alone Preschool service, or as part of a Primary school campus itself.
If you have the choice, there are some key elements of strong Preschool programs that can be seen all over Australia.
Preschool programs are play based, with intentionally planned outcomes in mind. We know that children learn best though play, and by understanding what interests them and planning for this, they will learn all they need to by experiencing all that happens when they play together.
A good teacher will be able to explain the purpose behind a home corner, a water play area, or a pile of blocks and open-ended materials in a sand pit. The teachers will be able to explain how that play links to developmental outcomes or learning goals which they have planned for, and they will be able to explain how those goals are documented so you can understand your child’s learning best.
Children learn by exploring their environments. By painting they are learning about the basics of colour theory, that red and yellow combined can make orange. By participating in a group experience exploring butterflies, they are learning about life and nature. By joining in on group time they are learning to cooperate.
Take a good look at the environment – it can tell us a lot about the quality of the Preschool program.
Good teachers know that Preschool aged children have short attention spans and they need to design and plan each learning space to captivate the children’s interests, and give children agency in choosing what they would like to participate in. A good preschool will include great environments and play spaces that are created with the children’s needs and interests in mind. They should be exciting and well set out, designed for children to be able to express themselves.
Take note of how the children’s work is displayed around the room. Is it respectful? Are the artworks all the same, or are they diverse and individual? A lot can be said about creative freedom in early childhood and it is important that teachers allow children’s creativity to be expressed. Look for individualised artworks that convey that children were given the freedom to explore and express and enjoy the experience of creation. There are times where teachers will direct or lead children in their play, but we want to see this balanced with plenty of opportunities for children to direct their own play and learning within the planned experiences, with intentional and supportive engagement from teachers.
Indoor classrooms should be designed with a sight and sound theory depending on the experience. Generally, spaces are designed for teachers to be able to supervise while giving the children a sense of privacy so they feel comfortable to engage and play. That way, teachers can still supervise for safety reasons while allowing the children the respect and freedom to play without the feeling that they are being watched the whole time. And ideally children should be able to access and use resources and play materials independently.
We encourage you to see if the space is also clean and safe, and if children are participating in a range of spaces and experiences that allow their choice.
There is a big difference at Preschools between teacher supervision and engagement. Hopefully you will see teachers interacting with children at their level, and that means you will literally see teachers spending a great deal of their day on the floor with the children.
Parents who see their children engaging with their teachers at their level should know that this shows the children their teacher is approachable and supportive. Engaged classrooms and children trust their teachers. Children will be happy when they see their favourite teacher, there will be hugs and smiles. When children are connected and safe with their teachers, they will feel connected and safe with their time spent at Preschool learning.
The same goes for the teacher’s relationship with the families of the centre; it is vital that teachers take the time to greet parents when they can and be open, honest and available.
Preschools don’t need to formally test children –it is not-age or developmentally appropriate to do so. However, preschools should have a pedagogical curriculum framework and planning cycle to keep track of individual children. A Preschool’s “Transition to School” program focuses less on academic skills and more on social and emotional growth and important developmental traits that indicate a readiness for formal schooling, such as self-regulation, if the child understands what the teacher is saying, a child’s ability to persist with tasks, and the child’s desire to learn about their world.
Preschool teachers are able to identify developmental delays, learning issues and health problems as well – this is to be expected as professionals who have experience understanding and working with children. They will also be able to help parents find the support they need in the community as well, and recommend what process to take to give your children the help they need.
Look for a Program Plan, learning plan, or Curriculum Plan displayed in the Preschool; your child’s teacher should happily take you through their planning cycle with you.
Most of all – choose a Preschool that suits you and your child. Your happiness and comfort level is the most important thing of all – trust the vibe you get when you first walk through the door. What is quality to one may not be quality to another – even the Quality Rating of a Preschool isn’t the only indicator that shows parents what quality is. If in doubt, trust your intuition!
You can find more information on your State and Territory Preschool programs by going here Preschool – Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Australian Government (dese.gov.au)