Preschool primer: A playsheet of the various types of programs available

Does this back-to-school season have you thinking ahead to next year when your precious little one will be ready for preschool? There are plenty of options available in the Midstate — different types of schools and philosophical approaches to educating young children. We recommend visiting potential preschools in person before deciding.

Cooperative preschools

Cooperative preschools may be religiously affiliated and/or associated with a specific early childhood education approach. The main thing that all co-ops have in common is the paramount role of parents. Respected as children’s very first teachers, parents are given roles within the preschool organization itself and also help teachers within the classrooms.

Faith-based preschools

Throughout Central Pennsylvania you’ll find preschools affiliated with many faiths. The programs are taught from the perspective of their faith, incorporating spiritual lessons into the children’s day, though they typically accept children of any faith. Beyond that, a faith-based preschool may choose various approaches to early childhood learning, from play-based learning to didactic, teacher-led instruction to child-directed learning.

Montessori schools
The Montessori Method is a teaching style named after the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. One of the hallmarks of this approach to early childhood education is mixed-age classrooms, where older children reinforce what they’ve learned by teaching it to their younger classmates. Additionally, in Montessori classrooms, teachers encourage students to work independently with specially designed learning materials, manipulating and investigating until they master the lesson inside. Until they master the materials, students are encouraged to try again, ask another child for help, or go to a teacher for suggestions if the work doesn’t look quite right.

Play-based preschools

Many preschools are play, or center, based. The classroom is set up so that there are areas dedicated to different areas of interest for children — such as a reading nook, kitchen corner, science table and so on. Teachers help encourage play and re-direct when necessary. Children develop crucial social skills, as well as math and language arts skills, all while engaging in this structured play-based learning.

Reggio Emilia approach

It took a village — parents from the Reggio Emilia region of Italy — and a psychologist and educator, Loris Malaguzzi, to create this style of early childhood education. Following World War II, the community worked together to create preschools where learning would be child, rather than teacher, directed. That philosophy continues to this day: teachers are tasked with listening carefully to and observing the students to learn of their interests; they are then able to provide the children with experiences that encourage their continued thinking and learning. Collaboration and working in groups is an essential part of the Reggio Emilia approach.

Waldorf schools

The first Waldorf School was established nearly a century ago in Germany by supporters of artist and scientist Rudolf Steiner. The arts — art, music, drama and movement — are involved at all levels of Waldorf schooling; in the early years, there is a great emphasis on the creation of a natural, comforting rhythm of activities. Children are provided simple materials (no computers are used in the classroom until high school!) and self-directed play is encouraged, and is being outdoors. Among preschoolers, it’s the process and not the outcomes this is more celebrated.  Reading is not taught till first grade.

Full day and half day

Most preschools have an option of half-day (sometimes it’s really just two hours in the morning or afternoon) or full day for preschool; some have additional options for extended care which is ideal for working parents. It is also common for a preschool schedule not to be a full five days per week — when calling, be sure to ask what schedules are available.

Mother’s Day Out Programs

These aren’t formal preschool programs, but rather a few hours one or two days per week for a child anywhere from an infant through preschool age. While the infants and children will be engaged and have an opportunity to socialize during their time in the Mother’s Day Out (MDO) program, the programs also allow stay-at-home moms to have some much-needed free time (hence their name). Sometimes, facilities that offer preschool programs will also offer a MDO program as well.

Leslie Penkunas is editor of Central Penn Parent. Her son attended various Mother’s Day Out and preschool programs in Birmingham, Ala., and her daughter attended preschool in Manheim.

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