As adults begin the day’s chores or power through a morning meeting, 3- and 4-year-olds have their own to-do list: Play maracas, watch caterpillars turn into butterflies, try on costumes from around the world — the business of play.
Preschool is founded on play; experts say it’s how children learn best. But not all play is the same.
How, then, should parents decide what school is right for their child? They can readily compare cost and location, but quality is tougher to discern.
Scituate mom Jen Nylen, who has four daughters under 10, said the teachers’ warm approach was the most important factor when she was deciding on a school. She found it comforting at a time when dropping off her oldest daughter felt worrisome.
“I had never really left her with anyone but family,” she said. Her 4-year-old, Isabel, just finished the year at Owl’s Crossing Preschool in Scituate.
Some of the most conspicuous things that parents might equate with quality — elaborate amenities, a structured schedule, a big price tag — actually have little to do with the quality of the child’s experience, according to people who think about these issues for a living.
Rather, young children thrive when they have caring, well-trained teachers who follow certain best practices of the field.
Jane Lannak, director of the Early Childhood Learning Lab at Boston University and a clinical associate professor, said children need to develop a love of learning as they play, and to feel respected and part of the classroom community.
One good way to foster those ideals is to help them follow their interests, she said. Parents should look for a program with structure in which children make some choices about what activities they do.
“We want to give children the opportunity to answer their own questions,” she said.
Do the children have time to keep working on something, to figure something out? Do teachers ask open-ended questions to help advance children’s thinking? Those are good signs, Lannak said.
When parents visit a school, they should ask for an example of the curriculum for the next week, to get an idea of how their child will interact with the adults and other children, said Thomas Weber, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care.
Parents should ensure the class has a well-defined plan, but it should not look like an older child’s curriculum, he said. Even with Massachusetts’ increased effort to track the quality of preschools through a tool called the Quality Rating and Improvement System, experiential learning should be at the heart of the program.
The benefits of attending preschool are well established, notably by the Perry Preschool study, Lannak said. In the 1960s, 123 disadvantaged children were randomly assigned to either attend a high-quality preschool or no preschool.
At the most recent follow-up, at age 40, those who attended preschool were more likely to have graduated from high school, were more likely to hold a job, and had higher earnings, according to the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, which runs the study.
Preschool attendance has grown significantly since the 1960s, when only one in 10 children went to school at age 3 or 4. Today, about 55 percent do, according to the US Census.
Over the years, some of the expectations placed on preschoolers have changed, with more emphasis on academic readiness for the older grades. Lannak said this emphasis has diminished the attention paid to crucial emotional and social development, and that meaningful experiences get eliminated in favor of age-inappropriate worksheets.
Sometimes, she said, when children enroll at the Early Childhood Learning Lab, which is the teaching preschool for students studying early education at Boston University, they have been told elsewhere that they should be able to write their names. If they can’t do it, they feel discouraged, and they don’t want to write at all.
She said teachers must support what are known as children’s learning dispositions: intentional patterns of behavior that demonstrate children’s ways of thinking and doing things. These include curiosity and the desire to manipulate and make things, and to try again when something doesn’t work.
Ultimately, the teacher is the most important element in a preschool, said Amy O’Leary, director of Early Education for All, an advocacy campaign run by the Boston-based group Strategies for Children. She suggested that parents make sure the school is doing an age-appropriate assessment of each child; teachers can record their observations and create a portfolio of what the child has done. Assessments should not be a preschool version of high-stakes testing, she said.
O’Leary also said students should have access to a variety of activity centers in the classroom, and their days should be a mix of individual and group time.
At Little Discoveries, a Brockton preschool and child care center, owner Jessica Moscardelli said teachers enter their observations into an online assessment system that tracks children’s progress. They strive to make activities as child-directed as possible, she said.
Judy Carroll, a teacher and co-owner at Owl’s Crossing, said teachers keep a separate notebook for each child and send progress reports home. Teachers observe children’s emotional growth, ability to follow directions, mastery of motor skills, and more.
For most families, cost is a big factor in the choice of a school. The price of a year of part-time preschool runs from a few thousand dollars to levels that rival college tuition, based on the school, the market, and the number of hours the child attends.
According to Child Care Aware of America, the average annual cost of full-time, center-based care for a 4-year-old in Massachusetts, including preschool, is $12,320.
Massachusetts’ Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS, looks at preschool curriculum, the physical environment, employee qualifications, the school’s plan to engage families, and the management. Schools are rated 1 through 4, with 4 the highest quality. They self-report how they meet the standards, and at level 3, the state begins a process of validating those reports, Weber said.
Schools can also be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Because participation in the QRIS is voluntary, he said, ratings are not published in a collected format. Parents can, however, call their local Early Education and Care office — search for “EEC offices” online — and request information on a school’s QRIS rating.
The department website has a searchable database of licensed preschool programs by location, which can make a good starting point for parents’ research, he said.
Jennette Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.