The best pre-school will have a kid-friendly environment and an emphasis on the five "Cs:" collaboration, communication, content, creative innovation and confidence, says Temple University child developmental psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek.
"Business executives today are telling us that when children graduate from school they need to be educated for the 21st Century workforce," says Hirsh-Pasek, the Lefkowitz Professor of Psychology and co-director of the Temple University Infant Lab. "They tell us that they want our children to know how to get along - to collaborate, to communicate, to know content like reading and math, to be creative innovative thinkers, and to have the confidence to learn from both their successes and their failures.
"The children who will be the workforce of the future are in our preschools today," she said
So what should we look for in a pre-school that is preparing young children for the post-industrial, knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century?
Besides a "kid-friendly" environment and experienced teachers that have been well trained to work with children, Hirsh-Pasek, co-author of A Mandate for Playful Learning: Presenting the Evidence, and Einstein Never Used Flashcards, says that parents should look for things that emphasize those "five Cs and that prepare our children for a love of learning."
- Collaboration - If collaboration is important, then there must be a strong social environment. Hirsh-Pasek suggests looking for a place in the classroom where there are games and toys that encourage the children to play together. Is there a dress up corner or an area for block play where children can congregate?
"Also, is the teacher is engaging and responsive to the children? Is he or she more likely to ask questions of the children or to just give orders? The teacher who asks questions gets children thinking and talking," she says.
- Communication - Look for an environment where language is bouncing off the walls, not in a chaotic way, but in a way where the teacher invites participation in dialogue. "You don't want a place that is so quiet and pristine that nobody is talking," says Hirsh-Pasek. "More talk equals more talk, and that is true at home as well."
- Content - Content, such as math and reading skills shouldn't be left out, but it also shouldn't be the only thing stressed. "We want our children to be math ready and statistics show that since we have infused our pre-schools with some math and reading, their skills have increased dramatically. But the learning needs to be balanced with social and creative activities that are meaningful and engaging."
Hirsh-Pasek points out those things as simple as playing board games reinforce math skills and playing with blocks develop spatial language skills. "Remarkably, play and learning go hand-in-hand."
- Creative Innovation - Free play and guided play also build creative innovation. "When we do too much content we rob pre-schoolers from creative innovation," says Hirsh-Pasek. "If all you can do is fill-in-the-blanks, you'll be a good worker bee, but you'll never be a boss, so we should be looking for pre-school where the children learn through play."
She says in free play, children become managers of their own time, writers of their own stories and creators of their own worlds, while in guided play, they learn better self control, which leads to better learning, and math, reading and social skills.
"Parents should look to see if the are there things like blocks, finger paints, a sand and water table and a dress up corner for children to play with, and are they at a reachable level," she suggests. "And most importantly, are the teachers making it fun?"
- Confidence - Young children need to have the confidence, not only to do things, but to take risks, as long as they are safe risks.
"Every great scientist will tell you that they became great when they learned from their failures," says Hirsh-Pasek. "Look to see if the classroom offers the children the opportunity to try things where they might fail, like expressing themselves in new ways through painting or singing.
"So if I were selecting a pre-school, I'd check it against my five 'Cs' and if it met those criteria, was lively and fun, safe and engaging, and had an outdoor as well as indoor play space, I'd give it an A+ and strongly consider it," she said. "The five 'Cs' give us signposts and a kind of checklist that can ensure a high quality preschool where children who enjoy the moments of today are also preparing for the world of tomorrow."