Pre-school education

Kindergarten, play school and nursery school

Pre-school education embraces all formal and informal education before the age of six (when compulsory schooling starts). It includes tots and toddler programmes, play school, nursery school (collectively known as pre-kindergarten) and kindergarten.

Attendance at school for children under six isn’t compulsory, and the provision of schools for children under six varies according to the finances and circumstances of local communities. Most public elementary schools provide a pre-school kindergarten (K) year for five-year-olds, which is usually the first year of elementary school.

There are various types of pre-schools, including non-profit co-operative schools, church-affiliated schools, local community schools, private schools and Montessori schools. A co-operative school is usually the least expensive, as parents work voluntarily as teachers’ aides alongside professional teachers. Church-affiliated schools are usually attached to religious centres and may include religious education (it isn’t always necessary for children to follow the same religion as the school). Private schools are the most expensive and vary considerably from small home-run set-ups to large custom-built schools.

A number of private nursery schools use the Montessori method of teaching, developed by Dr Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. Montessori is more a philosophy of life than a teaching method and is based on the belief that each child is an individual with unique needs, interests and patterns of growth. Some Montessori schools have ‘pre-school’ (for children aged two-and-a-half to six) and elementary levels (ages 6 to 12).

Methods of Pre-school Education

In many areas, private classes are offered for children aged from six months to three years. These combine the theory and practice of play groups and day care centres. Many areas also have what are termed ‘toddler’ or ‘tot’ programmes, which usually accept children from two to four years of age. Activities generally include arts and crafts, music, educational games, perceptual motor activities and listening skills. Most communities also have informal community schools or learning centres, playgroups, morning programmes at local YWCAs, and other inexpensive alternatives to private schools. Community colleges also offer a variety of courses for small children, e.g. painting, dancing and cooking, once or twice a week, e.g. on Saturday mornings.

Many children attend private nursery schools for two to six-year-olds and some private elementary schools have a pre-nursery or nursery programme. Fees for private nursery schools range from $5,000 to $15,000 per year for full-time schooling, depending on the school and area. School hours vary, but children usually attend for a few hours in the morning, e.g. from 9am to 11.30am, or afternoon, e.g. 12.45pm to 3.15pm, or both. Some schools allow you to choose a number of morning or afternoon sessions only, thereby reducing the fees. Many day care centres are designed for working parents and combine nursery school and (extended) day care, with centres open from 6.30am to 6pm.

Pre-school Education levels

Pre-school education programmes maintain a close relationship with the home and parents and are intended to introduce children to the social environment of school and concentrate on the basic skills of co-ordination. Activities are often expanded to include alphabetic and numerical orientation, so children entering kindergarten or grade one at the age of five or six who haven’t attended pre-school are usually at a disadvantage.

Research in a number of countries (including the US) has shown that children who attend pre-school usually progress at a faster rate than those who don’t. A much lower proportion of children (around 60 per cent) attend pre-school in the US than in Japan and many European countries (e.g. Belgium and France, where it’s 95 per cent). In some areas (e.g. New York City), nursery schools are in short supply and it’s necessary to put your child’s name on a waiting list as soon as possible (before conception!).

Some of the more ‘prestigious’ (and expensive) nursery schools require pre-admission testing and interviews (of the potential students and their families), as some people believe the choice of the ‘right’ nursery school is essential for eventual university admittance. Ensure that a pre-school or day care centre is licensed and meets local and state standards.

Nursery school is highly recommended for all children, particularly those whose parents’ mother tongue isn’t English. After even a few months in nursery school, a child is integrated into the local community and is well prepared for elementary school (particularly when English isn’t spoken at home). Parents can also make friends in the community through pre-school contacts.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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