Pre-school education

Kindergarten, play school and nursery school

Pre-school education

Pre-school education embraces all formal and informal education before 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 five or six isn’t compulsory (the exact age depends on the state), 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.

Types of pre-schools

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 educational approach is based on the belief that each child is an individual with unique needs, interests and patterns of growth and that children are naturally eager to learn. Some Montessori schools have ‘pre-school’ (for children aged two-and-a-half to six) and elementary levels (ages 6 to 12).

Schools and programmes

In many areas, private classes are offered for children aged from six months to three years. These combine the theory and practice of playgroups 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 programs at local YMCAs, 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 program. 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 9 am to 11.30 am, or afternoon, e.g. 12.45 pm to 3.15 pm, 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 centers open from 6.30am to 6pm.

Pre-school Education levels

Pre-school education programs 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 coordination. 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 can be at a disadvantage.

Availability and admission

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) because it is not an affordable option for many families. 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 (even before conception!).

Some of the best (and most 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 can predict eventual university admittance. Ensure that a pre-school or day care centre is licensed and meets local and state standards.

Is nursery school a good option for my child?

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 can be 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.

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: