Computer Skills and Kindergarten Readiness


There’s lots of information about the benefits and risks of screen time (TV, computers, video games, etc.), lots of opinions on whether young children should or should not be exposed, and advice on making screen time work for your family. Some parents might choose to avoid screen time through their child’s preschool years, and some may not have access to technology at home.*

But, I think it’s important for parents and early childhood educators to know that basic computer skills and tablet skills are becoming a part of kindergarten readiness.

The picture above is from my son’s kindergarten classroom in the Lake Washington School District (eastside suburbs of Seattle). Every morning, during reading stations, one station is using computer-based reading programs, such as HeadSprout. They also use DreamBox for math skills. Computer-based programs are an engaging way to drill kids in some basic math and literacy skills. But only if the child knows how to use a computer.

Today I watched several kids using the software with no problem, easily navigating use of the touchpad mouse, and the touchscreen, and understanding concepts like minimizing and maximizing windows, using their fingers to magnify an image on the screen, and so on. And I watched one child who lacked any basic understanding of how any of that worked. He poked randomly at the screen, getting random results – sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. No real learning was happening during the almost 20 minutes he spent trying to figure out how the computer works. The learning value lost in that 20 minutes only puts him farther behind his classmates.

So, I’m now adding to my list of skills for kindergarten readiness. I would recommend that all kids entering public kindergarten (at least in areas that have computers in the kindergarten classroom) have these basic skills:

  • know how to use both a mouse and a touchpad mouse – they know how to move the arrow around, understand the ideas of both clicking, and double-clicking
  • know how to use a touch screen – again, both how to move the arrow around and how to click; bonus points for understanding gestures like pinch to make an image smaller, swipe to advance to another screen, drag to move an item. (Look here and here for two guides to all the gestures that are typically used on touchscreens.)
  • have played with educational software / apps where they are given verbal instructions that they should follow

So, if you have access to this technology at home, consider adding in some computer skill learning for your child at least 3 – 6 months before they start kindergarten. If you want recommendations and reviews for kids’ games and apps, check out Common Sense Media.

If you don’t have access to this technology at home (In 2012, 72% had access to the internet at home. In 2016, 72% of Americans own a smartphone, which has likely increased the number of households with access to the internet), check whether it’s available at your local library or elsewhere in your community. Here in King County, all the libraries have public computers in their children’s areas that are loaded with lots of educational software, and will allow them to learn mouse skills and headphone use. (They do not have touch screens to my knowledge.)

I don’t think children need a lot of computer time – just enough to gain some basic skills and knowledge. The majority of a preschooler’s time should be spent engaged hands-on with their world, with time spent playing with open-ended toys, outdoor time, and free play time with peers.

Great Classes for Kids AND Parents: Parent Education & Coop Preschools

Classrooms in the Bellevue College Program

Classrooms in the Bellevue College Program – click for larger view

Are you a parent of a baby, toddler, or preschool age child? Are you looking for:

  • A place where your child can explore toys, do art, hear stories, sing songs, and make friends? (And use up some energy on a cold winter day?)
  • A fun activity to do with your child where s/he learns new skills and you get new ideas?
  • Opportunities to meet other families and build community?
  • Expert advice and research-based information about parenting and child development?
  • Support from professionals and other parents for the challenges of life with a little one?

You can find all these great opportunities in one place!

In the Seattle area, our community colleges sponsor parent education programs, including parent-child programs and cooperative preschools, which are a fabulous resource for families. For children, classes offer hands-on learning, discovery and play. For adults, they offer on-going education on all topics related to parenting, plus connections to other parents.

What is the children’s experience like?

The programs are play-based, because research shows children learn best through hands-on exploration in places where they feel safe and free to explore. Each classroom has several stations around the room, with developmentally appropriate activities to help kids build the skills they need. Children are encouraged to move around and explore at their own pace. In parent-child programs (aka “mommy and me classes”) for babies and toddlers, parents play along with their children. In coop preschools, working parents are assigned to a station. Activities vary by age, but might include:

  • Art activities: play-dough to roll, easels to paint at, markers for learning to write
  • Sensory activities: tubs of water or rice or beans to scoop, pour, stir, and run fingers through
  • Large motor: mats for tumbling, tunnels to crawl through, climbers and slides, balls to throw, dancing and movement games
  • Small motor: blocks to stack, puzzles to assemble, shape sorters to solve, beads to thread, and building toys for construction
  • Imaginary play: dress up zone for trying on new roles, dolls to care for, kitchen for “cooking”
  • Science and nature experiences: seeds to plant, tadpoles to watch, items from nature to explore
  • Snack time: a place to practice social skills and table manners and to discover new foods

click for larger view

Classes also include “circle time” or “music class” where the teacher leads the class in singing songs, dancing, playing musical instruments, and reading stories. This is a chance for children to practice sitting still, listening to a teacher, and participating in a group activity, all essential skills for kindergarten readiness. Academic skill-building (reading, writing, pre-math skills) is integrated into all types of activities.

What makes these children’s programs different from other programs?

Diverse Experiences in One Familiar Setting: Most children’s programs focus on one domain of learning: dance class, art class, story time, music class, or tumbling. These programs do it all. And they do it in a known space where the child feels safe and comfortable. Some of the same toys activities reappear from week to week to provide reassurance and routine, and some new toys and activities rotate in to encourage children to explore and try new things.

Long-Term Relationships: Lots of programs run in short sessions of 4 – 6 classes. Parent ed programs run for the full school year. Seeing the same children week after week allows kids to build friendships.

Close parental involvement: Parents are always welcome in the classroom.

What are they like from the parent perspective: how do they work?

Each program works a bit differently, so check to be sure of the details, but here is the general idea:

Parent-infant Classes and Parent-Toddler Classes: Meet weekly for two hours. Every other week, the parents attend a one hour parent education session. In infant classes (for babies birth to one year old), the baby remains with the parent for parent ed. In toddler classes (for one-year-old and two-year-old toddlers), children are encouraged to play in one room with the children’s teachers and other parents while their parent attends parent ed.

Staffing and Parents’ Role: Each class is staffed by a parent educator and one or two children’s teachers. Parents provide snacks for the class on a rotating basis. Each family may bring snacks 1 – 3 times a year. Parents may also be asked to help tidy up the toys at the end of the class.

Cooperative Preschools:Three-year-olds may attend 2 or 3 days a week, four-year-olds attend 3 or 4 days a week. Typically, the parent stays with the child and works in the classroom one day per week, and the other days are “drop-off” preschool for that family. Classes may be 2 – 3 hours long.

Staffing: There is a preschool teacher, trained in early childhood education, who is responsible for planning and coordinating the children’s activities, and leading group times. A parent educator observes / consults during some class sessions, and offers a monthly parent education session plus one-on-one expert parenting advice.

Parents contribute by working in the classroom once a week. They also help with the running of the school by: providing snacks, fundraising support, helping with end-of-year cleanings, serving on the board (chair, treasurer, secretary, etc.), or as class photographer, play-dough maker, etc.

Length of program: Most classes (parent-child and coops) meet for the full school year – September through May. [Note: you may be able to enroll mid-year, if there are spaces available. Check with the programs to find out.] Some have summer programs.

What do Programs Cost?

For some programs, you pay by the month, some by the quarter, some by the year. If you look at the cost for a quarter (11 weeks) or year (33 weeks), it may look like a lot compared to other children’s activities in the community. So, to compare apples to apples, it’s best to look at it as cost-per-hour. Infant and toddler groups at our local community colleges range from $7.50 – 11.50 per hour. For comparison’s sake, here’s what a sample of other programs cost on an hourly basis:

  • Big motor activities: Gymboree $30, Gymnastics East $20, Northwest Aerials $13
  • Parent education and support: Mommy Matters $22 plus child care costs. Baby Peppers $10.
  • Art programs: Kidsquest $17 per hour. Kirkland Parks $13. Kirkland Arts Center $10.
  • Music programs: Kindermusik $22, Kirkland Parks $11. Bellevue Parks $21.

Cooperative preschools in these programs range from $7.50 – 10.00 an hour. For comparison sake:

  • Bellevue public schools, $10 per hour. Bellevue Boys & Girls Club $10. Bellevue Christian School $11. Bellevue Montessori $18. Jewish Day School $19. Villa Academy $18. Seattle Waldorf $22. Cedar Crest $24.
  • Note: most preschools have an adult/child ratio ranging from 1:6 – 1:9. At a coop, the ratio may be 1:3 or 1:4.

All the parent education programs and cooperative preschools offer scholarships to lower income families which can further reduce the cost.

What makes these programs different from other programs?

College credit and student privileges: Parent education programs are college classes, and parents receive college credit for attending. They can also receive student ID cards, which depending on the school may give access to services such as fitness center or gym access. They may also allow you to get student discounts at a wide variety of local and online businesses.

Parent Education: Experienced professional educators offer information that is current and research-based but also relevant to the day-to-day reality of parenting little ones. Topics are tailored to the age and needs of the families, but may include: daily routines, discipline, child development, early learning, nutrition, potty training, emotional intelligence, kindergarten readiness, and self-care for parents.

Individualized Advice: Parent educators and children’s teachers have the opportunity to get to know each child as an individual, and also get to know parents well. This allows them to answer questions in a highly personalized way. They can also refer on for additional services when needed.

Parent Involvement: Participating in your child’s classroom from day one encourages you to think of yourself as an active participant in your child’s learning and an advocate for them in future classrooms. You’ll know the other children and can help your child learn about them. You’ll know what happened in class, so you can later reinforce the learning. Seeing classroom activities may give you new ideas for what you can do at home to enhance your child’s development. Having the opportunity to observe other children each week helps give you a deeper understanding of child development, and seeing parents respond to their children shows you options for parenting style.

Peer Support and Long-Term Relationships: Parents meet with other parents over the course of many months, which allows for long-term connections. Working together on projects strengthens those bonds, as does the peer support gained when parents discuss and share the joys and challenges of caring for kids.

Programs offer classes for families with children from birth through age 5, so instead of having to search for new classes every month or every year, you always know where you can find a fun and educational class for you and your child.

Learn More about Programs Near You and Register Now!

Note: Classes for each school year start in September but it is best to register in spring or summer, because they do fill up!

Program Name / Website Locations * Ages Served / Programs
Bellevue College
Bellevue, Carnation, Issaquah, Mercer Island, Renton, Sammamish, Snoqualmie Birth to 7: Parent-Child (day & eve), Coops, Inventors’ Lab (formerly Dad & Me), Art & Science Enrichment. Summer
Edmonds Community College
Edmonds, Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Marysville, Mill Creek, Snohomish Birth to 5: Parent-Child, Coop Preschool, Summer
Green River CC. Limited info available on their website: Auburn area, birth to age 6. Learn more by searching for: Benson Hill Coop in Kent, Tahoma Coop in Maple Valley, Covington Coop, and Darcy Read in Des Moines.
Lake WA Institute of Bothell, Kirkland, Redmond, Woodinville Birth to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool
North Seattle Community College 12 sites in Seattle, from north of ship canal to NE 145th. Vashon. Birth to 5: Parent-Child (day and evening), Coop Preschool
Seattle Central Community College.
Links to coop websites:
7 sites in Seattle: Capitol Hill, Mt. Baker, Madison Pk, Rainier Val, Queen Anne One to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool; Dad’s, Summer
Shoreline Community Shoreline, Bothell, Inglemoor (Kirkland), Woodinville Birth to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool, summer, evening
South Seattle Community College or SCCC campus, Admiral, Alki, Arbor Heights, Lincoln Park Birth to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool, Spanish

*Not all ages served at all sites. For example, most programs only have infant classes at one site.

Would you like to print this information for your reference or to share with a friend? Get the PDF here.

If you want more information right now about parenting, look in the “categories” section on the right hand column and click through to any topic that interests you (for example, you can read my posts about tantrums or potty training or choosing a preschool or find lyrics to songs your child will love.) To receive updates as I publish new articles, go to the right hand column and click on “like on Facebook.”

Note: this is an update of a post from 2014

A book about balancing screen time and outdoor time

I wanted to write about the book Dot. by Zuckerberg and Berger. It’s an intriguing book that reviewers on Amazon either love or hate, and it inspires debate about the place of screen time in children’s lives.

First, an overview of the book. This is a picture book for 3 – 6 year olds, with appealing illustrations, a charming main character (6 or 7 years old?), and an engaging story line.

It begins with Dot using her laptop and tablet – “She knows how to tap… to touch… to tweet… and to tag.” We also see her using a cell phone and Skype / FaceTime to talk and talk and talk. She is bright, happy, and enjoying her time with her tech. (Though her dog is looking pretty disappointed in this sedentary, indoor lifestyle.)

But then Dot succumbs to a moment of exhausted ennui.

Mom says “Go outside… time to recharge!” Dot sleepwalks out the door.

But then, outside, she smiles. She remembers… “to tap… to touch…. to tweet… to tag… to talk and talk and talk.” (This time the illustrations show her tap dancing, touching a sunflower, tweeting like the birds in the tree, tagging friends in a game, and talking while walking in the fields, always smiling and always accompanied by friends.)

She is bright, happy, and enjoying her time outside with friends.

But she hasn’t completely abandoned technology – on the last page, she uses her phone to snap a photo of a friend, and another friend is using a tablet, as they swing, and paint, and play outside with their dogs.

The negative reviews

Some reviewers are dumb-founded that a child would even use technology in this way (leaving me to wonder whether they’re parents themselves and if so, if their kids are now middle aged adults… My 22 year old was using a mouse and a desktop computer to play games at the age of three – definitely a digital native. My 5 year old learned how to swipe to the next photo on my phone when he was 8 or 9 months old. Not just a digital native – totally immersed in the mobile technology world, like most children his age. (Read here about how much screen time children have in the U.S.)

Multiple negative reviews talk about the unlimited screen time and the lack of parental supervision in the book. “I don’t know any 6 year old who has such free reign with so many tech devices and, even worse, goes unsupervised. Is this really what our world has come to? I think not, and the idea of suggesting something so absurd is upsetting to me.” It is true that we don’t SEE a parent in the book. But this is OFTEN the case with children’s books: as one commenter said “Where are Harold’s parents, for that matter, and why does the poor child have only a purple crayon? How could those Seuss children’s mother have left them home alone for the whole day, and didn’t she teach them NOT to open the door to strangers?” But it is the mother who intervenes and sends the child outdoors to play. So, clearly there is supervision and there are screen time limits.

And of course, other reviewers were appalled that the child was allowed any screen time, citing concerns about the harms of radiation from cell phones, obesity, online stalking, adult websites, and more. (You can read my summary about benefits and risks of screen time here.)  “As parents, our job is to shield young children from information technology in the early years of life, not encourage it. Just where does Dot get her tech devices? She cannot afford them on her own, so her parent must be purchasing them for her. This sets the wrong precedent about our role as parents of young children: Parents as addiction enablers, not protectors.”

Other reviewers note that the character tweets and shares (presumably on Facebook) which are not typically activities that a 6 year old girl (like our protagonist) would do, and certainly not what a 3 – 5 year old (like our audience) would do. I was willing to let this slide, because of how they play with the words “tweet” and “share” later on in a different context.

There’s others who feel like it’s an advertisement for technology – the author, Randi Zuckerberg is the sister of Facebook founder Mark Z.

Positive Reviews:

My 3 year-old is enjoying this book. Tonight she says “Go outside Dot!” and that’s the message that she’s getting. Technology is fun but after a while you need to go outside.

“The “Dot.” character is extremely loveable and its easy to relate to her journey as she struggles with the differing forces in today’s society — the pull of technology versus being outside in nature and developing a sense of community.”

“I ordered this book to read as the technology facilitator for a k-5 school. Kids love it…Opens the floor for good conversation.”

I bought this book for my three-year-old son and he absolutely loves it. He knew how to ‘swipe’ on an iPad shortly after turning one. I love the overall message of the story, as technology is a big part of our culture and it is not going away. This book reminds us while technology is exciting and beneficial to our daily lives, so is enjoying friends, family and the outdoors. As we move into the future I want my son to always remember the importance of this balance, and I think this story represents that message well.

“I am a pediatrician in practice for 20yrs and really like that it brings up the importance of getting outside & playing. Since it is a reality that children are on electronics starting from a young age, the idea that what they learn on the computer can be made fun & relate to the outside world is a great concept. Its an easy way for parents & kids to have a simple conversation about the importance of balance in their life starting from a young age.”

My thoughts

This is a cute little book. I’m not saying “wow, one of the best books I’ve ever read.” But it is a nice read, and a good basic summary of the need to find a balance between technology and outdoor / active / social play. It’s a good discussion starter.

Some parents choose to strictly limit their children’s exposure to screens. If you’re a screen-free family (or very limited screen use), this is not the book for you.

But if you are a family who uses a lot of technology, and tries to balance it with other opportunities, this could be a good book to share with your children about the joys of other types of play.

You can check out my collection of Tips for Making Screen Time Work for Your Family.

Slowing Down to Toddler Speed


Today at the end of year picnic for my toddler class, I had a chance to spend some lovely moments hanging out with some little ones (1.8 – 2.5 year olds) that I’ve known for five months now.

It’s such a delight to slow down to toddler speed and sit down and BE with children. I saw one crouched down on her knees and peering closely at something, so I sat next to her, and we watched one tiny little bug until it hopped away. Then we peered around till we found an itty bitty ant, and watched it, then another bug and another bug. We just watched. I talked a little, she didn’t talk at all, but we were clearly both engaged in the moment.

Another child had something clasped tightly in his hands. He’d occasionally open them a bit, peek in, and clasp them tight again. I asked him to show me what he had, and he let me take a quick peek at the pebbles he’d collected before holding them close again. But then he and I shared a secret, so from time to time, he’d bring them by to show to me, and he let me know when he’d decided to set them down.

Then I was at the sandbox. I found a star-shaped sand mold I started to fill with sand. Which of course caught one of the children’s attention, so he took the star out of my hand. There was no need to scold him for “taking something”. I just said “oh, that star is interesting. While you play with that, I’ll use this castle mold.” I packed it with sand. Then I caught his attention and flipped it upside down to make a sand castle. When I lifted off the mold, he was delighted by the sand castle. So delighted that he patted it gently till it was destroyed.  Then he wanted to make his own. But the part of my actions that had made an impression on him was not packing the castle mold with sand… he’d been ignoring that part. He remembered when the castle was already flipped onto the sand, and I was carefully lifting the mold up to revel the castle. So, he took the castle mold, set it on the sand, and lifted it up to reveal… nothing but the sand that was there before… and an outline of the castle mold. He tested it over and over again before giving it back to me to do the magic again. As I demonstrated it again, he still just didn’t get it… that will come in time. But in the moment, he just enjoyed the exploration.

Then one child had a whiffle ball, and figured out he could put rocks in through the holes. A simple spontaneous shape sorter. Two other children started playing too, all working on putting rocks in through the holes. The inventor soon wandered away, but I sat with the other two for several minutes as we all put rocks in holes. Although 99% of the rocks around us were small enough to fit, one of the children had a magic talent for finding the rocks that were too big to fit. So I would offer smaller rocks in trade. Then we figured out that if you gently shook the ball, all the rocks would fall out. It was just a simple, quiet little game, as we all settled in and explored together. Simple but sweet.

Having all these quiet moments with children who used to be hesitant to interact with me and who have now welcomed me it was a lovely way to finish my year of teaching all these little people.

Specialty Preschools

Some preschools have a special focus, such as: religion, language learning, sports, arts, or science. Sometimes this is a special focus that is very important to the family, and they’re willing to drive long distances to get their child exposure to this special focus. But they also want to be sure that their child isn’t missing out on anything while getting this focus.

Sometimes parents choose a preschool due to its proximity to their home or work, and that preschool happens to have a specialty focus… For example, And I know a family who sends their child to a German immersion preschool – they don’t speak German themselves, but it’s a great preschool that’s a very short walk from their house and they’re happy to have their child exposed to another language. It’s a good match for them… But, I also know other families who say “There’s this preschool across the street from my house, but they’re Christian, and we’re not really religious – will it be a good match?”

The questions to ask are:

  • How much of the day is spent on that special focus?
  • Does that schedule also allow for all the other activities we typically expect in a preschool – do they have art time, circle time, outdoor play, and so on? (In a language immersion school, they get all this just as they would elsewhere, because the language learning is just woven into it all.)
  • If there is a limited set of activities offered at the preschool, how do you make sure your child gets a well-rounded set of the essential skills of the preschool years? (We can often “supplement” a limited preschool experience with other classes, or with the things that we do with our child at home, in non-school hours.
  • Who are the other children your child will meet there? Will there be good options for playmates? (For example, if you don’t speak the language taught, but most of the parents do, will you feel comfortable spending time with these families at birthday parties and playdates. Or, if you’re driving a long ways for class, other parents may be too, so you might not be meeting any “neighbor kids.”)
  • What are your goals for having your child experience that special focus? And will the way that preschool teaches that topic meet your goals?

For more information, see:

My experience with specialty preschool:

I offer my experience here not as “here’s how YOU should do things” advice, but more to illustrate one parent’s decision-making process for one particular family.

My oldest child attended coop preschool two days a week. She was up to having lots more structured learning in her week’s schedule, and I also wanted some hours where I could just focus on my second child. So, we were open to finding a drop-off preschool option for a couple days a week. Then we discovered there was a theatre preschool! This was the perfect match for this child, who LOVED stories, and loved watching plays and movies, and loved pretend play. (Note: the preschool was run by Studio East in Kirkland – they are not currently offering a preschool option, but they do offer fabulous weekly enrichment classes for ages 4 – 6.)

In this preschool, they managed to roll in most of they typical preschool activities under the theatre theme. For example, when they were talking about Midsummer Night’s Dream, the art projects were making donkey ears and fairy wings. They had pre-academic practice with reading words written on the board with names of characters. They had big motor play of learning different walks, learning prat-falls, learning some basics of stage combat. They had small motor practice with puzzles and such. Plus, they also had the additional challenges of learning a story, memorizing lines, practicing entrances and exits, and learning a whole lot of impulse control in having to wait to enter, wait to deliver their lines, and so on. I thought it was a fabulous program.

They did not have outside time, so I made sure my child got outside time before or after class. They didn’t have a lot of free play and exploration time, but my child got plenty of that in non-class hours and at her coop preschool, so I really felt like all of her preschool learning needs were met through this combination of coop and specialty school.

Coop Preschools


Let’s talk about cooperative preschools (usually called co-ops).

How does a coop work?

It varies a little between schools, but typically, if you have a three year old, they would attend two days a week (for a 2 – 3 hour session). You would work in the classroom twice a month, and drop off on the other days. If you have a four year old, they would attend three days a week, and you would work in the classroom 2 – 3 times a month. Classroom assistants supervise kids at play, help with craft activities, read to kids, or assist with snack time. You would also occasionally be asked to provide snack for the kids.

Coops are run by a volunteer board, and you would attend a monthly coop meeting. You would also be asked to take on an additional job, such as board member, registrar, field trip coordinator, play-dough maker, and so on. Parents also help with occasional clean-ups and with fund-raising. These other responsibilities might take up 2 – 8 hours of time per month in addition to working in the classroom.

What is a child’s experience at like at a coop?

Coops are typically play-based preschools. The majority of time is spent in free choice time – there are a number of typical “stations” in the room, such as: a dress-up corner, pretend kitchen, block play area, sensory table, drawing table, trains, and a book area. Plus, each day, the teacher prepares special activities for the day (invitations to play), such as art projects or nature explorations. The children choose which of these things to explore and for how long. There is typically also a group play time – often outdoors. There is also usually a group time where kids practice essential school readiness skills such as: sitting still, paying attention, and following directions. The mix of activities is chosen to help children learn all the essential kindergarten readiness skills.

Although they may introduce developmentally appropriate pre-academic skills (such as the alphabet, counting, days of the week, using scissors, pencils and so on) they are not academic preschools. (Read here about why preschools don’t need to be academic…)

What are the advantages to coop preschools?

  • Low cost: typically one of the lowest cost options available for a middle income family. (Low income families may have access to other free or steeply-subsidized options.)
  • High adult-to-child ratios. A typical preschool might have anywhere from 6 to 10 children per adult. A coop preschool is typically 3 to 5 children per adult.
  • Play-based. The best way for young children to learn!
  • Children see their parent participating in their school, which reinforces how important the child’s education is to the family.
  • Parents are more involved in the child’s education, and can reinforce at home what was talked about in class. Parents also know the teacher well, and get to know all the other children in the class, so they can help nurture their child’s growing friendships.
  • Parents also make friends! Working side by side with other parents gives you the chance to make social connections and get parenting support from peers.
  • Most include a monthly parent education session where you get expert advice on things like discipline, early literacy, teaching social/emotional skills, and how to support your child’s development.

What are the disadvantages to coops?

  • Limited hours: Coops are held for only a few hours a day a few days a week. If you need more than 10 – 12 hours of child care a week while you work, then a coop is not a good match.
  • Child care logistics: If you have two children under 5, it can be trickier to work out a schedule that works for all of you. For example: on the days you work in the coop classroom, who will care for your other child? Some coops have a child care option, where coop members who are not in the preschool classroom take shifts caring for kids of the coop members who are working that day. But it is extra logistics compared to a drop-off preschool.
  • Parental involvement: Coops do require a high degree of involvement, between working in the classroom, attending parent ed / coop meetings, and additional volunteer jobs. If you’re not interested in this, or unable to meet those commitments, you may prefer a preschool that only requires you to drop-off and pick-up.

My experience with coop preschool:

I offer my experience here not as “here’s how YOU should do things” advice, but more to illustrate one parent’s decision-making process for one particular family.

My oldest child attended coop preschool two days a week. At the time, I also had a baby, and so it was a little tricky to juggle child care for the baby so I could work at the coop. She also attended a drop-off theatre preschool two days a week. The time she spent at that preschool gave me time for focused one-on-one time with her little sister. Two years later, I returned to the same coop with child #2. (Crossroads Coop, sponsored by Bellevue College Parent Education.) She also attended two days a week, and on the other days, participated in other activities.

I definitely experienced all the benefits I listed above. I met several friends myself, and I saw who they were friends with at class, and was able to set up playdates with those families to cement those relationships. And I loved parent ed, which helped to inform how I parented all my kids through those early years.

With child #3, I’ve done drop-off preschools, because I work while he’s at preschool. And although I LOVE both of his outdoor preschools, I definitely find that drop-off is a very different experience than coop. Although I have met all the parents at his preschool, and I know the name of all the kids, I don’t know any of them as well as I knew the parents and kids at coop. Although I observe as much as I can when I drop off and pick up, and although I read his class newsletters religiously, I just don’t have anywhere near as deep of a connection to what’s happening in his classroom as I did with his siblings.

If you’re a stay-at-home parent, or work part-time, I’d absolutely recommend coop preschool as a great enrichment program for your child, and a fun learning experience for you as well!

How to find your local coops?

In the Seattle / Puget Sound area, most coops are run through parent education programs at local community colleges. I list all their contact info at the bottom of this post:

The Bellevue College coops are hosting open houses over the next few weeks. Learn more at

If you live elsewhere, try internet searches to learn your options. Sometimes coops are sponsored by churches, county extension departments, or other groups.

Learn more about preschool choice

Also check out these posts:

photo credit: Emma and Alice via photopin (license)

Outdoor Preschools


Outdoor preschools are rapidly gaining in popularity. In the Seattle area, just a few years ago, there were only a handful. This Parent Map article now lists over 25 in the Puget Sound region.  They are typically a play-based preschool, where students spend 50 – 100% of the class day outside, year round, regardless of weather. Many are based on the forest kindergarten model, developed  in Sweden, Finland, and Germany.

Some key characteristics of an outdoor preschool:

…takes place in the same setting on a regular basis over an extended period of time.

…while there are some structured elements, [it’s]largely emergent, child-directed, and play-based… young people have freedom to explore, play, build, create, imagine, and use their senses to experience the outdoor environment and engage with one another.

… strong emphasis on educators observing, learning with, and teaching students in the context of the environment… allows children the space and opportunity to delve into various activities and experiences guided by their imagination, rather than explicit, external direction… educators’ primary role is to ask a multitude of questions based on what is emerging from a student’s questions, experiences, and imagination. The guiding principle at Forest School is that children are competent and engaged learners, and with guidance and support, are able to lead their own learning process in directions far beyond what an educator can initiate on their own. Source

What happens at an outdoor preschool?

While some outdoor preschools are just a traditional teacher-led program that happens to be held outdoors, most outdoor preschools (especially those that follow the forest kindergarten model) focus on child-led learning, which may also be called emergent learning or inquiry-based learning.

“Inquiry-based Learning is a dynamic and emergent process that builds on students’ natural curiosity about the world in which they live… Inquiry places students’ questions and ideas, rather than solely those of the teacher, at the centre of the learning experience. Students’ questions drive the learning process forward. Teachers using an inquiry-based approach encourage students to ask and genuinely investigate their own questions about the world. Teachers further facilitate students’ learning by providing a variety of tools, resources, and experiences that enable learners to investigate, reflect, and rigorously discuss potential solutions to their own questions about a topic the class is studying. Source

Instead of having a completely pre-planned curriculum, they are more likely to follow the children’s lead and respond in the moment. The teachers may have a goal for what they want to teach that day, but exactly how that plays out can be spontaneous. For example, the teaching concept of the day might be comparative words or adjectives. The activity might be a hike in the woods. While hiking, the teacher could ask: which is the tallest tree? where’s the biggest rock? which are there more of – sword ferns or skunk cabbages? Can you find a dark green leaf and a light green leaf? Or if the concept was the five senses, they would practice listening for birds, smelling cedar bark, tasting huckleberries or salmonberries, touching lichen, and looking for spider webs.

Nature provides a huge array of learning opportunities. Here are some components of a “typical preschool” and what that looks like in an outdoor preschool setting:

  • themes: almost every preschool has a series of “themes” during the year. In the fall, it might be pumpkins, fall leaves, or spiders. Then comes winter, ice, polar bears and penguins. Then springtime, flowers, ducks and so on. The teachers spend lots of time cutting out pictures and decorating bulletin boards. At an outdoor preschool, nature provides an ever-changing seasonal view.
  • block play: there’s plenty of building happening, but instead of using Duplos or Lincoln logs, the kids may be stacking rocks, building a lean-to with branches, or constructing fairy houses with moss and bark
  • imaginary play: there’s not a toy kitchen with plastic food, but there is an endless supply of bark, rocks and mud which easily fill in for mud pies, pretend cookies, ice cream cones and more. There’s not a treasure box full of dress-up clothes, but there are sticks, which become magic wands, swords, light sabers, hobby horses, and more. Instead of playsets and puppet theatres, a favorite climbing tree may be a spaceship one week and a train the next.
  • arts & crafts and writing: mud fills in for play-dough, sticks and sand provide a surface for practicing writing, kids paint on a tree with squashed berries, kids use sticks to form the letters of the alphabet
  • math manipulables: there’s an endless supply of things to count and add and subtract: rocks, berries, bugs…
  • sensory table and water table: instead of filling tubs with rice or beans or other sensory materials, the teachers just let the children explore pebbles on the path, moss on the log, slimy slugs, puddles, rough bark on a Douglas fir and smooth bark on a birch tree, glossy salal and sharp pointy holly leaves
  • playground time: time playing on standardized equipment is replaced with balancing on logs, climbing trees, wading across creeks, and building a seesaw with a downed branch balanced over a log fulcrum
  • fine motor practice – there may not be puzzles and shape sorters, but there are plenty of possible challenges, picking delicate blackberries while avoiding prickly thorns, weaving daisy chains, and handling insects
  • snack time: might be picking fresh veggies in the garden or it could involve building a fire, cooking a snack over the coals, and eating it as they gather around the open fire
  • music: kids may sing call and response songs while hiking through the woods, learn to whistle or hum, and drum with sticks on stones
  • circle time: it’s easy to do songs, stories, group games, and concept activities in the outdoors under the trees
  • science: there’s a never-ending opportunity to teach about science!

Outdoor teachers need to be flexible thinkers, since nature can be unpredictable. A teacher might have planned to talk about mud in April, because generally mud is guaranteed to be available in Seattle in April. But two years ago, we had a very dry spring, and there was no mud to be found! New “teachable moments” also appear outdoors – a dead bird or a hornets’ nest or bear scat may liven up a planned walk. This leads into discussions of a wide range of topics never found in a traditional preschool. (Learn more here about the role of the educator at an outdoor preschool.)

What are the benefits of outdoor preschool?

Children get the benefits of a play-based preschool, including: increased skill at self-direction and problem-solving, lots of practice with social skills and conflict resolution, a sense that learning is meaningful, and reduced stress (which leads to increased learning – we know from the science of brain development that children learn best when they feel happy and safe.) Learn more about play-based learning here.

Children also get the benefits of time spent outdoors in nature, including: better eyesight, stronger large motor skills and coordination, lower rates of asthma, allergies, and obesity, lower stress, and better concentration / attention when they return indoors. Outdoor play also encourages safe risk-taking and plenty of problem-solving. [Learn more by clicking here on Benefits of Outdoor Play or click on “nature activities” on the right sidebar (on desktops) or the bottom of the screen (mobile devices) to see all my posts on nature.] As an added bonus – anecdotally, kids who go to outdoor preschool seem to pick up a lot fewer colds and other illnesses from their classmates.

The outdoor environment also offers unique learning opportunities. Here’s just one example related to language arts: Language is not just about reading. It’s also about listening and communicating. When children and teachers go for a hike in the woods, they talk to each other as they walk, about almost anything that comes to mind. In this context an adult tends to use much more diverse and sophisticated vocabulary than they would have used in a pre-scripted classroom teaching moment. For example, if a teacher wanted to teach about colors in a classroom, they might use a book that showed 12 colors with labels. When walking through the woods, the same teacher could point out lavender vinca, fuschia rhododendrons, rusty red rotting wood, dark purplish-black berries on an Oregon grape, and discover how many shades of green there are in their woods.

“hands-on experiential learning is the best educational approach for children. Being outdoors provides them with not only fresh air, it encourages imaginative play, creativity, hand-eye coordination, balance, physical strength and mental clarity. When children’s natural curiosity is encouraged, learning flows organically from stimuli encountered in the outdoors.” Source

What are the downsides to outdoor preschool?

It’s dirty. Your kids may come home muddy. Really muddy.

The weather. Can be too cold, too hot, too wet… Most of this can be managed with the right clothing. Expect to spend a fair amount of money buying the appropriate clothes for your child. You may be able to find them at thrift stores or consignment stores if you’re lucky, but good clothes and good boots are essential!

Here’s how I manage: at home, I dress my child in regular clothes (pants and a t-shirt, plus good Smartwool socks. We keep the outer layers in the car and add them when we get to preschool. (It’s not safe to buckle a kid into a car seat with all those layers on.) If it’s a dry day in the fall or spring, we just add a fleece top for warmth. If it’s a wet day, it’s waterproof pants and rain jacket from Oakiwear. If it’s really cold, then we add long underwear and a squall parka from Lands End, plus hat and gloves. And always… every day… good boots. Bogs boots are great, but Oakiwear boots are also great and much cheaper than Bogs. They’re pricier than rain boots from Target, but warmer, sturdier, and fit better (so fewer falls caused by loose boots.) When we get back to the car, I just strip off all the muddy outer layers and leave them in the back of the car for the next preschool day. (If we’re going somewhere other than home after class, I bring along regular shoes and an everyday jacket.)

Not an emphasis on academics: Some outdoor preschools do almost no academics. Some incorporate story-time and crafts to teach some basic pre-academic skills. Some have a fair amount of group time where they learn standard pre-school topics like: days of the week, colors, alphabet and counting. But, none are focused on teaching academic skills like reading and math. I believe this to be developmentally appropriate – read why at my post on academic preschools – that post also incudes tips on how some parents have worked academic preparation into their home-life when their children attend non-academic preschools.

Learning about your options

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where you have multiple outdoor preschools to choose from, here are key questions to ask to allow you to compare them:

  • What is a typical day’s schedule?
    • A completely child-led school, like Cedarsong, may answer this just by saying: ““There’s no structure or schedule. We ask, ‘What do you kids feel like doing today?’ We follow them… At the end of each month, we write a newsletter from these notes, so the children write the curriculum.” Source
    • A hybrid model that combines teacher-led and child-led activities, like Polliwog, might say “9-9:15 Transition: Free play; 9:15-9:30 Morning Circle: Introduce the day’s theme, weather, calendar, sharing time; 9:30-11: Outdoor exploration, themed activities and nature study, then a snack; 11-11:45: Indoor extension activities: sensory, art, math and literacy stations. 11:45 – noon. Closing Circle: Reflections, songs, stories
    • There’s not a “right” schedule – just look for the schedule that suits your child and your goals for enrolling them in the preschool.
  • How much time do kids spend outside on a nice day? How much time do they spend outside when the weather is bad? (One “natural preschool” that I looked at spend at most 1/3 of their time outdoors and the rest in a traditional teacher-led classroom when the weather was nice out. There was even less time outdoors if the weather was bad. I do not consider them a true outdoor preschool, just a traditional preschool with a larger outdoor / nature component than most.)
  • What is the teacher to child ratio? For safety reasons, you may need more adults in a spread out, outdoor location than in an enclosed classroom. Also, in an inquiry-based classroom, it helps to have extra adults to answer all the questions children can come up with during a walk in the woods.
  • What indoor facilities do they have, and how do they use them? One preschool in the area has only some port-a-potties, but says children can also opt to pee in the woods instead of using the port-a-potty. Other schools have a full inside classroom with all the typical facilities.
  • For more questions to ask at any preschool, look here: Questions to Ask

My experience

I offer my experience here not as “here’s how YOU should do things” advice, but more to illustrate one parent’s decision-making process for one particular child.

With my older children, we did coop preschool, which I think is one of the best possible options for parents who are looking for a part-time enrichment preschool. My oldest child also did a theater-based preschool two days a week, because she had a passion for theatre, stories, and dramatic play. With our third child, coop was not a good match due to my work commitments.

When we started to look at other options, I started by thinking about my goals and needs and what would be the best match for his temperament. He had learned how to read very young, before starting preschool, so we weren’t worried about him learning that or other pre-academics at preschool. When I look at the list of essential skills for preschoolers to learn, I knew that he needed to work on impulse control, waiting for his turn to talk, and social skills, especially conflict resolution. I know these are best learned in free play with other children (with an adult nearby to mediate when needed.) They are not skills that are learned sitting in a desk. He is very high energy – if I need him to concentrate on something, I first need to give him an outlet for that energy – when he was two, we went to library story-time every week and he loved it and learned a lot. But BEFORE story-time, we went to the playground and he ran for an hour – letting out that energy first allowed him to concentrate later. (FYI, there’s plenty of good research showing that active play, especially active play outdoors, helps kids to concentrate better when they come back indoors. Check out this article on one school district’s experience with adding recess back into the day’s schedule.)

We considered a neighborhood preschool that’s a very short walk from our house – lots of our neighbors have used it and had only good things to say about it. We looked and it was a great traditional preschool, with lots of play time and plenty of activity. There was nothing wrong with it and a lot of good stuff. But, it didn’t feel like the best fit.

Like many preschools, it had lots going on visually – alphabet posters on the wall, calendars and weather charts. There were lots of brightly colored toys on every shelf. It’s what preschools are “supposed” to look like but it was also a little too much for me. (Read here about why kids actually may learn more in environments that have LESS “educational material” decorating the walls.) It was also a “loud” room acoustically – even with just the adults in it for an open house, it was a little loud for me. My son tends to get over-stimulated in busy, indoor environments and can get a little wild and hard to manage. I could see this room setting him off.

I thought more about that, and realized that he almost never gets over-stimulated outside. Outdoors, the noise and stimulation just comes at you differently. There’s plenty to observe, but not as much that demands your attention.

So, we realized we were looking for an outdoors, active, play-based preschool with plenty of opportunity for social-emotional development.

When he was three, we chose Tiny Treks preschool at Keep It Simple farm. It’s an all outdoor preschool – they have a non-insulated greenhouse for doing crafts in – since Seattle rain makes it challenging to use most art supplies outdoors. It is VERY play-based and child-led, with some structured teaching in circle time and a lot of free exploration. Here’s how they describe a typical day:

“We will spend the days outside in the forest, trails and garden.  Our day consists of a nature theme, craft and play.  Circle time with songs and finger plays, puppets and some light yoga stretches.  Then we might go to visit the baby chicks, count the chicken eggs and look for the bunnies.  There is a fire pit to roast marshmallows by, hammocks to swing in and the forest to play hide and seek in.”

It was a fabulous experience in every way. He loved it. We loved it. And at the end of the year, he had come a long way in his self-control, ability to listen to a teacher, and ability to manage frustration, all of which were skills we knew he needed to gain from preschool.

When he was four, we chose Polliwog Preschool, run by Pacific Science Center at Bellevue’s Mercer Slough. They have an indoor classroom, which has all the things you would expect to find in an indoor classroom. They also do many typical preschool activities, like story-time, job charts, and weather charts. They spend about 50% of their time outdoors in the child-led / emergent learning mode. It is a nice hybrid of forest kindergarten and a traditional preschool experience, and we felt it would make the perfect bridge between Tiny Treks and a kindergarten classroom.

Here’s how they describe their activities.

Polliwog Preschool is play-based and student-driven… Activities are designed to [encourage] curiosity, fostering love of the natural world, and developing the whole child. Polliwog Preschool uses nature as the guiding theme to frame our core curriculum areas of science, art, music, math, language and literacy. For example, when studying insects, children act out the life cycle of a dragonfly and fly through the forest for creative movement. Investigative, quantitative and analytical skills are developed as we compare, count and study terrestrial and aquatic insects. … back in the classroom, we extend our learning and creativity in various ways, such as painting an insect at the art station or creating an insect story as a language art activity.

This has also been a fabulous experience for him and for us. He has come a long ways in kindergarten readiness. The change in him from this summer till now has been huge in terms of his ability to engage in group activities, take turns, and follow instruction. And although his preschools have been “play-based” not “academic” he is making plenty of progress on the academic skills and will be well-prepared for kindergarten next fall.

Resources to Learn More

Best summaries

More resources:

photo credit: Friends Forever. via photopin (license)