Category Archives: Early Learning / Preschool

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)

Academic Preschools


What does your child need to learn during his preschool years? What is the best way to teach her what she needs to know? Would attending an academic preschool have a huge impact on his future education? What do you need to know to make the right choice?

What your child needs to learn

During the “preschool years”, between age 3 and 5, there are some essential skills you want your child to master. And yes, they will absolutely have an impact on your child’s future success. But most of them have nothing to do with academics: they include independence in self-care, emotional regulation and impulse control, how to make friends, how to take turns, share, and resolve conflicts, how to sit still and listen to a teacher, how to follow rules, and how to join in group activities. (Learn more about essential skills here.) Yes, children do need some basic academic foundations – ideally a beginning kindergartener can do at least the following: recognize the letters of the alphabet, count to 20, draw a picture, know basic facts like colors and shapes, and work with basic school supplies (like scissors and tape.)

But, a child does not need to be a skilled reader, or know addition and subtraction, before kindergarten begins. Some children absolutely can, and do, learn to read at 3 or 4 years old. And if they do that easily, that’s great! But, if your child isn’t reading at age 5, it’s fine. Research shows that if you compare early readers and late readers at age 5, you’ll see a big difference. But, if you compare them again at age 7 or 8, the late readers typically have caught up with their peers. ((Look here for a full article on when children should learn to read and how to help them. And here’s a video which summarizes the research.)

The downsides to pushing academics too early:

With the nationwide focus on core curricula and standardized testing, the academics that used to be taught in first and second grade are now being pushed down into kindergarten to children who may not be developmentally ready for them. In the past, kindergarten was a gentle transition from home to school, where children learned how to follow rules, pay attention, and find their cubbies. By contrast, here’s one parent’s story of her child’s experience of modern kindergarten:

My daughter’s first day of kindergarten consisted almost entirely of assessment. She was due at school at 9:30, and I picked her up at 11:45. In between, she was assessed by five different teachers, each a stranger, asking her to perform some task. By the time I picked her up, she did not want to talk about what she had done in school, but she did say that she did not want to go back. She did not know the teachers’ names. She did not make any friends. Later that afternoon, as she played with her animals in her room, I overheard her drilling them on their numbers and letters. Source

She is not alone in this – in a nationwide 2010 study, 73% of kindergarteners took a standardized test (one third took tests at least once a month). In 1998, no one asked kindergarten teachers about testing, but the first grade teachers of 1998 gave fewer tests than kindergarten teachers of 2010. In 1998, 31% of teachers thought children should be reading by the end of kindergarten. In 2010, 80% believed that. Source

Parents, and teachers, respond to this pressure by moving the pre-academic skills children used to work on in kindergarten down into pre-school.

If we push children to succeed at academics early, we run a few risks: first, that they will be stressed and pressured about academics. They may come to view reading as the “unpleasant stressful work I had to do” and resent “having” to read in the future.

For long-term academic success, one of the most important things we can teach our child is that reading is fun and learning is fun. Sometimes early academic pressure can teach children the opposite lesson…

A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning. Source.

The second risk is that academics will displace many other subjects that children benefit from. Kindergarten teachers report that in the pressure to excel in reading or math, programs are cutting time spent on art, music, and science. Source.

The third risk is that if we spend all our time working on academic skills, we may be depriving our children of the time they need to spend to learn all the other essential skills (self care, impulse control, conflict resolution, etc.) that are better learned through social play. These skills are much harder to learn later in life.

Preschool years are not only optimal for children to learn through play, but also a critical developmental period. If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions. We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more  in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age.  Source.

What’s a better alternative to an academic preschool?

Preschool age children do best in a play-based environment, with more emphasis on Process than Product. An experienced, knowledgeable teacher has set out thoughtful invitations to play, and materials to encourage learning (such as Montessori materials). Then the children are allowed to move around the room, engaging in both independent exploration and social play, spending as much time on each activity as they desire. The teacher moves around, making observations and asking questions to extend learning. When children have questions that they need answers to in order to move their play along, the teacher shows them the power of reading, math, and other academic tools to find those answers. This excites them about learning those academic skills.

The class also includes some formal group time so children can practice sitting still, paying attention, and following rules. Music, art, and lots of physically active, outdoor play are important.

How do you make sure your child learns academic skills?

I could say “trust the process.” A good play-based preschool will help your child gain all the “essential preschool age skills” that I referenced above, including academic foundations. In general, if they’re in a good preschool, you don’t need to worry.

But, I know parents do worry – here’s how some parents handle that anxiety…

I attended an open house at a progressive elementary school. When one prospective parent said, anxiously, “But if you don’t test the kids, and you don’t do standardized textbooks, how do you know that they’re learning what they need to learn??” The teachers at the school had lots of good answers for that. But I like this pragmatic answer from a parent of two alumni: “When my kids were here, I sometimes got worried. When I did, I’d go to Lakeshore Learning or Barnes and Noble, and pick up some workbooks – the same workbooks that many “academic” schools are using. When I had down time with the kids – waiting for food in a restaurant, waiting for soccer practice to start, or whenever they were bored, we’d work through the workbook. And it always turned out that they were right on track – at grade level or above across the board. They were in fact learning all the academic stuff they were supposed to learn, plus a whole lot more in terms of social skills, creativity, and the other things that play-based schools foster in kids.”

I know another parent who uses mobile apps and online teaching tools with their kids at home. They say “the games make learning fun for the kids. So, they drill their alphabet or phonics, or basic addition over and over, but they’re having so much fun that the learning comes naturally.” Then they take their kids to a play-based outdoor preschool for large motor play, time in nature, and lots of free play time with other kids.

Another parent takes her child to library story time at least once a week, and they get plenty of books to take home and read. Her child views library time and reading as one of the most exciting “treats” of the week. They also practice math at home and do science activities. She says “I’m not a mathematician or a scientist, but you don’t really have to be to teach a preschooler!” They attend a coop preschool together for all the “things we can’t do at home on our own, especially art and music.”

Learn more:

photo credit: Homework via photopin (license)

Preschool Choice Time


For parents of two-and-a-half year olds, ’tis the season to think about preschool. (I know, preschool won’t start till September, and it’s CRAZY that you have to research and make decisions on preschools  when you can’t begin to imagine how different your child will be 8 months from now…)

January and February are the season for preschool fairs, preschool open houses and tours. Many schools have application deadlines coming up soon and will encourage you to apply as soon as possible to ensure that there’s space for your child. It’s easy for parents to feel a lot of anxiety and pressure in this environment. It is true that the sooner you decide, the more options you’ll have. And it is true that SOME schools will fill up soon, and if you don’t apply now, you’ll miss your chance. But the honest truth is that there are a ton of great preschools that not only won’t fill up in February, they’ll still have some space available when September rolls around! So, don’t panic about making the choice now if you’re not ready.

One great way to find out about your options is to go to a preschool fair. They’re free, open to the public, and offer parents the chance to walk around, pick up flyers, read posters, and talk to representatives of many different preschools. If you’re on the Eastside of Seattle, we have two big fairs:

– The parent education department at  Lake Washington Institute of Technology offers a fair in January. Details about the 2016 event are here:

– Parent Map holds a series of preschool previews in January each year. The info about 2016 events is here:

When parents ask me “what’s the best preschool?” I emphasize that there is no one right answer to that question. A preschool program can range anywhere between 2 hours a day for two days a week to 8 hours a day for five days a week. The cost can range hugely. The way students spend their time, how skills are taught, and facilities range widely. Here are the steps I recommend to help you figure out what’s the best preschool for you.

First decide: Is preschool necessary? Is it something you want for your child?

If you decide you’re looking, the first thing to think about is your concrete needs and goals for preschool.  This includes both logistics (location, schedule, cost) and also thinking about what you hope your child will learn at preschool that they can’t learn from you at home or from the other activities they do.

Then, research your options. Go to preschool fairs, do web searches, but also talk to friends, co-workers, and other parents on the playground. You’ll often learn about fabulous low-cost options by asking around.

Then visit, or attend an open house, and ask these questions to learn more.

Then make the decision that feels right for you! Don’t base it on other people’s opinions but go with your own best judgment.

Here are a few related articles and resources that might interest you:

  • Coop preschools can be the best option for parents who are looking for a few hours a week of preschool (they won’t work for any family that needs full time daycare). They offer a developmentally-appropriate, play-based experience that’s a great learning opportunity for your child and for you, at a low cost
  • Outdoor preschools are a play-based, nature focused option
  • Academic preschools – why they may not be developmentally appropriate or necessary for long-term academic success
  • Benefits of multi-age classrooms
  • Essential skills – these are skills all children need to learn by age 5, whether they learn them at preschool or at home
  • PEPS is hosting a presentation on Choosing the Right Preschool on January 21 in Bellevue and January 28 in Seattle. Learn more:

Note on ages: preschool is generally for children age 3 – 5. (So, for fall 2016, that means kids born between September 1, 2011 and August 31, 2013.) There are programs for two year olds called “preschool” because many parents will pay more for something if it’s called preschool than if it’s called playgroup or day care… but really kids under 3 are operating at a different developmental level than a truly preschool age child, and would be better served by an age appropriate, play-based program.

Questions Posters

I created a new set of posters for the classroom on “Questions to Ask to Extend Learning.”

Educators frequently encourage parents and teachers to ask “open ended questions” as part of a facilitated learning process. But it may be hard for parents and teachers to think of good questions as they’re playing with a child in a classroom or at home.

Often, they end up asking yes / no questions, or quizzing kids for “the right answer.”

On Teacher Tom’s blog, he writes: “They say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ. We hear stupid questions almost every time adults and young children are together. Here’s [an] example: a child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum. An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, “How many marbles do I have?” The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well… [These] questions take a child who is engaged in testing her world, which is her proper role, and turns her into a test taker, forced to answer other people’s questions rather than pursue the answers to her own.”

So, I designed these posters to hang around the classroom to inspire parents with some good open-ended questions. They offer ideas of what to ask that will take the child’s learning to a new level. Click here for a PDF file and you can print your own.

Sources for these ideas: