ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — While some parents were helping their kids return to school last month, others were facing an entirely different but important milestone – choosing a preschool.
Preschool is optional, but Diana Martinez-Gonzalez, director of early childhood services with the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, said it’s a good way to help children prepare for kindergarten.
“It’s always a parents’ choice whether to send their child to preschool,” Martinez-Gonzalez said. “But it’s beneficial for all children. By the time they get to kindergarten, they have learned the social aspects, and it can be all about learning.”
However, preschool might be the first time some youngsters are in a formal classroom setting or away from home for an extended period, and parents are faced with a lot of options when choosing a program. There are private programs, public programs and specialized programs.
All centers must be licensed by the state and receive a rating ranging from one to five stars. Preschools must display their license at the entrance, and ratings are available online at newmexicoprek.org. Those with two stars or lower often have basic health and safety issues, Martinez-Gonzalez said.
Beyond the front door, parents should ask questions and observe the center’s setting. She said a good program teaches children through play, because that is the best way for youngsters to learn.
“One of the first questions they can ask is whether the staff is well-trained,” she said. “Do they have an early childhood education background?”
Be wary of programs that try to push a kindergarten or first-grade curriculum, said Suzanne Harper, who helped to start and is now prinicipal of Shining Stars Preschool within the Rio Rancho Public Schools district.
Children should be learning letters and letter sounds, as well as counting and rhyming, but “it’s important not to do direct instruction,” she said. “It can inhibit their creativity. They learn best through things like song, dance and playing.”
Good programs, she said, focus on enhancing a child’s social, motor and language skills.
Parents also should look at the environment to see whether it is clean and whether there are options available for children, Martinez-Gonzalez said.
“Look at other children there,” she said. “How are they behaving?”
A good preschool will have separate areas for children to explore a varity of interests. For example, there might be a science center, an area for those who love to play dress up and another space for arts and crafts.
“They should also have enough supplies for the children,” she said. “And children should be able to reach the supplies, because they need access in order to engage in play.”
Heather Vaughn, early childhood manager for Albuquerque Public Schools, echoed Martinez-Gonzalez’s advice. APS has 21 programs in various district elementary schools. She said good preschools allow parents to be involved, either through a notice board out front or by sharing activities they can do at home with their child.
“Parents should ask how they (preschool workers) plan to support their child’s interests,” Vaughn said. “Are they responsive to their interests? They should ask you how your child approaches learning.”
Vaughn said perhaps the best indicator is how a parent feels when they walk in the door.
“You want to be interested as a parent in what they are learning,” she said. “If you are excited about what’s happening there, your child will probably be excited.”