Preschool can look like fun and games.
But high-quality preschools use play to teach children the academic, social and developmental skills that they’ll need for kindergarten.
At the Cooperative Children’s Center in Seattle, preschoolers are working on letters at one table.
“We gotta do J first!” a child says.
“Oh, J for jalapeno,” the teacher says. “But that’s not making a juh-juh sound, that’s a tricky one. It’s making a huh-huh sound.”
At other tables, they’re identifying feelings and colors.
High-quality preschool programs are designed to prepare young children for kindergarten. But with tuition at $1,200 a month or more, preschool is out of the reach of most low-income families.
Although some poor children get subsidies for preschool, Washington state ranks toward the bottom of the nation in the number of subsidized preschool slots it offers. Wait lists are long.
Even if Seattle voters pass the city’s subsidized preschool initiative, there will be few new slots.
In all, fewer than one-third of poor children in Washington attend preschool.
Most of the rest are cared for by family members or neighbors.
The quality of that care varies widely, from homes where kids sit in front of cartoons all day to homes with lots of creative play and enrichment.
Kyle Snow, a head researcher at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, says kids who attend high-quality preschool programs like this one have an advantage when they start their school careers.
“They’re coming in with better literacy skills, better language skills, better math skills, better capacity to regulate their attention, often better capacity to regulate their emotions, to be aware of their and other people’s emotions, and so on,” he says.
Snow says in the right setting, kids might not need preschool.
“You may have a child being cared for in a home by mom, dad, aunt, uncle, whoever, who’s being read to on a regular basis and who’s being really engaged in learning,” he says.
That’s the philosophy behind Kaleidoscope Play & Learn.
It’s a free, weekly play group coordinated by the Seattle nonprofit Child Care Resources in community organizations around the state. It brings together early childhood educators with young children and their in-home caregivers.
It’s a model that originated in Hawaii, and has been copied across the country as a way to get young children ready for kindergarten regardless of preschool availability – and regardless of income level.
Learning At Home
In a bustling room at the Chinese Information Service Center in Seattle’s International District, parents and grandparents balance youngsters on their laps as the kids sing along to songs in Chinese and English. Most in this group are low-income.
Simyi Wu, a stay-at-home mom, says she’s been coming to Play & Learn every Friday for the past year.
It’s just an hour and a half, once a week, but Wu says it’s transformed the way she interacts with her children. She says the teachers here give her a lot of ideas about activities to do with children at home.
Today, Wu and her two-year-old daughter Kelly are making paper flowers.
“After participating in this program, now I’ll sing more songs, play together, cut paper,” she says. “Previously, I wouldn’t let her handle scissors and cut things, but after joining this program, I think that she now has the ability to learn to cut.”
There are about 3,000 families across Washington state in Play & Learn groups. Nearly half are low-income.
It’s a model that’s been copied across the country as a way to get young children ready for kindergarten regardless of preschool availability, and regardless of income level.
On the other side of the room, Bo Lun Hu is sorting through tree leaves with his grandson Jayden and a Play & Learn teacher.
The teacher demonstrates how to incorporate a math lesson into what was just a craft project.
Hu says the Play & Learn teachers have taught him how to discipline Jayden constructively.
“I strongly feel that before my teaching style with kids was to yell at them, but it doesn’t work,” he says. “With them, you need to use love and patience in order to teach them and have it be effective. With kids, if you use a rude style and yell at them, it’s worthless.”
That’s the sort of lesson clinical director Hueiling Chan wants caregivers to take home with them.
Chan says after more than a decade of overseeing the center’s Play & Learn group, she’s still impressed by what a difference it makes for at-home caregivers.
“Even just with one and a half hours per week, it just makes such a big impact on the family,” Chan says. “How much they engage with their children instead of putting kids in front of TV – just the interaction parts.”
Chan says the Play & Learn teachers show caregivers how to do preschool activities that they’d normally find intimidating.
“A lot of parents or grandparents shy away from playing with playdough because it’s messy, right?” she says. “You don’t want to spend time cleaning your house after, you know?”
So the Play & Learn teachers suggest that parents put floor mats down and have kids wear aprons.
Chan says just a few practical tips can make a big difference for caregivers.
“We see a lot of changes,” she says. “Parents no longer object to doing that. They come back and say, ‘Kyle did a waterpainting yesterday!’ We’re like, ‘WOW!’”