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Groh column: Preschool is the foundation for success

Preschool goes far beyond playing with blocks and midday naptimes – it is the foundation that will carry young children the rest of their lives.

“Brains are built, not born,” said Partners in Learning Executive Director Norma Honeycutt.

Preschool is where children build the social, linguistic and academic skills that prepare them for kindergarten and beyond.

“It’s not day care – we don’t care for the day,” said Michelle Macon, executive director of Cornerstone’s Child Development Centers.

A preschool provides care for children and walks them through the early milestones they need to “conquer or overcome,” she said.

“There are so many foundational skills that children need when they come to school,” said Rowan-Salisbury Director of Elementary Education Alesia Burnette.

Those who attend preschool are “so much more successful when they come to school,” she added.

During the preschool years, learning is less structured and more focused on exploration.

“Preschool is about learning through fun,” Honeycutt said.

“Children are naturally curious,” she said. “That’s how they learn – by exploring their environment.”

“Having taught kindergarten, I think it (preschool) helps them mostly socially,” said Lindsay Wineka, preschool director for First United Methodist’s preschool program in Salisbury.

For many children, preschool is their first experience spending an extended amount of time away from their parents. They learn how to handle relationships with other adults, as well as their peers.

“Children aren’t born knowing how to interact with other kids,” Honeycutt said, adding that they learn to relate with other children with different temperaments and personalities.

“When they go to school, they need to know how to navigate group situations,” she said.

Preschool is where children learn to share, sit still, take turns and answer questions.

Even though children don’t learn how to read in preschool, it is a critical time where they develop the linguistic foundation for reading.

“There are so many pieces,” Burnette said, adding that children learn new vocabulary, what letters sound like and about what words sound like through conversation and having books read to them.

“The open window for language skills is before the age of 5,” Honeycutt said. “A child’s brain is 85 percent developed by 3.”

Parents of poverty struggle to provide a preschool experience for their families.

Acquiring preschool for their children can be problematic.

“Head Start stays full,” Honeycutt said.

While other preschools provide a subsidy for poor families, Head Start is the only “truly free” preschool option that provides transportation.

Children of poverty are also less likely to have command of conversational language, with fewer opportunities to express their thoughts, feelings and preferences.

“The research has proven that children who come from poverty don’t hear the words, so they don’t have the language,” Honeycutt said.

Not just any preschool or day care center will do, however.

“Quality is very important,” Honeycutt said.

“You would want to look for a literacy-rich environment,” Burnette said.

Classrooms should be filled with child-friendly books they can read and look at.

There should be “lots of choices” and “developmentally appropriate toys,” she said.

In high-quality preschools, teachers do assessments and individualize the curriculum for their students, Honeycutt said.

“Listen to the conversation the teachers are having with the children,” Burnette said.

Is it conversation or command oriented?

“Go visit when children are there,” she added.

Honeycutt said class size is “very important.”

In North Carolina, preschools are required to have two teachers for every 18 students.

“Less is better,” she said.

It’s important to have great experience so that they learn to love learning,” Wineka said. “If they have a bad experience, they shut it out.

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