When should my child start preschool? This is a question that all parents ask themselves at one point or another.
Preschool is one of the many childcare and education options available to parents of young children before their child starts full-time ('big') school.
The answer to this question varies depending on the child's age and skill set, but it can be challenging to know what is best for your little one.
To help you make an informed decision, here are a few things you might want to consider.
What Is Preschool?
Preschool and preschool programs are designed to educate children aged 3 to 5. The main aim is to educate your child through play, rather than look after them while you aren't there.
Preschool usually involves being taught by a qualified teacher in a dedicated preschool, although preschool programs are sometimes offered in extended daycare centres and other types of child care. In some states, preschool is called kindergarten or 'kindy'.
Preschool is mainly for children who are in the year before they start 'big school. It usually involves shorter hours than long daycare and gets children ready for school through play-based learning.
That means children can learn through different types of play at their own pace.
In Australia, every child is entitled to 1 year of free or subsidised preschool for 15 hours a week (or 600 hours in a year), depending on which state they live in.
What Is the Best Age to Start Preschool?
Preschool education is designed for children aged between 3 and 5. In Australia, most children who go to preschool are 4 or 5. However, some preschools also have programs for 3-year-olds.
Each state offers preschool at different ages.
Research has shown that two years of preschool–offered in many other countries - help children be better prepared for school, with better literacy, emotional and social skills.
Sending children to preschool early may be especially important for children who need extra support––for example, if their first language isn't English or if they come from a disadvantaged background.
Is My Child Ready for Preschool?
Your three-year-old is out of diapers and seems to enjoy playing with peers. But are they ready to start preschool? Are you ready? And just what are the benefits of preschool? For most kids, it's an experience that should not be missed, experts say.
We believe that all three- or four-year-olds should have the opportunity and advantages of attending preschool.
It's just too valuable of a beginning, now that we know children are capable of learning at such an early age. So the consensus is 'the sooner, the better regarding a structured opportunity for learning.
Different Types of Preschool
There are different types of preschool and kindergarten in other states. Some, known as sessional preschools, teach children for a few hours a day.
At others, children stay all day and have lunch. The local or state government runs some preschools, others by private companies, independent schools or volunteer parents.
Organisations like Steiner, Montessori and Reggio Emilia offer their preschool programs too.
What Do Children Learn at Preschool?
Children learn through experimenting and playing at preschool—teachers direct children's learning around what interests them.
Children learn to solve problems, communicate and socialise with others. They build their confidence and self-esteem and make it easier for them to know when they go to school.
Some of the activities children do at preschool include:
- doing puzzles
- playing with blocks
- painting and drawing
- reading books and listening to stories or poetry
- playing dress-up
- music, dance and drama
- climbing and playing on outdoor equipment
- running, swinging and jumping
- using computers
- playing with clay, play dough, sand and water
The Benefits of Preschool
A landmark study of the benefits of preschool concluded that children who began education in early childhood got more out of school in every grade –– and were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.
The children who participated in early education programs were healthier and wealthier than their peers who did not.
Kindergarten teachers will tell you straight out that there are numerous benefits of preschool. However, the bottom line is that kids who attend preschool are better prepared to succeed.
Children who went to preschool already knew how to get along with others and prepared with more language skills and a broader knowledge base.
The value of preschool is not strictly academic. Preschool is really for socialisation, introducing the idea that learning can be fun, and teaching kids how to share, compromise, and get along as a group.
But parents shouldn't choose to send their child to preschool, thinking it will push them along.
Many people send their children to preschool because they think that, academically, it means their kid will get ahead.
But there is no correlation between how early a child learns to read and how good a reader is.
Some of the essential benefits of preschool are helping kids socialise and begin to share and interact with other children and adults.
Indeed, by age three, most kids are in a place where they can start spending more and more time with groups of peers, and if they can spend more time away from their parents, preschool can be beneficial.
Socialisation is the best indicator of whether a child is ready for preschool. If they love to be with other kids, can socialise and separate from Mom, your child may well be prepared.
Preschool helps with young children's overall development. It teaches them new skills that will help them learn to read, write and do mathematics.
They develop better communication and social skills, such as playing with other children, working as a group, and speaking to adults.
Children who go to preschool can deal better with the transition to school because they are more responsible, independent and confident.
Research also shows that children who go to preschool benefit throughout their education, even when they are at secondary school.
The Pitfalls of Preschool
Readiness is critical because starting preschool too soon can be stressful for a child.
If your child feels anxious about being away from you, the benefit will not outweigh any acute symptoms.
If your child is uncomfortable separating from you at age two or three, you should not force the child to attend preschool.
If your child is not ready for separation, preschool will backfire.
As parents, you know when your child has a lot of separation anxiety because you can't leave, and when you do, your child gets distressed and stays distressed.
In this case, preschool is going to be very stressful.
Another telltale sign that your child isn't ready is if they aren't toilet-trained. In my opinion, it creates anxiety for kids because other kids aren't in diapers –– and teachers don't want to change diapers."
Children who are uncomfortable with high levels of stimulation may also be a little put-off by preschool.
If you have an easily overwhelmed kid who is uncomfortable with music, laughing, and transitioning from one thing to the next, you might want to put them in some classes –– and not have it be an all-day experience like preschool.
If your child isn't ready for preschool as soon as you'd like, don't let it worry you.
It's not so crucial. It can be a pleasant and fun thing, but it's not like if a kid doesn't go to preschool, they won't be able to socialise, read, or write.
Which Families Delay Sending Their Child to School, and Why?
Boys, younger children and children from relatively advantaged families and neighbourhoods – particularly in Sydney – are more likely to delay starting school.
These are some of the findings of our study on who chooses to delay sending their children to school and how a child's age when they start school is related to their "school readiness".
Every year, thousands of Australian families with four-year-old children face a difficult decision: to enrol their child in school or delay for another year. Delayed entry typically incurs a cost, such as childcare fees or lost wages. For this reason, not all families may be in the same position to decide to delay, even if they wanted to.
Research shows New South Wales tops the charts when it comes to delaying school entry.
A paper published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly found one-quarter of children in NSW delayed school entry in 2009 and 2012, with geographic and social variation in the tendency to linger.
They also confirmed what many parents and teachers believe: older children are more likely to have the developmental skills to hit the ground running in the first year of school.
What Does This Mean for Families and Policymakers?
Every parent knows their child best.
Families should consider the available evidence together with their circumstances, advice from their local school or preschool, and any other important factors to their family when deciding when to send the child to school.
The findings are also relevant to the ongoing debate about school enrolment policies in Australia and the potential impact on the make-up of classrooms and children's school readiness.
One option for policymakers is to change the school enrolment cut-off date.
For example, raising the minimum school starting age would remove the youngest group of children from the classroom, who are less likely to have the developmental skills to thrive in school.
This would narrow the age range and development gap between the youngest and oldest kids in the classroom.
However, raising the school starting age might pressure families to provide preschool care or restrict workforce participation for parents.
A later start to school might also mean children enter the workforce a year later, potentially impacting total lifetime earnings.
A key question for future research is whether these initial age-related development gaps remain over time.
The available evidence from other countries is mixed. Some studies have found younger children quickly catch up with older classmates.
Other research shows older children have an advantage over their younger peers throughout childhood in multiple areas, including sports, mental health and test results.
Who Delays School Entry?
Besides finding boys and children from more advantaged neighbourhoods are more likely to delay starting school, children with higher developmental needs––such as hearing and communication impairments, and children born preterm––are also found to be among those more likely to delay school entry.
Family background played a role. For example, children born to mothers from Australia or northern Europe were more likely to delay.
Children born to mothers from Asia, North Africa or the Middle East were less likely to delay.
This may reflect a range of cultural, social and economic circumstances, and attitudes and beliefs.
However, we did not have information about why families made their choices in this study.
Delayed school entry varied depending on where children lived, ranging from 8% to 54% of children in an area.
It was generally more common for children in regional areas to delay than children from cities.
There was substantial variation within Sydney. For example, delayed school entry was least common among children living in the southwestern suburbs, with significant cultural diversity and more low-income households than other Sydney areas.
We found children were more likely to be ready for school with each additional month of age at the start of the school year.
For example, the differences in children's development were relatively small month to month – there wasn't a big gap between August-born and September-born children.
But the differences did add up: there was a substantial development gap between the youngest and oldest children in the first year of school.
For example, around 60% of children who started school aged five-and-a-half to six years old had scores above the 25% cut-off point in all five development domains. On the other hand, only 36% of those who started aged four and a half met this threshold.
Getting Prepped for Preschool
When you think it's time for your child to try preschool, experts recommend doing plenty of research to find the best atmosphere to provide the benefits.
Talk to the director and the teachers and see the preschool's goals for children that age. Then, look at the classroom and facilities and briefly observe how comfortable the children seem.
Get your child ready for preschool by building anticipation instead of anxiety. Introduce them to the idea of preschool because when kids know what to expect, they feel more secure," she says.
Specifically, in the year leading up to preschool, visit the classroom. It's best if the child can see the classroom, meet the teacher, and seek out children who will be in the school if you can.
We advise parents to talk to their kids about what will happen in preschool, what they will do, how much fun it will be, and how many friends they will make.
It's about getting your child to have a positive attitude about preschool.
Another tip: Don't just get everything ready yourself. Let your child pick and pack their backpack and choose a special snack.
Invite the child to help because this helps build positive anticipation and makes preschool more of an adventure and something to look forward to.
You can help them get ready to learn too. For example, point out letters and numbers on streets and buildings and shapes and colours in architecture.
The more you talk to your child, and the more you read to your child, the more vocabulary they build.
Helping your child become self-sufficient is another crucial step. Encourage this by allowing your child to brush their hair, put on their pants, button some buttons and zip some zippers.
It's good for a child to have that sense of accomplishment, which will translate into other areas, including potty.
Self-confidence is the most important thing a kid can go to preschool with. And when they know how to do things by themselves, they will feel accomplished, capable, and comfortable going into this big new world.
It is beneficial if they can manage themselves in terms of eating, toileting, and activities of daily living.
Some parents, in a well-meaning way, may keep doing everything for the child. Then they send them to school where it isn't very comfortable because every other kid is zipping, buttoning, and snapping –– while your kid is just waiting for the teacher.
Easing Separation Anxiety
On that first day, parents can –– and should –– try to help curb separation anxiety even before it starts so that they can maximise the benefits of preschool for their children.
Help your child know how to say goodbye. This is easier to do when your child understands that there will be a hello –– and when that will be.
Talk about it in advance and on the way to school, just as you are about to depart.
Then, before you leave, make sure your child is engaged in something or caught up in something in the classroom. Finally, say a firm goodbye and go quickly. The cardinal rule for anxious parents: "Don't linger."
Sending Your Child to Preschool
Preschool is available for 3- to 5-year-old children in most communities. Many parents consider sending their child to preschool at this age, although they often wonder whether preschool is necessary.
If they believe it is, they want their child to be emotionally ready and adequately prepared.
While preschool is not necessary for later success in school, it can have various social and educational benefits for children.
Child-development experts recommend that all children spend time regularly with other kids of the same age by three years of age.
Although some children are already experiencing this through group daycare, either in a home setting or at a daycare, preschools provide another option for formal interaction.
Preschools give children an opportunity to socialise and develop skills that will help prepare them for kindergarten and elementary-school success, such as listening, talking, sharing, being patient and following instructions.
- They can follow simple directions. ...
- They can handle being away from you for short periods of time. ...
- They can focus on a task. ...
- They want to play with other kids. ...
- They have basic self-care skills. ...
- They're potty trained. ...
- They know what to expect in the classroom.
Depending on state licensing regulations and enrollment needs, the preschool age range is typically from 2 ½ to 4 ½ years old; children in a pre-kindergarten class are generally 4 or 5 years old.