The skills children learn in preschool are invaluable. While the fundamental educational benefits of preschool such as literacy and numeracy are top of mind for parents, an often-overlooked advantage is the capacity children develop toward becoming a well-rounded student, friend, family member, and community member.
In preschool, children are learning for the first time how to be part of a school community while also developing confidence and individuality. Curriculum that focuses on socialization skills such as lining up when the bell rings, sitting down for "circle time" and listening to others helps children understand what it means to be part of a community.
Listening is an important skill for young children to develop because it is also one of the foundational skills when learning how to read. Activities that help children distinguish different sounds and associate sounds to an action, such as a bell versus a whistle are essential building blocks for future learning. At St. Thomas School a practice that we have developed is gathering near a stair case and listening to people walk up and down while identifying the sounds of different shoes, patterns, speeds of walking, or the sounds of objects in peoples' hands (i.e. shaking container or backpacks shifting). Parents can facilitate similar exercises at home by listening for the garbage truck on trash day; take time to hear the truck driving, stopping, emptying the bins, unloading the bins, etc. This practice and others like it will help children understand the sounds around us and begin to associate them with routines and actions.
Developing executive function skills and control over one's body is another key component of socialization. In preschool, children need to develop the ability to be their own air traffic controller and learn how to pay attention and avoid distractions when it is time to focus. For example, when a teacher gives the class three-step instructions the children should be able to stay focused, follow the directions and not get distracted by the phone ringing or someone walking by the window outside. Parents can create opportunities to practice developing these skills by giving children multi-step instructions such as asking a child to put away a ball, pick out a book, and meet in a different room to sit down and read together.
Additionally, learning how to share and play or work cooperatively with others is a crucial socialization skill at this stage of development. Helping children understand the difference between giving up a toy versus playing with an object together or in a group will help to develop important skills such as teamwork, patience, and understanding. Identifying opportunities for children to understand what a group plan is and how to be a part of a group activity, such as sitting down for circle time, is equally important. Creating family activities at home such as sharing crayons while coloring, going to the grocery store, eating dinner together, and going to the park to play with others can help children see sharing in action and begin to finesse the skills beyond the classroom.
Routines are very important for children, but what is also important to foster at the preschool age is learning how to deal with unexpected actions. Dealing with unexpected situations helps children develop and manage their emotions. Helping children understand how an action makes them feel, and how they are going to react to it, cultivates this critical developmental milestone. Parents can help children understand how to deal with unexpected actions by using them as learning opportunities. When a tower of blocks falls down, parents can stop and acknowledge that it was an unexpected event. Then talk about how it made the child feel, what can they do to remedy the situation, and what is a reasonable response. We often talk about problems as "big" deals or "little" deals. A big deal will have a big response, whereas a little deal, my tower falling over, will get a little response. Helping children understand these perspectives (big deal little deal) results in resiliency and grit when faced with unexpected situations.
While many parents are eager to see their children read, write, and recite their ABCs, during the preschool years, children's brains are wired to learn social emotional skills. By focusing first on how to manage their emotions and to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others, parents will be setting their children up for the academic learning to come.