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Whats the right age to start preschool

Most new parents are confused about the right age to enrol children on a preschool programme. While the decision to enrol children in playschool is determined by several factors, the most important should be child readiness – Aarti C. Rajaratnam

A neighbour’s child started preschool at age two, while another friend insisted on homeschooling until four. Most new parents are confused about the right age to enrol children into a preschool programme. While the majority of preschools admit children at age three, an increasing number are admitting children as early as 1.5-2 years. The decision to enrol children in playschool is determined by several factors such as a mother’s need to return to work. But the most important factor should be child readiness.

The right time

Most schools use chronological age as the criterion for school readiness and admission. However, it’s more important to ensure that a child has the following skills before starting pre-kindergarten class.

• Children should be toilet trained and able to communicate to an adult when they need to use the toilet.

• Able to dress except buttoning shirts and tying shoelaces.

• Able to sit still for short periods.

• Ready to spend time away from parents/caregivers.

• Capable of communicating needs and listening to others.

• Must be weaned from the feeding bottle a few months prior to starting professionally administered early childhood care and education (ECCE).

Benchmarks of a good preschool

While selecting appropriate pre-primaries for their children, parents should tick the following boxes:

Safety. Check if the school is physically, emotionally and sexually safe for your child. Physical safety covers hygiene and cleanliness of learning spaces, toilets and play areas. Some schools tend to invest in poor quality plastic toys and materials that could be toxic.

Emotional safety involves interactions between children and teachers and how the latter deal with challenging behaviour, separation anxiety and delays and deviations in learning. A high-quality preschool programme is non-stressful and does not prematurely impose academic learning with children allowed to make mistakes and learn at their own pace. If teachers use threats, bribes and punishment, it’s not emotionally safe for children.

To ensure sexual safety, inspect the school for ‘dark spaces’ that can be used by abusers and also ask the management to conduct stringent background checks of all employees.

If there are red flags in any of these three safety benchmarks, it’s advisable to strike the school off your shortlist.

Infrastructure. Apart from academic infrastructure, parents should check if there is sufficient light, fresh air, outdoor play areas including a well-maintained sandpit and activities to stimulate exploration. If a preschool operates in an indoor space with limited natural lighting or is “fully air-conditioned”, think twice before choosing this school. A good preschool provides ample opportunities for indoor and outdoor play.

Pedagogy/philosophy. Every early childhood education pedagogy has its plus points. If you are keen on sending your child to a school that follows a particular ECCE philosophy, spend time researching it. Some of the popular early childhood education philosophies include Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Waldorf. Choose a pre-primary which you believe will help your child obtain meaningful and enjoyable ECCE.

Teacher/staff quality. A high-quality preschool ensures that its teachers and staff are well-trained in one or more ECCE pedagogies. Caring for and teaching young children requires special skills and training. Check with parents of already-enrolled children to understand the quality of student-teacher interactivity.

Assessments and discipline. Preschool curriculums need to be age-appropriate with no stress imposed on children to learn. Assessments of learning outcomes should be a record of gradual improvement rather than a grade of mastery attained. In addition to assessments, check if the school has a balanced policy on discipline. Teachers who use any form of punishment — threats, bribes or corporal punishment could make your child learning-averse for all time.

Illness and emergencies. Check whether the school management has formulated processes and policies to deal with emergencies and illness. Reputed preschools usually have a nurse or well-trained teacher to provide first aid during emergencies.

Also read: Best practices in ECCE: What Indian preschools need to learn and adapt

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