Early childhood education programs serve the educational needs of pre-Kindergarten aged children. These programs include activities designed to engage, develop, and prepare children for elementary school. The main goal of early childhood education is to provide a foundation that will help improve children’s later school success.
Early childhood education programs typically teach fundamental concepts such as learning the letters of the alphabet; print concepts such as where text begins on a page and how to recognize where a sentence starts; hearing the individual sounds in words; early writing skills; familiarity with written language through books and stories; familiarity with math and science; small motor skills such as using scissors and other craft items; and large motor skills. These programs also teach fundamentals such as sitting in a group and listening to a teacher, cooperation in play in group activities, and basics such as following a set activity schedule and being able to move from one activity to the next.
Who Provides Early Childhood Education Services?
Early childhood education centers are often private, for-profit facilities, or run by churches or private schools, and these programs are tuition-based. There are also government-funded services available. Head Start, for instance, is a federal government initiative that provides free access to early childhood education services for low-income families. The US Department of Health and Human Services funds the Head Start Program.
Some states have options for free early childhood education services for those families who do not qualify for Head Start. Often called Universal Preschool or Universal Pre-K, these services are typically available for four year-olds.
Benefits of Early Childhood Education
There is some dispute as to whether the benefits gained by being enrolled in an early childhood education program are short- or long-term. However, some benefits are that children are generally more ready for Kindergarten if they have participated in an early childhood education program, and some studies indicate that participation in these programs decreases the chance that students will be held back a grade later in school. Additional studies have indicated a greater chance of these children graduating from high school and a decrease in crime and delinquency rates.
From the parental perspective, immediate benefits gained may be that the child has a chance to practice before going to school. This can be of immense value to the child who needs a chance to transition from a home setting into one where he or she is expected to follow routines, to learn collaboratively, and to function within a group of peers.
What to Look for in an Early Childhood Education Program
Parents who are interested in pursuing early childhood education options for their preschoolers should look for a program where children are safe and nurtured. The adults who lead the program should be qualified, and the center certified or licensed in accordance with local and state regulations. Other characteristics of a high quality early childhood education program are a balanced schedule that includes small- and larger-group activities and frequent assessment of the child’s progress. Clear and regular communication between staff and parents is important, as is a strong focus on all aspects of childhood development. Nutritious and well-balanced meals and safe and age-appropriate equipment and physical space are also important.