Is your child ready to start preschool or pre-k?

If your child is nearing preschool age (typically ages 3 to 5), you may have questions about starting preschool or pre-kindergarten. Find out why preschool are pre-k are so beneficial, how they differ (and what makes them different from daycare), and when kids are ready for this important milestone.

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Preschool marks the first step in your child's official school experience. Aimed at kids ages 3 to 5, preschool is different from daycare because teachers generally have training in early childhood education and focus on developing social, emotional, academic, and life skills.

Also, the hours might be shorter than typical daycares, and preschools are often closed for summer, holidays, and school breaks.

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There are many different types of preschool programs. Some larger daycare centers have preschool programs, and there are a range of public and private preschool options, including parent co-ops. Preschools may be play-based, focused on academic skills, or a mix of both.

Preschool and pre-k are intended to help kids get ready for more formal schooling, and they can provide wonderful opportunities for social, emotional, and academic growth. Think about your particular child when evaluating the variety of different preschool and pre-k options available in your area. In addition to age, consider your child's development and needs when determining the best time to send your little one to preschool or pre-k.

When do kids start preschool?

Most preschools start accepting children around age 2.5, while some wait until children have turned 3. Preschools may require kids to be potty trained before starting school. If your child isn't fully potty trained, talk with the school to see if they accept (and are prepared to help) children who are still mastering these skills. If not, it may be best to look for a different preschool rather than rushing potty training.

What age is pre-k?

Depending on your child's age and when their birthday falls, they may have the option to go to preschool and/or pre-kindergarten. Pre-k classes are generally offered to 4-year-olds or 5-year-olds in the year before they start kindergarten.

Some of these children have fall birthdays and turn 5 soon after the kindergarten cut-off, leaving them to wait until they're nearly 6 to start elementary school. Pre-k classes provide a nice bridge to kindergarten, and generally focus more on school readiness skills than preschools do.

Your child may go to preschool for two years, attend preschool and pre-k for one year each, do two years of preschool and one year of pre-k, or do another variation. It depends on the school, your child's age, and your preferences.

Is preschool necessary?

Preschool can be very good at helping your child develop social and academic skills. Recent research shows that the type of preschool your child attends may play an important role in their future academic success – and that play-based programs may be most beneficial. So while you certainly can choose to have your child skip preschool, it's smart to find other ways to involve them in play-based experiences with other kids.

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Is your child ready for preschool or pre-k?

As you think about your child's readiness for preschool or pre-k, remember that there are many different options to choose from. Consider your child's personality, strengths, and needs as you make this decision. For example, if your child isn't ready for a more traditional preschool where kids need to be able to sit and work quietly for short periods of time, you may want to find a play-based preschool that gives your child more freedom.

Here are some signs your child is ready for preschool or pre-k:

Your child is potty-trained and fairly independent

Preschool requires children to have certain basic skills. Most preschools will want your child to be potty-trained. Your child should also be able to take care of some other basic needs, like washing their hands, eating lunch without a lot of assistance, and sleeping alone for naps.

Your child is comfortable spending time away from you

If your child has been in daycare, or cared for by a babysitter or a relative, they'll be better prepared to separate from you when they're at preschool. Kids who are used to being apart from their parents often bounce right into preschool with hardly a backward glance.

But even if your child hasn't spent much time away from you or your partner, don't worry. Many children leave their parents for the first time to go to preschool, and they do just fine. Also, adjusting to day-to-day separations from parents is an appropriate developmental challenge for 3- to 5-year-olds.

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Your child can work on projects on their own

Preschool usually involves lots of arts and crafts projects that require concentration and the ability to focus on an individual task. If your child likes to draw at home or gets engrossed in puzzles and other activities on their own, they're a good candidate for preschool.

Your child can participate in group activities

Many preschool activities, like "circle time," require that all the children in a class participate at the same time. These interactions give children a chance to play and learn together, but also require them to sit still, listen to stories, and sing songs.

Preschool is a great opportunity for kids to practice these skills! But this can be difficult for children under 3 who are naturally active explorers and aren't always developmentally ready to play with other children.

Your child is used to a regular schedule

Preschools usually follow a predictable routine such as circle time, activity time, snack, playing outside, then lunch. There's a good reason for this. Children tend to feel most comfortable and in control when the same things happen at the same time each day.

Your child has the physical stamina for preschool

Whether it's a half-day or full-day program, preschool keeps kids busy. There are art projects to do, friends to make, and games to play. Does your child thrive on having plenty to do, or do they have trouble moving from one thing to the next and participating in activities?

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If they have trouble, that doesn't necessarily mean they're not ready for preschool – but you may need a more flexible preschool program that can help them adjust.

How to prepare your child for preschool

Here are some ways to help your little one get ready for preschool:

  • Start potty training well in advance. That way they can learn at their own pace rather than rushing to meet a school deadline.
  • If your child hasn't spent much time away from you, try to schedule some time apart – a night with grandma, for instance, or an afternoon with a sitter.
  • If your child isn't used to group activities, start introducing them. Take them to story time at your local library, for instance, or sign them up for a class such as tumbling to help them get used to playing with other children.
  • If your child doesn't keep to a schedule, it can help to standardize their days before preschool. Offer meals on a regular timetable and stick to a bedtime ritual (such as bath, then books, then bed).
  • Set up playtimes where your child can entertain themself for 5 to 15 minutes. While you wash the dishes, encourage your child to make creatures out of clay, for example. Gradually build up to longer stretches of solo play.
  • Try to sync your child's nap with the preschool's schedule. If they still need a mid-morning snooze, but naptime at preschool is after lunch, help your child adjust by gradually moving nap time a little later each day.
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Lily Jones

Lily Jones is an educator, writer, and mother. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two kids, and dog.