There are nearly 20 million kids under the age of 5 across the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, and about 367,000 of them are here in Maryland.
Where do they go to school? Preschools, like their elementary and secondary counterparts, take different forms. There’s public preschools — programs like Head Start mainly aimed at lower income families or pre-K classrooms at neighborhood elementary schools — private and parochial preschools and in-home child care programs for a total of more than 450 accredited options in the state.
“In Maryland, we’re fortunate that we have a responsibility to support early education as well as the public schools,” says Judy Walker, early learning branch chief at Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). “We want to make sure [children] are prepared.”
Stefanie McKenzie took advantage of the local public school program at Thomas Johnson Elementary School in Baltimore for her two daughters, Hattie, who is in the pre-k program currently, and Anslee, who is a first-grader at the school.
“It was the school she was going to be attending the following year, so it just made sense,” McKenzie says. “And Thomas Johnson has a really strong early education program.”
Even beyond that, McKenzie adds, she and her husband are strong proponents of public education. The Baltimore public schools get a bad rap, she says, but her family has had a great experience — besides, they reason, if everyone who is able takes their kids elsewhere, how will the schools ever get better?
And so far so good. Hattie loves preschool. “I think she’s just gained a lot of confidence there,” McKenzie says.
For Christina Cooney’s oldest, 4-year-old Gideon, she and her husband also wanted something close to home, but because Gideon has never been to daycare or preschool before, they opted for a place small and part time — the three-half-day program at Christ Lutheran in Catonsville, which was within walking distance of their home.
“We also like the school because it’s old school,” Cooney says. “My husband went there nearly 30 years ago and it hasn’t changed much and was thought that was important.” The preschool program is still largely play-based, she says, and very warm and welcoming.
Because Cooney wasn’t worried about Gideon’s academic preparedness, preschool was the time he could learn to socialize with other kids and adults who were not his parents, which was also important to them.
The overall benefit of early education is well-documented. One study followed 123 kids born into poverty — about half of whom were put in a high quality preschool while the other half had no preschool program — in the 1960s. About 40 years later in 2005, 77 percent of the preschool group had graduated high school and 60 percent were earning $20,000 or more. That’s compared with a 60 percent graduation rate and 40 percent earning the same for the non-preschool group.
More recently, Oklahoma, though considered a mostly conservative state, is home to a near-universal pre-K program, offered since 1998. Children who go through the program are almost a full school year (nine months) ahead of their peers in pre-reading and five months ahead on pre-math skills, according to Georgetown University professor William Gormley who has been studying the program for 15 years.
What’s changed in preschool as early childhood education has evolved?
Well, says Chris Ader-Soto, senior vice president of early childhood development for Y of Central Maryland, it’s been a bit of a cyclical journey to where it’s at today. When she was starting out as a classroom teacher about 50 years ago, preschool was mostly an extension of daycare, centered on letting the kids play and have fun, she says.
Then the focus turned towards school readiness and assessments. In theory, that’s important Ader-Soto says, but an over-emphasis on it causes rigidity.
“One of the trends that’s coming back is child development through play and we fully support that,” she says, bringing it back full circle. “I think in a time of emphasis on school readiness, people lost sight of that for a while.”
Carol Williamson, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning at MSDE, agrees. “We make sure [preschool programs in Maryland] know the purpose of what we call purposeful play,” she says. “And that never should have gone away.”
This puts programs mostly somewhere in the middle, Ader-Soto says. Preschools are emphasizing this purposeful play — that is, play that helps kids develop important skills that they’ll need going into school. And she should know. The Y serves about 2,300 preschoolers and operates the Head Start programs for both Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and is one of five for Baltimore City.
Purposeful play was a recurring theme among all the early childhood education providers and directors BC talked to. It includes things like singing songs, reading and playing with blocks, which helps in the development of everything from language to motor skills.
“There’s a real focus on language development and helping children ask questions — to use the child’s curiosity to help them learn,” Williamson says.
For Greenspring Montessori, which serves about 250 kids under 6, the recent trends of purposeful play and language development are already inherent in the Montessori approach, where children are guided by their own curiosity through curated and intentional classroom environments at their own pace, says Betsy Wimbrow, the school’s director of education. But they, too, are adding new initiatives when it seems like a good fit, especially when it comes to language development.
Just a few years ago, the school introduced “the beautiful meal,” where the kids are responsible for helping prepare for mealtime — whether lunch or afternoon snack. They push the tables together, help set the tables and sit down to eat and converse with their classmates and the adults.
“Everything is set up to encourage their independence,” Wimbrow says. It’s teaching them how to contribute, find their voice “and that they have a voice,” she adds.
Four years ago the school also added a Spanish-English dual track. The program now extends through one toddler classroom, two 3- to 6-year-old classrooms and one lower elementary class, about 80 kids.
But beyond academic and school readiness skills, kids’ social and emotional foundations are getting increasing emphasis. From too much screen time to stressful or volatile home environments, there can be many reasons children are coming in not able to express themselves well and acting out, say preschool providers.
“There’s new research coming out all the time that those skills are necessary for kids’ future success in school,” Walker says.
One way programs are addressing that is by adopting aspects of mindfulness, says Bryn Mawr Little School director Megan Brown. This the school’s second year of yoga, for instance, and kids love it. The slow movements help them calm down and relax, she says. Just last winter, she adds, there was a day when the weather was too bad for the kids to be able to go outside and a group of boys started doing yoga stretches on their own to release some of that pent-up energy.
“It was a very positive way that we saw them doing yoga and doing yoga as a group helped them manage their bodies in a very healthy way when we couldn’t play outside,” Brown says.
The use of mindfulness is also extending into discipline. Baltimore County Public Schools is in its second year of implementing conscious discipline, according to Sharon Ward, the system’s early childhood supervisor. Conscious discipline is an approach that works to develop discipline within children as opposed to a rewards or punishment system.
“We are definitely seeing students coming to school without the social and emotional skills they need. The impetus actually was the number of students coming into pre-k and just wreaking havoc,” she says. With the new approach, “the success is so tangible and pervasive.”
In practice, conscious discipline is teaching kids to self-regulate, identify their own emotions and be able to express their needs. This includes things like breathing techniques and a quiet space in the classroom where a child can go if he or she is feeling overwhelmed or upset.
The results have been dramatic, Ward says. Last fall semester, there were more than 20 referrals to the special education supervisor. That may not sound like a lot, but it means a child has been acting out so continually and aggressively that a teacher has burned through not only her own resources, but that of the school’s. So far this year: zero.
But truly, say all the preschool providers, the best way to help your child in preschool is to be engaged. An involved family — singing, reading, playing with your child — is one of the best ways to help them be successful, they say.
“It takes everyone working together to provide the best care for our children,” Walker says.
Or, put more simply: It takes a village.