In a very real sense, your child is an explorer who faces a future in unknown territory. As a parent you are doing everything you can to get her ready for this great adventure.

Many of the skills your child will need in the years to come you can only guess at. A generation ago, whoever thought that young children would use computers, let alone tablets and smart phones? But we can be sure of some things. Those who succeed will have the flexibility of mind to find solutions to problems they encounter. They will be curious about how things work. They will be able to get along with and work well with others. They will continue to learn and adapt as their world continues to change. As crucial as it is to master life skills for the future, your child's present life is what’s important now. Addressing your child’s needs now will help her prepare for the future.

How preschoolers learn

Preschooler, ages 3-5, follow their own individual developmental patterns, which may vary greatly from child to child. Nevertheless, at this age childre learn best when they:

  • Feel safe and secure in their environment. Children should feel that their teachers like having them around and that they are important to them and to the classmates. Children learn best when activities and materials offer just enough challenge—they are neither so easy that they are boring nor so difficult that they lead to frustration. For instance, most preschoolers don’t have the self-regulation skills needed to sit still and listen to an adult talking for long periods of time. Instead, they need to be actively involved and engaged in their learning.
  • Can connect what they learn with past experiences and current interests. Learners of any age—and especially young children—understand and remember new things that relate to the experiences, knowledge, and skills they already have. A new thread of learning stays with the child when it is part of a fabric, not an isolated strand. 
  • Have opportunities to explore and play. Preschoolers need materials and equipment that will spark their interest: they thrive when they are able to experiment, test things out for themselves, and draw their own conclusions. For instance, when a preschooler sets up boards at different heights and watches how far marbles roll down each one, he is learning about inclined planes and experiencing the scientific method.

Good preschool programs promote learning and development

In quality preschool programs, the curriculum, teaching strategies, and environment reflect research-based knowledge about the way children develop and learn. Such programs are said to be developmentally appropriate. Teachers in programs like these consider the strengths, interests, and needs, as well as the culture and home language, of each child in the group.

Here’s how a developmentally appropriate program approaches important areas of development for preschoolers.

Intellectual development

Three- to 5-year-olds are most likely to remember concepts and strategies learned through hands-on experience. Effective preschool teachers allow ample time for experimentation. They watch closely and take advantage of opportunities to extend children’s play and challenge their thinking and reasoning processes. If a child is looking at the bean plants on the windowsill, for instance, the teacher might ask, “Why do you think some of the plants are taller than the other ones?”

Through sand and water play and constructing with blocks, children begin to learn the basics of scientific and mathematical concepts—what floats or balances and what doesn’t; what happens when you pour sand from a tall, skinny container into a short, fat one; how many square blocks equal one long rectangular block.

Teachers promote language and literacy by reading stories aloud, encouraging children to talk about their work, creating a classroom environment rich in different examples and uses of print (in English and children's home languages), and helping children turn their ideas and artwork into books. They encourage children to talk with each other and engage them in meaningful conversations about topics of interest to the children.

A variety of art materials, such as markers, crayons, paints, and colored papers, is readily accessible to the children and within their reach. Teachers invite children to express their feelings and ideas through these media.

Social development

The teacher actively fosters a sense of community within the group. For instance, photos of children’s families are prominently displayed; different aspects of the children’s homes, cultures, and home languages are part of the classroom; and children sometimes work on group projects (such as creating a mural). Every child feels like he or she belongs. Children learn that it’s important to respect others, despite differences, and to work together as a team.

The teacher observes and responds as needed to help children resolve social conflicts, such as fights over toys. He talks to the children about what has happened and helps them come up with a solution acceptable to all—thus helping children build problem solving skills they can use in the future. Most preschoolers want to be friends with their peers, but lack the verbal skills and ability to see the other child’s point of view. Teachers help them think through what happened and find the words they need to express their feelings and their suggestions for solving the problem.

Typically, 3-year-olds can follow simple directions and enjoy classroom tasks such as setting the table for lunch or watering the garden. Most 4- and 5-year-olds can pour juice and get their own snacks.

Four-year-olds begin to engage in real cooperative play (“I’ll be the baker,” one child says, “and you come to my store to buy cupcakes”). Five-year-olds expand their play, incorperating complex props and scenarios. Teachers provide stimulating opportunities and materials. They also make sure that 3-year-olds, who like sitting next to each other and chatting while they use toys (associative play), have the space to do so.

Large motor development

Three- and 4-year-olds need to move their bodies frequently, so teachers plan plenty of well-supervised physical activities throughout the day. These activities challenge children, but they also can be adapted to accommodate a wide range of abilities. For instance, a teacher might set up a low four-inch-wide balance beam for 3-year-olds, while older children have access to a three-inch beam.

Inside the classroom, preschoolers dance to music, exercise (“jump in a circle” as the teacher suggests), and play games that promote coordination ("Simon says, 'Stand on one foot and touch your nose'”).

Small motor development

Since 3- and 4-year-olds in any given classroom vary in their small motor dexterity, teachers provide a wide range of materials for various levels of development. At this age, children practice and hone their fine-motor coordination by playing with pegboards, playdough, blocks, Duplos and Legos, and large beads.

Teachers encourage children to dress themselves. But if a child becomes frustrated in zipping her coat, a teacher comes to her aid.

Three- and 4-year-olds can pour juice from small, manageable containers into their cups and wipe up any spills.

Language development

Preschoolers improve their language skills by listening to and speaking with adults. Teachers talk to the children at center time and in small groups. They also make sure to have individual conversations with each child throughout the course of the day.

Children this age frequently talk outloud to themselves while they are playing. (“Don’t make the building break,” a child says as he adds another block to his tower.) Teachers know the value of this private speech and do not discourage it.

Preschoolers learn simple rhymes, songs, and finger plays. They are encouraged to talk about what they are doing during the day and to tell simple stories.

The integrated curriculum

In a good preschool classroom, teachers focus on all areas of learning at a time. They pay attention to children’s interests and develop themes or projects through which the children can expand their knowledge and skills in various areas. Children are able to reach a deeper understanding of a subject when they can make connections across several disciplines. For instance, the class visits a pizza shop and learns about making and serving pizza to customers. Watching the dough rise leads to discussions about cause and effect and related science topics. Back in the classroom the children set up a restaurant and use math skills as they set prices and collect payment for cheese versus pepperoni pizzas. They also write orders on pads of paper and draw pictures of their trip to the restaurant and tell stories about the people they met there (language and literacy). In a developmentally appropriate preschool program, children will learn the following:

  • Language and literacy skills: Adults read to children every day, sometimes one-to-one and other times in a group. They invite children to join in while reading books with repetitive or rhyming words and phrases, and they engage children in discussions about the characters, setting, and plot. Throughout the day, children talk with adults and with other children. Younger children begin to experiment with writing, at times making scribbles (for example, under a picture) that they identify as writing. Some children can write their names or other short words; others are not ready to do so. Teachers plan learning experiences that help children hear distinctions and patterns in language sounds and begin to make some letter-sound connections. Teachers support literacy learning in English and in the children's home language.
  • Mathematics and science: When children construct with blocks, they learn about measurement (how many small blocks in a line it takes to equal a bigger block) and physics (whether things will balance, for example). They talk about the weather every day, go on nature walks, and measure and record the changes in the environment. Children learn about levers and gears and other wonders.
  • Social studies: Children learn about their communities and about local, national, or world events of interest to them. Teachers plan experiences that make these events meaningful to children this age. Teachers include and show respect for the children’s home cultures while connecting children’s experiences to those of children and families in other places. 
  • Art, music, drama, and dance: The children have easy access to a wide variety of dress-up clothes and props they need for dramatic play. Daily, there are times for singing songs and listening and moving to music. Songs and music connect children to their home languages and cultures. The classroom is well stocked with crayons and markers (which 3- to 4-year-olds can easily manipulate) as well as paints and paper, and children are encouraged to express themselves through these media.

© National Association for the Education of Young Children — Promoting excellence in early childhood education