Preschool can look like a world of fun! And it is. It’s also a place where young children master a plethora of new skills — from socialization to problem-solving to physical coordination — before they move to the larger world of elementary school.
To achieve these ends successfully, young children need to be in an environment that fosters confidence and enables them to believe they can tackle any new tasks that come along. They need to learn to be critical thinkers who, at their respective developmental levels, can evaluate and investigate new situations. In order to become proficient in their ever-expanding world, preschoolers need experiences that encourage confident decision-making.
It’s critical for young children’s social and cognitive development that they learn they are capable of making decisions, that these decisions have value, and that they can change the course of action of a decision. Ideally, children will get to pick their clothing for the day at home and decide on their outfit for dress-up at preschool. They will be allowed to pick a breakfast food at home and a snack at preschool. They may sometimes be included in a family’s decision about where to go for fun, and can decide what to build, explore, and play with at preschool.
If, by contrast, young learners spend their days in settings where everything they do is dictated to them, they will not develop the skills to evaluate, consider, and decide. And experiences that involve choice teach young learners that they can make good decisions! As children get older, parents will want them to make sound choices when picking friends, fulfilling responsibilities, and exploring the world; the roots of this learning begin in early childhood. Children’s confidence in their own decision-making capabilities will help carry them through the coming years, when they will spend less and less time with the adults who, up to that point, guided so much of their lives.
Determining if a preschool encourages decision-making and critical-thinking skills is an important component of evaluating its offerings. Parents should look at the set-up of the classroom as well as the art that is sent home or hangs in the school. They should also have conversations with staff to learn more about these five features of effective early learning environments:
Students should have time each day to do art that is of their own creation and uses materials that they choose. Preschoolers ought to be able to decide if they will paint, draw, or glue. Moreover, they should have the freedom to pick the topic of art, since art, after all, is a form of self-expression. If all the creative work in a preschool looks alike, then it is being guided by adults, and the children are prevented from developing their creativity and ability to make choices.
Students should be allowed to pick from a variety of toys to play with and objects to explore. There should be many different types of items to choose from, including puzzles, building toys, transportation items, dramatic play objects, books, art supplies, and science tools. The assumption ought to be that students will want to explore various items at different times. Preschoolers should be permitted to decide which stations or activities they engage in — without adults directing them at every turn.
Many teachers like to label seats and floors with students’ names as a name-recognition activity, but this exercise needs to be balanced with choice. Students learn valuable lessons both from selecting a good seat and from choosing poorly. Indeed, even when a child chooses to sit next to someone who is distracting or tries to lure her into being less attentive, the decision-maker has the opportunity to learn how to consider her choice next time. Constantly assigning children seats does not give them a chance to decide where to position themselves with the classroom community, an experience that offers as much learning in the successes as in the failures of preschoolers’ decisions.
It’s also important that children are given opportunities to decide what they will eat. While they may not be able to choose their meals because parents or the school provides them, a variety of healthy snacks are usually stored in preschools. Students should, on occasion, have a say in which of these choices they consume so that they develop sound eating habits and try a variety of offerings.
Teachers tend to read to the class only what relates to the theme, letter, number, or color being emphasized that week. Individual students may ask for books to be read at other times of the day, but occasionally, each preschooler should have a turn to pick the book being read to everyone. Even young children understand that there is a particular importance placed on the “book of the day," and participating in this decision fosters a sense of self-confidence, responsibility, and pleasure.
There are many activities children engage in, both at school and at home, in which less control can be exerted by adults with the aim of helping preschoolers develop robust decision-making skills. The more age-appropriate choices we leave to our young children’s discretion, the more they will gain confidence in their abilities — as will we as their parents and educators.
If you’re considering which education options are best for your child, use Noodle to learn more about preschools near you, and ask questions of the community of education experts.