The 5 Things Children REALLY Need to Learn in Preschool (Hint: It’s Not What You Think)

November 27, 2018

Lourdes Dumke

M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education


A few years ago, I observed a preschool classroom. It was a bright, colorful place filled with happy children, but as I looked closer, I was surprised by some of the things I saw there. Several young students were reading and practicing their handwriting while others were preparing to begin their math work. A few of the children approached me to say hello, and they seemed overjoyed to recite memorized facts to me.

I carefully surveyed the classroom, beginning with the bulletin boards and expecting to see shapes, colors, numbers and, perhaps, the alphabet. Instead, I saw language arts information about digraphs (such as “ch” and “sh”) and the “magic ‘E’ rule.” Another board featured math facts that included not only addition and subtraction but multiplication.

Although a few areas of the classroom appeared to encourage play and social and emotional development, the room was mostly designed to help students develop cognitive skills, and many of these skills fell outside of developmentally appropriate guidelines for preschoolers.

I wondered, Why has the focus of some preschools become so intensely academic in recent years? Then I thought back to parent-teacher conferences when I taught preschool and recalled several well-meaning parents telling me they were concerned about their child getting into college. College. The children we were discussing were 4 years old. While some children may be ready to read and study math facts at that age, requiring these skills of children who are not ready could have negative impact on the child.

This is where developmentally appropriate practice comes in. Developmentally appropriate practice is a term early childhood educators use often, but one many outside the field might not understand. Essentially, it means that we teach according to what research and developmental theories tell us is best for children.

So, putting the hand-wringing aside, here are a few skills I believe teachers (and parents) should help preschoolers develop so they arrive in kindergarten ready to succeed:

5 Things Children Need to Learn in Preschool

  • Fine motor skills.

One of the first things I do when I meet kindergarteners is provide an activity that involves cutting using child-sized scissors. Many of the children I meet cannot manipulate scissors properly, yet research shows this skill is vital for young learners. Beading, using crayons, spooning, tonging, and other activities can help build fine motor skills so their little hands are truly ready to write when the time comes.

  • Listening skills.
“My child (or student) doesn’t listen.” I have heard this from parents and teachers for more than a decade. I usually respond with this advice: the best way to teach a child to listen to you is by listening to them. Additionally, you can make sure to give short multi-step directions, read them stories on topics they are interested in, and teach whole body listening.

  • Basic needs.

Learning to take care of their own basic needs, such as setting up lunches, putting on their own jacket, and eventually tying their own shoes, fosters independence in even the youngest preschoolers.

  • Social skills and conflict resolution.

Preschool is the perfect time to help children learn how to get along with others, to share, to take turns, and to work through conflict peacefully. The National Association for the Education of Young Children offers many resources to help teachers foster social and emotional development in preschool children.

  • Free, unstructured play.
An empty field on a playground can become a command center for preschoolers pretending to build a village in the future where everyone has a flying car. A piece of paper and an art set can become a masterpiece of mermaids swimming in an ocean, looking for a lost, magical jewel. Both of these examples are from my real-life experiences with preschoolers who were given unstructured playtime and free use of art materials.

Children need to explore without the limitations adults sometimes place around activities. Whenever you can, just keep your hands behind your back, resist the temptation to direct every single activity and let them develop.

You might just be amazed at what they can do all by themselves.

Are you a preschool teacher or early childhood educator looking to advance your career? American College of Education offers online degree programs such as our M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education program.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Lourdes Dumke
Lourdes Dumke, M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education

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