Most children begin their formal schooling at the age of five or six. Many children, however, have experience with organized educational programs before that time. Indeed, these ''preschool'' programs are quite popular in today's society. This article briefly reviews the history of preschool programs in the United States, differences in the philosophies guiding such programs, their impact on children's development, cultural differences in preschool programs, and finally the movement toward inclusion of children with special needs in preschool.
Preschool programs began in earnest in the United States during the first quarter of the twentieth century. The philosophical foundations for these programs can be traced to the belief, popularized during the seventeenth century, that early childhood is a unique period of life during which the foundation for all subsequent learning is established. The early programs often began informally and involved the efforts of women who took turns caring for each other's children. The first public preschool program began at the Franklin School in Chicago in 1925 with the support of the Chicago Women's Club.
The popularity of preschool as an option for young children increased dramatically after the 1970s. In 1970, for example, only 20 percent of three-and four-year-olds participated in organized education programs. In 1998, approximately half of all children in this age range attended a full-time preschool program. The increasing popularity of preschool has been fueled in part by an increase in the number of women entering the work force as well as by a belief among many parents and educators that children need early preparation for elementary school.
There are many different types of preschool programs, from those that strive to accelerate the academic progress of children who are otherwise developing at a normal pace to those that attend more to the social and emotional needs of the children. Such program differences often reflect deeper philosophical differences in beliefs about young children and the goal of preschool. Such differences can be seen by considering two programs currently popular in the United States: the Montessori approach, which has a long history in this country, and the Reg-gio Emilia approach, which is relatively new to this country.
The Montessori approach was developed in the early twentieth century by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator. In this approach, children are allowed choices and opportunities to pursue their own interests by moving freely from one activity center to another; the activities available to children, however, are designed to foster cognitive growth rather than social or emotional growth. In fact, Montesso-ri teachers encourage preschoolers to work independently and to persist at challenging cognitive tasks, while minimizing interactions with peers. Teacher interactions, too, tend to be minimal, with teachers serving mainly to model ways in which children can use curricular materials.
The Reggio Emilia approach was started in 1945 in Reggio Emilia, a small community in northern Italy. It emerged from the efforts of parents who sought high-quality care for their children and educator Loris Malaguzzi, who provided the philosophical foundation. Proponents view the preschooler as highly competent and as inherently curious and social. They further see development as resulting from the child's active involvement with the physical and social worlds and from repeated experiences that provide the opportunity for reflection and for constructing increasingly more flexible representations of those experiences. In practice, this philosophy entails the use of group projects that evolve according to the children's interests, an emphasis on children communicating their ideas to others, and children learning to express ideas through multiple media. Perhaps the hallmark of this approach is the extensive support and collaboration of the community, including parents and the government.
There are both advantages and disadvantages for children who attend preschool compared to children who do not. Advantages include more collaborative interactions with peers, increased social competence, and greater expressiveness. Disadvantages include less compliance with adult demands and heightened aggressiveness toward peers. It is important to recognize, however, that the extent and nature of the impact of preschool may depend on a number of factors, including the length of time in the program, the child's family environment, and the particular characteristics a child brings to the program. Most important, however, is the quality of the preschool program. High-quality programs, for example, have been found to foster language development, whereas increased aggression may be more likely for children in low-quality care.
What makes a program ''high quality''? High quality is defined by a number of factors, including a low child-teacher ratio, adequate physical space, a staff whose members are highly experienced, and a wealth of play and curricular materials. Most importantly, however, high-quality programs are defined by developmentally appropriate practices.
Developmentally appropriate programs have five characteristics. First, these programs attempt to facilitate not only cognitive development but also social and emotional development, focusing on areas such as learning to take turns, learning to respect others, and feeling good about one's accomplishments. Sec
ond, these programs allow children to develop at their own pace and to pursue their own interests. Third, these programs allow children to control their own learning by relying on discovery and exploration rather than on drill and practice or other teacher-controlled activities. Fourth, developmentally appropriate programs provide activities matched to an individual child's current level of functioning, with the aim being for the child to participate in activities that require skills just slightly in advance of those already in the child's repertoire. Finally, developmentally appropriate programs have a realistic academic orientation—one that introduces some basic academic skills but without attempting to push children too far academically.
Developmentally appropriate practices have been shown to lead to positive child outcomes. In a study by Luigi Girolametto, Elaine Weitzman, Riet van Lieshout, and Dawna Duff, for example, the researchers found that preschoolers talked more and in more sophisticated ways when their teachers used de-velopmentally appropriate language (e.g., open-ended questions, utterances that followed rather than redirected the children's attention) rather than de-
velopmentally inappropriate language (e.g., commands and test questions, which reflected the teacher's ''agenda'' rather than the children's interests). There is also evidence that preschool programs designed to ''speed up'' children's academic progress, which are by definition developmentally inappropriate, lead to a number of undesirable outcomes, including less creativity, a less positive attitude about school, and no lasting positive impact on academic performance.
Cross-national comparisons conducted in the late 1990s raised concerns about declining achievement for students in the United States, especially as compared to students in Japan and other Asian countries. In making such comparisons, it is important to recognize that any nation is a diverse collection of cultures, philosophies, and educational practices. Ignoring such diversity can lead to stereotyped conceptions of another country's or culture's educational practices. It is possible in some instances, however, to identify a modal, or most popular, educational philosophy or practice for a particular country. This makes it possi ble to compare countries in terms of these modal philosophies or practices, provided that one is careful to avoid overgeneralizations.
Many people in the United States mistakenly believe that Asian students typically participate in highly academically oriented preschool programs. In fact, American preschools are more likely than are programs in Japan or other Asian countries to have the goal of providing children an academic head start. The majority of Japan's preschool programs, for example, are organized around the goal of teaching children to work as members of a group. This entails fostering persistence, concentration, and a willingness to forestall individual rewards. In Japan, instruction in reading and writing during the preschool years has traditionally been seen as the province of the family and occurs largely at home. In contrast to the group orientation of many preschools in Japan, preschools in the United States stress independence and self-confidence. Interestingly, there is evidence of an increasing trend toward providing an academic head start to preschoolers in Japan, although this often leads to clashes between educators and families who have more ''traditional'' values.
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