Many decades ago, when she was a young teacher in training, Liz McAllister wondered why parents of 3-year-olds took their children to preschool. "I would see these mothers and fathers walking in with them and think, 'These are just babies!' I wondered what they could possibly learn," she admits.
However, after McAllister began to seriously consider very early education, she eventually ended up as the longtime director of one of her city's most sought-after preschools. She learned firsthand that 3- and 4-year-olds benefit in many ways from a preschool education -- and although she is now retired, she will always be proud to have helped several generations of youngsters get off to good starts in life.
Indeed, recent research shows that the first five years of life are particularly important for the development of a child's brain. Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child reports that in the first few years, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second, building the brain's architecture.
Another analysis of several studies, titled "Impacts of Early Childhood Education on Medium- and Long-Term Educational Outcomes," showed that children exposed to high-quality prekindergarten education performed better academically in later years. Early education also led to fewer special education placements, fewer instances of kids being held back in a grade and higher graduation rates.
A high-quality preschool should be designed to set up young scholars for future success. Experts say the learning center should not only provide an opportunity for academic growth that prepares children for kindergarten but also promote emotional and social development.
"Young children have the capacity at a very young age to be academically challenged, and we need to educate them strongly during those years instead of waiting until they are older," says Alise McGregor, founder of Little Newtons, an early education center with locations in Minnesota and Illinois.
"Children's minds are like sponges when they are very young," says McGregor, who is also a nurse and is the author of the upcoming book "Creating Brilliance." "Under age 5 is the most important time for development and our best opportunity to set up children for success. If we strongly educate children at a very young age, while their brains are so pliable, by the time they reach kindergarten, their brain capacity is much higher."
McGregor suggests several reasons parents should consider preschool education. First, children need socialization skills developed with people other than their own family members -- and of course, this socialization needs to happen in a safe environment. "It's important to introduce our children to other children and support their transition into their own friendship groups, and the earlier we do this, it helps children overcome shyness and gain self-confidence," she says.
"A good early education center creates an environment where imagination, love and innovation all come together for a daily adventure," McGregor adds. Lessons should be given in fun and exciting ways that encourage effective learning.
Children also need to learn respect for others -- and in preschool, children should learn to share, cooperate, take turns and treat others with kindness. "By carrying on conversations, following rules, listening, accepting consequences of actions, the child learns early how to start getting along in the world," McGregor says.
Finally, children need to develop resilience and skills in managing themselves and their emotions. "They may experience bumps or losing a game, but this is the foundation for building coping strategies for greater challenges in life," she says.
Remember, all preschools are not the same. When parents are looking for a preschool, they should think ahead and take the time to research available schools and check with other parents for good references. Additionally, many day care facilities offer part-time preschool.
"The first five years of life are the most critical," McGregor concludes. "It is far easier to train a child than it is to fix a broken adult."