The Competent Parent: To Preschool or Not to Preschool?



Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My son is 2 ½ years old.  Many of my friends from our play group are planning on sending their children to preschool in the fall.  Will attending preschool really make a difference?

On the Fence


Dear On the Fence,

There are many benefits for your son if he attends a good preschool program.  Then again, these benefits can be achieved without preschool.

Social – He needs time every day, or at least every other day, for supervised play alongside other children close to his age.  From this he will learn about conflict resolution and collaboration.  He will learn that he is valued by playmates.  And he will learn to value friendship.

He will benefit from playing “house” whether at home or at school.  At first, he won’t know how to share props nor divide roles – each child needs his own pretend cell phone and his own baby doll to take care of.  As time goes on, he will be better able to use playmates to cooperatively plan and act out scenes of family life.

Intellectual – Conversation, story time, finger plays (“Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed”) and songs build vocabulary.  Vocabulary and self-expression also are fostered with new experiences, such as working a garden, watching squirrels from a window, baking bread, and constructing with wood blocks / cardboard and tape / or Duplo-type toys.  If you run out of things to do and talk about at home, there are infinite websites on line and a world of ideas at the library to spark an interest you and your son can pursue.

For more experiences to build his intellect, keep tabs on special events in the community – an open house at the fire station, “pick your own” days at a farm, and free story times at the library.  Some grocery stores offer cooking and tasting events for children.  Parks have nature walks and hands on activities.  Plan your outings in advance so he learns how a calendar works.

Emotional – The strongest emotional need for young children is to feel secure.  This is best achieved with a predictable routine with nurturing caregivers.   He needs to be able to count on a few reliable grown-ups who know how to fix his food, can help with the buttons on his sweater, and will hold him close and reassure him when a thunderstorm rolls through.

The caring adults in his life – whether at home or at school – can help him find solutions when he is frustrated.  They can help him look for a misplaced toy, and talk him though such momentary sorrows as bringing play time to an end.

Physical – A preschool program will have art and craft activities, puzzles, a sand box, and countless other opportunities for a young child to gain strength and coordination with his hands.  He can have similar experiences at home, especially if he visits playmates’ homes so they can enjoy a variety of toys to manipulate.  Play dough is one of the best such materials – easily made at home (see recipe below).

Large motor activity – dancing, running, jumping, climbing, scooting or pedaling, etc. – builds confidence, adds to peer acceptance, feels good,  and is integral to the metabolism of food.  Calcium, in particular, is absorbed into developing bone cells each time he lands after a jump.

Shop Around

A first-hand visit will help in weighing your decision to enroll your son in one of the many preschools in the area.   Spend at least a half hour observing the class he would be in.  If it is allowed, bring him with you.  This will let you gauge his impressions and help in a decision about whether preschool would fit your family now – or perhaps a little later.

By the way, a parent co-op is a nice compromise when deciding about preschool.  Children attend for the traditional two and a half hours, two to five days a week, but parents also participate as classroom assistants on a rotating schedule.

And if you are not ready to enroll just yet, keep in touch with the school you liked best.  Although spots fill quickly in the months before school starts, there’s always a chance someone in the class will move or decide attending preschool just isn’t for them.

 Play dough recipe:

In a medium saucepan, combine:  one Cup white flour, ½ Cup salt, 2 tsp. cream of tartar, 1 Cup water, 2 Tbl vegetable oil, and several drops of food color.  Stir continuously over med. high heat until just past “mashed potato” consistency.  When cool, store in airtight container.

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

Do you have a parenting question for Dr. Debbie? Email us! [email protected]