Preschool Education, term applied universally to educational group experience for children prior to entrance into the primary grades of elementary school. It usually refers to the education of boys and girls from ages three to six or seven, depending on the admission requirements of schools in the area.
Many educators have found that children who have been enrolled in preschool centers develop positive self-concepts and basic understandings and skills that make them better able to apply their efforts to intellectual tasks when they enter school. Preschool education may be provided in day-care centers, nursery schools, or kindergartens in elementary schools. See also Kindergarten; Elementary Education.
The day-nursery movement began in Europe in the early 19th century as a response to the increasing employment of women in industry. The absence of large numbers of mothers from their homes during the day led to child neglect, which, in turn, stimulated a variety of charitable agencies to seek ways of caring for the children of working parents.
The early leader of this movement was French philanthropist Jean Baptiste Firmin Marbeau, who in 1846 founded the Crèche (French, “cradle”) Society of France, with the aim of fostering child care. Within a relatively short period, day nurseries were established in many parts of France and in several other European countries. Many were wholly or partly supported by local and national governments. A large number of nurseries were set up in factories, enabling mothers to take brief periods from their work to tend to their young children.
As studies of children revealed the importance of the early years in physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development, the nursery school movement spread rapidly in Britain and other European countries. For many years, day nurseries were mainly charitable institutions operated for custodial care, whereas nursery schools were generally commercial ventures offering educational programs. Now, in most instances, both day-care centers and nursery schools employ trained personnel and offer various educational activities; day-care centers, however, are open for longer hours to accommodate working parents.
Many states and local communities supplemented this federal aid. By 1945, more than 100,000 children were being cared for in centers receiving federal subsidies. After the war, the government abandoned the subsidies, causing a sharp drop in the number of centers. The expectation that most employed mothers would leave their jobs at the end of the war was only partially fulfilled, and during the postwar years a widespread movement developed, headed by sociologists, social workers, teachers, and other groups, which sought renewed government aid to meet the need for a comprehensive day-care program.
More and more women with children joined the workforce, and the popularity of preschool educational programs has steadily increased. The quality of preschool programs, however, varies. Some schools are more child-minding centers than educational institutions. Other schools provide solid educational programs that stimulate the development of skills in communication; a growing awareness of size, shape, and color; manipulative skills; and physical development.