Preschool Age: How Old Should Kids Be When They Start Preschool

What Age Do Kids Start Preschool? A Parent’s Guide To This Milestone

July 6, 2020 Updated November 1, 2020

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Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The idea of your little one starting preschool is probably bittersweet, right? It will mark your child’s first step into the world of “big kids,” which is exciting. But, c’mon, it’s also going to break your Mama-heart for a good minute (translation: bring Kleenex for all the crying you’ll do after you drop your sweet preschooler off). And since you’re new to this too, you’re also going to have some questions. The most pressing of which, of course, is what constitutes preschool age. As in, when do kids start preschool?

Before you propel yourself into an anxiety attack thinking about leaving your tiny love at school for the first time, take a deep breath. Feel better? Good, now let’s get into what you should know about sending your child to preschool.

Looking for more resources for that preschooler you have at home? Check out our package on the best preschool jokes, coloring activities for preschoolers, free online games for preschoolers, math activities for preschoolers, and dinosaur crafts, among others. 

What age do kids start preschool?

There actually isn’t a hard-and-fast rule about what age a child should be when they start preschool. However, in terms of child development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deems children between the ages of three- to five-years-old as “preschoolers.”

Some preschool programs start enrolling kids at three. Many take kids beginning at four. It can vary from preschool to preschool, so your most accurate age range will come from calling preschools local to you and asking about their age requirements. Most kindergarten programs start at age five. However, depending on where your child’s birthday falls and their readiness level, they could be five and in a preschool program.

What’s the difference between preschool and pre-K?

The world of early childhood can be a confusing place for parents of first-time students. Case in point? Many early childhood education centers offer both preschool and pre-kindergarten, or pre-k. But, uh, what’s the difference?

Both preschool and pre-k educate kids prior to kindergarten. However, they differ in age range and aim.

Preschool typically caters to children from a much younger age — sometimes as early as two-and-a-half — up to around four-and-a-half. The aim is centered more on familiarizing your child with classroom instruction, fostering their social skills, and introducing them to pre-reading and numeracy skills.

Four and five-year-olds generally comprise pre-k classes. And while school readiness is addressed in both preschool and pre-k, the latter goes a bit deeper. Pre-k focuses on more advanced learning to ensure a child is prepared and developmentally ready enough to be successful in kindergarten.

How do you know if your child is ready for preschool?

Since preschool isn’t mandatory, it’s a highly personal decision. You should make it as a family, taking into consideration your child’s needs and readiness. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it a million times more: Every child is different. Every child develops at a different rate. To determine if your child is ready for preschool, you can take a look at how they handle some basic self-help skills.

Preschool isn’t exactly the type of place where teachers come down hard on kids, but teachers do expect students to follow simple two- to three-step instructions (think “get your coat,” or “draw a picture”). Although verbal skills aren’t required, they’re helpful. Another issue is independence. Does your child have a total meltdown anytime you leave the room? To be ready for preschool, they need to be able to be away from you without overwhelming anxiety. Also, preschool will help sharpen their social skills, but they still need to be able to interact with other children.

And, finally, is your child potty trained? Again, this stipulation (and others) can vary from preschool to preschool. But many preschools do have a rule that a child should be potty-trained or well on their way to being potty-trained before they start preschool.

Why is preschool important?

During the first five years of a child’s life, their brain is able to absorb and process a remarkable amount of information in a relatively short period of time. So, it goes without saying that introducing them to numbers, letters, and shapes at this point facilitates a solid educational foundation. “Children who attend high-quality preschool enter kindergarten with better pre-reading skills, richer vocabularies, and stronger basic math skills than those who do not,” NIEER director W. Steven Barnett, PhD, told Parents.

Preschool also serves to boost a child’s sense of self and social rapport. They’re exposed to things they aren’t at home, including interacting with other children who are different from them. This helps them build confidence in their social environment. Many preschool programs also offer K-prep for the older kids, a transition period that teaches them all the necessary educational and social skills they’ll need as they enter kindergarten. Some experts argue preschool is a good adjustment period for kids who didn’t have as much child-to-child interaction at a daycare, for example.

Is preschool mandatory?

As is often the case when it comes to opinions on early childhood education, this question doesn’t have a cut-and-dry answer. It’s true that there is no requirement in the U.S. mandating that children attend preschool. Having said that, there are many people who would argue that preschool is vital for a child’s educational success. Do your homework and make the decision that you feel is right for your family.

Choosing A Preschool

Once you decide you want your child to go to preschool, the decision-making doesn’t stop. Unlike once your child starts attending kindergarten and up, most communities don’t have assigned preschool districts. In other words, now you have to decide where to send your little one for preschool. There are so many factors at play here: Will they go all day or just half-days? Every day or just a few days a week? Do you want them in school close to where you work, so you can get to them faster in the event of an emergency? Or somewhere closer to home to make your morning routine easier? What kind of “educational philosophy” will you choose? Words like “Montessori” and “Faith-based” will quickly become a part of your vocabulary and you’ll soon find that you have some very strong feelings about each. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a couple choices, you’ll want to do visits to each. Do you think your kid will fit in with their classmates? How do you feel about the teachers or parents? So much about this experience will feel like a gut-reaction and that’s okay! We’re mamas. We have great guts.

Questions to ask a preschool teacher

— How many children will be in the class?
— Can you give me an example of a typical daily schedule?
— How do you handle a situation in which children have a conflict with each other?
— How do you handle a child who is having a tantrum?
— How do you handle potty accidents? Do you expect the child to take full initiative and go to the bathroom on their own? Do you help them in the bathroom?
— How is food handled? Are children with food allergies separated from the rest of the class? How do you maintain food safety?