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You may be working on your taxes. You may be thinking about the next round of holidays, but did you know that your local preschool is already taking enrollments for their summer programs and the 2008-09 school year?

Before you scoff at those “early bird parents” who have already turned in next year’s registration form, consider the significance of preschool as something more than “just play.”

“Play is a child’s job,” said Erica Jussaume, owner and director of Creative Minds II, an early education center in Dracut. “Play allows children to practice important skills needed later in life. While pretending to be someone else, a child is flexing his or her imagination. While building a block tower, a child is learning prediction and balance. While looking at a book, a child notices letters and words. While cradling a doll, the child learns the importance of nurturing. If a child can succeed in this environment, he or she will head off to ‘big kid school’ feeling secure and confident.”

Research produced by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network has shown that 3- and 4-year-olds who attend a high quality preschool do better in kindergarten and throughout their academic career. A superior preschool program can be measured by the frequency of positive interactions between children and teachers. Consider even the organization of a high quality preschool classroom. The furniture and materials were not just selected at random; they are in fact part of the program’s curriculum.

Within the state of Massachusetts, preschool and child-care programs alike are expected to follow what is known as developmentally appropriate practice. This means that the books, materials, activities and games that are offered to children are tailored, according to both the ages and abilities of the students within each classroom. The themes or curriculum that is presented to the children should be designed with specific academic and social-emotional goals in mind, such as awareness of the seasons or developing listening and turn-taking skills. Activities must be challenging enough to sustain children’s interests, but not so much that children become frustrated and give up.

Lorene Griffin, director of Kindercare Learning Center in Billerica, notes that in order to provide this balance of positive learning experiences within the classroom, teachers are more than “just” child-care providers. “I prefer the term ‘Early Childhood Educator.’ The main curriculum goal for our program is that every child is treated and respected as an individual and allowed to explore, learn and make discoveries. Our curriculum is based on the latest early childhood practices, and designed by education experts. Our staff continues to obtain professional development training to ensure that we can provide the most beneficial services, activities and curriculum for the children in our care.”

If you are a parent new to the early-education experience, what you may not realize is that preschool is as much for you as it is for your child. As Cheryl Finney, director of Clarendon Family Child Care in Lowell, points out, “Quality child care is a critical service for working parents. Parents need to feel secure that their child will be given every opportunity possible to develop to his or her fullest potential and to become emotionally, physically, and cognitively sound adults.”

Wendy Keen is the education services coordinator at the Children’s Collaborative Community Partnership for Children. The directors and family child-care providers mentioned in this article are also members of the Children’s Collaborative CPC, a program funded by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care. Managed by Community Teamwork Inc., the Children’s Collaborative is dedicated to making child care more affordable for working parents, and to improving the quality of preschool childcare in Greater Lowell.

Information about the Children’s Collaborative is available online at http://www.comteam.org/community_partnerships.htm.