Choosing the Right Preschool Learning Environment

A wide range of early childhood learning environments are available today, from structured and academically oriented surroundings to open-ended and exploration-oriented themes. Some children are able to adapt to any type of setting, while others do better in one versus another. What can your child’s preference for and ability to adapt to different learning environments tell you about his emotional development?

Structured environment

Clair, a 4-year-old girl enrolled in a structured, academically oriented preschool that follows a predictable daily schedule consisting primarily of activities planned and chosen by the teacher. Clair does not seem happy in this setting and often complains to her mother that school is “boring.” She sometimes refuses to participate in the activities offered to her. Her teacher describes her as independent and strong-willed and thinks she would do better in an environment offering more room for choice and open-ended playtime.

Open-ended learning

Marcus is a 4-year-old boy enrolled in a Montessori preschool. While some group times are teacher-directed, the bulk of his day consists of extended periods of open-ended work/play time. Marcus rarely chooses an activity for himself during this period and spends much of his time watching classmates or sitting idly with his teacher. He does not seem happy when he has the most freedom of choice and often tells his mother the choices are “boring.” His teacher describes him as a shy observer and thinks he would do better in a more structured environment.

Unmet emotional needs

Both Clair and Marcus are struggling to feel comfortable in environments that are incompatible with their current emotional needs. Clair has difficulty feeling flexible enough to join activities she has not chosen, and Marcus struggles with comfortably and confidently making choices for himself.

Because these environments are not fulfilling or enjoyable for the individual, both children describe them to their parents as best as any 4-year-old can: “boring.” Boredom is often a key indicator that something does not feel comfortable inside for a child. Understandably, the child points to the environment as the cause for this boredom. Although Clair and Marcus might do better in different environments, their adaptability limitations are being finessed rather than addressed.

Both learning environments contain components essential for a child’s future academic success. In the upper grades, successful students are flexible enough to follow directions and complete assigned tasks and comfortable enough to independently make decisions and seek solutions to problems. Therefore, the most successful students in elementary, middle and high school are likely those who could have adapted to either preschool environment.

Strategies and solutions

How can a parent interpret a child’s reaction to different learning environments? A child’s preference for one type over another does not necessarily indicate a problem, such as with Clair and Marcus. In most cases it is just that: a preferred learning style. If a child feels bored at school but is otherwise able to hold it together and enjoy the rest of the school day, a little extra help from parents to work through “bored” feelings is probably sufficient.

If your child has strong feelings of discomfort that affect behavior and participation — he needs the environment to adhere to his preference to manage his behavior — take a deeper look. Is he experiencing difficulty managing his feelings and behavior in social settings? Does being “strong-willed” or a “shy observer” interfere with his ability to cope with frustration or cause problematic behaviors in various settings? By examining your child’s successes — and struggles — in a range of settings, you’ll be better informed about his internal strengths and areas of emotional development that may benefit from extra attention.

The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families.

Categories: Early Education, Preschool Activities, Preschool Early Learning, Preschoolers