Back-to-school time is an important time for all children (and their secretly relieved moms), but it's a huge deal for kids going to school for the first time. For many 4-year-olds, preschool is their first experience in a classroom environment, and a parent's first experience leaving their child in someone else's hands for a large chunk of the day. Knowing what to expect on the first day of preschool can go a long way toward easing everyone's anxieties.
Although a preschool education is optional in the U.S., it can be an excellent option for parents who want to give their kids a leg up before kindergarten. As Parenting pointed out, quality preschools help build early literacy and math skills, increase a child's vocabulary, improve both gross and fine motor skills, teach independence, and promote socialization. Just as in elementary school, teachers assess children's progress and adapt their lessons to meet the class's specific needs. A teacher may also be able to detect issues such as speech delays or cognitive problems and refer parents to the resources they need to have their child professionally screened.
So what goes on at preschool once you and your child reach the brightly decorated classroom door? Speaking from my own experience as a preschool teacher, here are the eight key things you can expect your child to do on that big first day.
1. Cry (possibly).
Hopefully, you've spent the summer helping your child get excited and ready for this milestone day. They've helped pack the new backpack and choose their first-day outfit. This definitely helps children adjust to the new preschool environment, and with any luck, yours will walk in happy and ready to explore.
However, even the most well-prepped child may dissolve into tears when it's time for you to go (and it's likely that parents will be asked not to linger). Don't panic, don't beat yourself up, don't run out without saying good-bye, and don't take your child home with promises to "try again tomorrow." That will only lead to an endless morning power struggle.
The best approach, affirmed Very Well Family, is to establish a good-bye routine. Give a kiss and hug, tell your child you'll be back when school is over (you can point to the time on the clock, even if they can't tell time yet), and then go. The teachers have plenty of experience with comforting new students, and most of the time, the tears subside within a few minutes.
2. Get organized.
That bag of school supplies you were asked to bring? Part of that first day will be spent putting everything in place. Your child's teacher will show everyone where their cubbies are and how to hang their backpacks. If your child has a take-home folder, they'll learn how to put their drawings and other work inside at the end of the day. They may have a separate labeled bin for their naptime blankets and/or their spare clothing. (Those clothes, by the way, should be replaced every season, or earlier if your child undergoes a growth spurt. You don't want your child trying to squeeze into a too-tight pair of leggings, or wearing heavy winter sweatpants in mid-May.)
Research has long shown that a play-based education is best for young children, according to The Genius of Play. Ideally, your child's preschool will emphasize learning through guided play. The teacher will give the class a tour of the classroom, which may be organized into "centers" for various activities: blocks, pretend play, reading, art, math, and so on. The kids probably won't be allowed free run of the classroom right away, but they may be given a few selected playthings. In my school, we set out simple art supplies, puzzles, and manipulative toys for the children to explore. It helps them become comfortable with the environment (and usually puts an end to the crying, too).
4. Get acquainted.
At some point in the morning, your child's preschool teacher will lead a get-to-know-you activity. They might pass around a small ball for the kids to roll to each other; the child who catches the ball has to stand up and say their name. Or the teacher might sing a song that mentions all the students: "We're so glad that Lucy is here, Javier is here, Noah is here. We're so glad that Sophia's here, how are you today?" Don't be surprised if, at day's end, your child comes bounding out to tell you the names of their five new best friends.
5. Learn (a lot of) rules.
A room full of 3- and 4-year-olds can deteriorate into noisy, messy chaos faster than you can say "Peppa Pig." A preschool teacher's priority is to prevent that chaos from happening in the first place. A large chunk of the first day (not to mention the first week or two) will be spent explaining the class rules and procedures. Your child and their new friends will practice lining up, sitting on the meeting rug, and raising their hands to speak. They'll learn where the bathrooms are, how to get permission to go, and how to wash properly afterward. They can also expect reminders on how to handle toys and books gently and to play nicely with their classmates.
6. Listen to a story.
Read-alouds are an important part of a preschool day; being read to helps increase a child's vocabulary and establish the literacy skills they need for kindergarten. It's likely that your child's teacher will get right into the routine by reading a book about the first day of school that addresses all the typical excitement and fears. Popular titles include The Kissing Hand, by Aubrey Penn, Llama Llama Misses Mama, by Anna Dewdney, Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes, and the brand-new book from Mo Willems, The Pigeon HAS to Go to School!
Preschool teachers know how big a deal the first day of school is, so they often have the class create a souvenir of some sort to take home to the family. Typically, it's a drawing (perhaps on a sheet printed with "Look what I drew on my first day of pre-K!"). But depending on the school and the teacher, it might be more involved; say, a handprint with a heart inside if the class just read The Kissing Hand.
8. Leave early.
In my own preschool, as in many others, the first couple of days are short — two or three hours at most. This allows both children and parents to acclimate to the school environment and routine with a minimum of stress.
Then teachers move on to the full-day schedule and all that it entails: center time, lunch, nap period, outdoor play. Even then, expect a slow transition. As this teacher described on PreKinders, center materials are limited for the first few weeks until kids have a good grasp of the rules and know how to handle playthings respectfully. It's likely your child won't be doing super-messy activities, such as playing in the sand table, until mid-autumn.