science of us

What Would a School for 3-Year-Olds Even Look Like?

Photo: Stephanie Rausser/Getty Images

Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City will soon offer free full-day preschool for all 3-year-olds. The program, slated to roll out across the city over the next four years, would make it the largest of its kind in the nation, serving an estimated 62,000 kids citywide.

Before “3-K” can kick off, though, city officials first have to figure out what it’s going to look like — and they can’t borrow too heavily from the city’s existing early-education programs. Four-year olds are already guaranteed pre-K in New York City, but 3-year-olds have different needs than 4-year-olds. And there’s a lot riding on how well 3-K is built to accommodate those needs: Done right, the program could end up being a huge boon for the future success of the kids it serves. But if it ends up being age-inappropriate, or limited by logistical challenges of staffing and facilities, 3-K could do more harm than good.

For most kids, three is an age of explosive growth — linguistically, cognitively, and physically, with fine and gross motor skills improving by leaps and bounds. It’s also an age when they’re also starting to become interested in other people. “People often think of how young toddlers, one-and-a-half and two-year-olds, are just discovering their sense of self. Three-year-olds are still doing that, but they also have a burgeoning interest in the social world,” says Tovah Klein, the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive. This interest manifests itself in a lot of pretend play, which allows kids to interact with their peers and helps them use their growing language skills.

But because that interest in others is still so new, 3-year-olds often need some help figuring out how best to express it. “They’re very interested in interacting with others, but they’re not so good at it,” Klein says. “They’re still figuring out how to handle their emotions,” meaning they need a lot of understanding and emotional support from the adults in the room — especially because being separated from their parents can sometimes be a fragile process. And they can’t be in one place for too long — traditional teacher-driven models, where kids sit still at desks and do worksheets, don’t help 3-year-olds learn the way they know best, which is through playing and exploring, Klein says. The best teachers are ones who are able to help guide this play to keep kids engaged, to not only speak and read to kids but to help them articulate new words, to help them navigate their emotions that are still finding their grounding.

For decades, researchers have been collecting data on pre-K programs —private ones, Head Start models, and universal programs in other cities such as Washington, D.C. — and they have a good idea of what 3-year-olds need out of the school day. Here’s what a typical day in 3-K might look like: Shortly after the children arrive, the day would likely begin with a greeting or warm-up that brings the group together. The teacher would outline the plan for the day or the different play areas available — clear routines and structures help reinforce learning. Learning throughout the day might take the form of play and other hands-on activities, including access to art, books, or storytelling, dress-up or pretend play, math-based games, and open-ended materials like blocks. There would probably be a designated book time, in which children could look at books either on their own or with adults nearby, as well as a story time where adults read to the kids in small groups. There would also be plenty of outdoor time, probably an extended nap time, and snack and lunch breaks that bring the group together. At the end of the day, the students would come together again to review what they did that day and to say good-bye.

The adult guiding the students through the day is the one who makes the difference between a class that enriches students and one that doesn’t: “The key to a high-quality [program] is not the activities, but the way the teacher can engage with the children during all the activities and also manage behavior,” says Katherine Magnuson, a professor at the school of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Though most New York City children are in some sort of child care by age 3, it’s not strictly necessary, Klein says: “If you have everything in place, if your home life is positive and resource rich, you don’t necessarily need this.” Studies also indicate that some young children get more stressed out if they spend the whole day away from home, though it’s not clear whether that happens more often in low-quality educational settings, Magnuson says.

Still, research suggests that most children can benefit in some way from preschool. Studies show that children from low-income or disrupted households who are enrolled in early preschool programs perform better on social and cognitive assessments by age 5. (One such study reads: “For many children, preschool programs can mean the difference between failing and passing, regular or special education, staying out of trouble or becoming involved in crime and delinquency, dropping out or graduating from high school.”) Preschool can help children of color become better prepared to compete with their white peers later in their academic careers, and help children of non-native English speakers improve their skills in English and in academics overall. One oft-cited, 35-year study found that children enrolled in early childhood programs earned more later in life.

The earlier kids start preschool, the more pronounced those benefits can be. But that’s assuming that they are enrolled in high-quality programs — if they’re not, studies show, pre-K can inhibit later academic performance. “It’s never too young to educate children. But they’re never old enough to be put in a bad school,” Magnuson says.

Defining a “high-quality” program can be difficult when students are too little to sit down and take tests to measure academic performance. For the existing programs, New York City uses a rating scale that incorporates, among other things, observational data of students, interactions between staff and students, and the facility itself. It’s important to have the right setup, with tiny chairs and bathrooms suitable for 3-year-olds. And having high-quality materials for their activities is nice, too.

But ultimately, great 3-K programs are dependent on highly qualified, well-trained teachers. Teacher quality can vary between schools or even within them, Magnuson says. Finding those well-trained teachers in sufficient numbers, without causing a talent drain from the city’s existing community preschools, will be one of the biggest challenges to de Blasio’s 3-K program. “Salaries will be a big part of this. It’s hard work being with 3-year-olds all day. You want people who want to be there, who have the understanding and the skills to want to be there,” Klein says.

Getting the money to pay them might not be easy — at the time of his announcement, de Blasio had not yet secured the $700 million needed to fund the program. And with issues of student performance and segregation affecting New York City public schools, there’s reason to be skeptical that 3-K will be of a high enough quality to ensure benefits to students. “The endemic problems that exist to educate kids well from kindergarten to fifth grade will also exist for 3-year-olds,” Magnuson says.

De Blasio knows it won’t be easy: When he announced the 3-K program, he said that its implementation would “take very hard work” and be “harder than pre-K,” which experts have found to be of good quality overall. The city’s universal preschool program provides a framework for the 3-K expansion, de Blasio added. The first two districts, in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, will have seats for every 3-year-old by the fall of 2018; the rest will follow until rollout is complete by the fall of 2021.

“There are lots of good early childhood programs in New York City and throughout the country. It’s not that it can’t be done — it can be readily done,” Klein says. It’s a question of whether New York City is willing to put the resources behind it” to help 3-year-olds get the support and guidance that kids their age need.

What Would a School for 3-Year-Olds Even Look Like?