Last fall at the Goddard School in Mechanicsville, preschoolers and kindergarteners got an early lesson in extreme couponing.
Children coming to the preschool were greeted by a faux grocery store in the school's entrance foyer. They received play money, along with instructions to go food shopping. In the previous weeks, the children had learned about what are healthy foods (fruits, vegetables) and what aren't (cookies). They also learned how to follow simple recipes and combine ingredients to make a dish. Older children learned how to peruse store ad flyers for deals and how to use coupons to make their money go farther.
Teachers would ask the children questions such as, "What are you getting for dinner tonight?" and "Are you getting any fruits or vegetables?" recalls Kathy DeNunzio, who co-owns and runs the preschool with her husband, Steve.
Learning practical life lessons and "grown-up" skills such as nutrition, health awareness and money management are crucial parts of preschool education curriculums, imparting lessons that pay off in school and in later life.
"Kindergarten and first grade are so much different now," Steve DeNunzio says. "They expect a lot more out of our kids starting school." So, when children get to attend a preschool with an educational curriculum, "it really starts them off on the right foot." Preschool prepares kids in a variety of ways, he says, from teaching basic concepts such as shapes, colors, letters and numbers to imparting more complicated social skills and life lessons.
At Richmond Montessori School, children prepare healthy snacks for classmates every afternoon, slicing and peeling bananas, or putting together cheese and cracker platters. They take field trips to the Federal Reserve and use play cash registers to learn financial lessons.
"We see our goal as preparing children for life," says Grainne Murray, Richmond Montessori School's director of admissions. When children learn something at the school, "they really, truly know how to apply it in the real world."
Learning life skills "is a big part of why children come to preschool," says Elaine Kastelberg, co-president of the Richmond Early Childhood Association (RECA), the local affiliate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Kastelberg is director of Reveille Weekday School, where children engage in many "grown-up" play activities for learning, including a mock clinic in which a real doctor and nurse visit and diagnose teddy bear ailments, and administer shots, stitches and bandages to the cuddly ursine patients. Firefighters teach lessons about home-cooking safety and the importance of smoke detectors.
The children even learn to manage a group study project, such as graphing and recording data on the growth of basil seeds that had been on a space shuttle mission versus a control group of regular, down-to-earth seeds.
"They are learning skills for negotiating with other children and coming up with solutions on their own. [Preschool] teachers are encouraged to help children to come up with different alternatives to solve problems rather than stepping in and solving them," Kastelberg says.
Learning to work with others can be "a very hard skill" for preschoolers, says Kathy DeNunzio, laughing. Before coming to preschool, "they've been the center of the universe for two whole years, and we have to teach them that you're not the center of the universe, that there's other people in the world and you have to be respectful."
At the Goddard School and other preschools, group activities and decision-making build a social foundation for school and for later work life as adults.
"We do a lot of small group activities where you have to talk about [a project], decide what we are going to do, and how we are going to do it," DeNunzio says. "Every day ... no matter what your [career] field is, you need those skills."
In preschool, Kastelberg says, "we're getting children ready so they love learning by the time they go to elementary school, so they're inquisitive and they have a love for learning and they're confident."