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What do children learn in preschool?

Preschool curriculum in Canada: subjects, activities, and themes

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Quick summary

  • Most preschools have similar educational goals. They aim to foster age-appropriate growth and learning, challenge and stimulate children, and prepare kids for school.
  • Often, they also have similar ways of determining whether these goals have been met.
  • While they can have different teaching and learning approaches, most preschools cover similar ground. They normally teach math, literacy, science, creative arts, and social skills, among other subjects and skills.
  • There are also some common preschool learning activities in these and other areas. Many of these activities are great for preschoolers to do at home as well.

Preschools are a hotbed of learning for kids. Children, especially young ones, are eager learners. They’re like sponges: they soak up everything around them—the environment, surroundings, sights, and sounds.

But what do children learn in preschool? Of course, this will depend on the preschool and its approach to early learning. Some private preschools focus more on play-based learning. Others offer more structured, sit-down learning (academic preschool). And some offer a fairly equal combination of play-based and sit-down learning.

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Preschool learning goals

No matter the approach or philosophy, though, most preschools (like daycare centres) tend to have similar educational goals. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, some of their more important goals include the following:

  • To enable children to meet important developmental milestones
  • To foster age-appropriate learning and growth
  • To challenge and stimulate
  • To promote cognitive, social/emotional, and physical development
  • To prepare children for school

Often, then, preschools have similar learning outcomes and ways of measuring whether they’re met. And while they get there in different ways, they often cover similar ground: subjects, topics, skills, and the like.

Below, we outline a common preschool curriculum (Canada). First, we list subjects, topics, and exercises frequently covered in preschool. Then we list common preschool activities for kids between the ages of 3 and 6 (and sometimes younger). Finally, we list some common preschool trends.

Keep in mind, though, that not all preschools follow this curriculum. Moreover, even when they do, they often have different approaches to delivering it (based on different philosophies, such as Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia).

 

Preschool questions (read our in-depth answers)

Preschool curriculum: subjects

There are some common subjects covered in preschool education. The Early Childhood Education (ECE) department at Concordia University (in Portland, Oregon) provides a nice overview of these in their preschool curriculum guide. This guide outlines some of the main subjects and topics covered at the preschool level.

Math:

  • Identifying numbers 1 to 10
  • Counting from 1 to 10
  • Corresponding objects one-to-one
  • Sorting objects by various attributes (colours, shapes, sizes, etc.)
  • Identifying and creating patterns (AB, AABB, ABAB, etc.)
  • Understanding sizes (small, medium, large, etc.)
  • Specifying shapes (circle, triangle, rectangle, square, etc.)
  • Matching various items (symbols, patterns, shapes, etc.)
  • Determining things that are the same or different
  • Understanding the terms “more,” “less,” and “same”
  • Understanding time (night and day)
  • Exploring money through songs, games, and free play or pretend play

Literacy:

  • Familiarity with the alphabet, connecting letter names and the sounds they make
  • Recognizing their name and learning to spell and write their name
  • Learning to hold a pencil, crayon, or marker correctly
  • Retelling a story in their own words
  • Drawing a picture and explaining the story or experience
  • Answering questions about a story they were told
  • Repeating and memorizing nursery rhymes and finger plays
  • Understanding the format of reading from left to right and holding a book right-side-up
  • Building their vocabulary by listening and repeating new words
  • Practicing visual discrimination by looking at a picture and understanding what it portrays
  • Sequencing practise about what comes first, next, and last
  • Continue to practice and develop fine motor skills by playing with clay, using scissors, writing with pencils and crayons, building with legos, etc.

Science:

  • Exploration with scientific tools like magnets, microscopes, magnifying glasses, and prisms
  • Learning to observe nature quietly on nature walks or gardening experiences
  • Watching insects and seeing how they behave
  • Watching a plant grow, from planting the seed to watering and making a daily note or picture of how it changes
  • Looking outside and identifying the weather, season, and daily changes throughout the year
  • Learning to measure and mix ingredients for a special snack time
  • Learning about basic colours and exploring mixing colours and marking how they change by drawing pictures
  • Exploring everything, using all five senses
  • Picking an animal to investigate and explore. Studying how they live, where they sleep, what kind of food they eat, and even how they groom themselves, as well as relationships with others of their kind

Creative arts:

  • Exploring various means of art, like drawing, painting, sculpting, weaving, collage, etc.
  • Using and exploring a variety of materials (crayons, watercolours, textured paint, pencils, markers, clay, chalk, charcoals, etc.)
  • Mixing paint colours
  • Learning traditional songs and creating hand motions or dance movements to accompany them
  • Exploring and using musical instruments, like rhythms sticks, xylophones, and shakers
  • Finding other materials to practice rhythm and having a visual way to see it through scarves or bean bags
  • Creating a play with a simple storyline or recreating a familiar story
  • Dramatizing Old MacDonald’s Farm and making a barnyard by imitating animals

Social skills:

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Group projects
  • Practicing manners and say, “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and basic table manners
  • Learning to verbally express needs
  • Being independent and cleaning up their snack spot, using tissues, putting away napping items, etc.
  • Being able to express their personal information, like full name, age, school, and where they live by city, province, and country
  • Exploring what kinds of people work in their town and what kinds of jobs they have
  • Identifying types of transportation

Preschool curriculum: learning activities

There are also some common preschool learning activities in the classroom. Below, is an overview of the some of the main ones. Note, many of these are great activities for preschool-age kids to do at home as well.

  • Arts and crafts: drawing, painting, pottery, ceramics, woodwork, handwork, sewing, weaving, toy making, collages, ornaments, dot-to-dots, nature art, water art, origami, homemade jewellery, puppetry, felt art, and tape art
     
  • Literacy: circle time, discussions, listening and talking, writing cards and letters, writing and reading poetry, myths, writing and listening to stories, fairy tales, drama, word searches, flash cards, fill-in-the-blanks, matching games, word cards, and cut-out alphabets
     
  • Music: singing, drumming, musical instruments, music listening, music appreciation, music circles, musical chairs, national anthems, music and movement, rhyming, and lyrics
     
  • Physical and gross motor: sports, dance, jumping, building blocks, designing structures and machines, outdoor exploration, mazes, balance beams, hiking, hopscotch, bean bag toss, and hide and seek
     
  • Social: scavenger hunts, board games, group projects, follow the leader, Simon says, building forts, puzzles, card games, freeze dance, charades, field trips, nature walks, treasure hunt, I spy, and hot potatoe
     
  • Science and exploration: colour and shape sorting, science experiments, cooking and food preparation, gardening, nature activities, dioramas, sequencing, map drawing, rock collecting

Preschool curricular approaches: recent trends

Finally, there are some common preschool trends in the way private preschools deliver curricula. This includes both pedagogical approaches and topical focuses (which depart from the core curriculum). Some preschools don’t follow these trends (or at least all of them), but they’ve become quite popular in recent years.

Popular preschool learning approaches: 

  • Play-based learning: learning is built around uninterrupted blocks of play time.
  • Curriculum-based learning: learning is focused on academic skills.
  • Theme-based learning: learning is based on weekly themes (e.g., animals, colours, seasons).
  • Experiential learning: learning is based on practical outcomes both in and outside of class.

Popular preschool topics and themes (non-core):

  • Nature
  • Culture
  • Community
  • Families
  • Societies
  • Social justice
  • Health
  • Nutrition

Answers to the question “What do children learn in preschool?” from educational consultants and school officials

“There should be a broad range of activities, including interactive, motor, listening, and sensory experiences. Here is a suggested checklist of must-haves (with examples of activities) for brain-building and happy productivity:

  • Books: read aloud with expression, pleasure, and interest
  • Inventive activities: finger puppets, sandcastles, songs
  • Interactive activities: learning that involves sharing, connecting with others, and talking about what children are hearing, seeing, and doing
  • Music: impromptu, scheduled sing-alongs, and experiences that expose children to interesting lyrics and different kinds of instruments and melodies
  • Art: for example, sculpting (with playdough or wet sand), making collages from various kinds of materials, creating chalk drawings, appreciating art created by others
  • Drama: puppet shows, improvisation, children’s theater
  • Understanding the every-day: groceries, clothing, hardware, pharmacy—including chatting about where things come from, how they’re made, who might use them, what they’re used for nature or mystery boxes—filled with items to investigate and feel (pine cones, bamboo, seaweed, pebbles, wood chips, etc.) for multisensory learning,
  • Walks: in nearby neighbourhoods, talking about sounds and sights such as building designs and human activity—or in local parks exploring and chatting about nature and age-appropriate details of plant and animal life
  • Food fun: appreciating the tastes, and variety of what there is to eat, and enjoying it together (and cleaning up, too)
  • Categorizing and sorting activities: with many possibilities including shapes, colours, puzzles, and pictures
  • Sports activities: both watching and participating
  • Unstructured playtime: lots!” Joanne Foster, educational specialist, and co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids

Letters and sounds: Kids will learn to recognize and name all 26 uppercase letter and lowercase letters (lowercase letters are harder to learn at this age). They will recognize their own first name and be able to print it, along with other letters and meaningful words like ‘mom,’ ‘dad,’ and ‘love.’ Numbers and counting: Teachers will help kids learn to recognize and identify the numbers 1 through 10 and correctly count 10 or more objects. Learning what numerals 0 to 9 look like and being able to name them correctly is one of the first math skills preschoolers learn.

Cutting and drawing: Before entering kindergarten, children should be able to cut with scissors. As they develop better hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, they will start drawing and colouring beyond just scribbles and will learn to use pencils, paint brushes, and glue. Socializing and sharing: Developing important social skills is necessary before starting kindergarten; preschoolers will learn how to share and cooperate, work together and take turns, participate in group activities, follow simple directions, and communicate wants and needs.”  Lee Venditti, director of J. Addison, a Montessori school in Markham, Ontario

“The academic skills that are acquired through direct instruction by our preschoolers include writing their names and learning their addresses and phone numbers. Students are also provided with the opportunity to learn colours, sizes, and shapes. For our math and phonics-related classes, numbers and prewriting skills are introduced, as well as shape identification, letter recognition, sounds, and rhyming. Our teachers also introduce children to simple sentence structure, addition, and subtraction.

Through storytime activities, literacy and comprehension skills and language development are fostered. Our social studies program emphasizes skills such as persistence, respect for others, cooperation, honesty, trustworthiness, and sensitivity. With regards to our art program, our preschoolers use varied materials to create original pieces. Different colours, textures, and shapes are also used to reinforce self-expression.” Debbie Keough, teacher at Prestige School, a gifted school, in Richmond Hill, Ontario

“The main question parents need to ask themselves about the Waldorf curriculum is: What is being taught if it is not math work sheets, early reader book series, or desk work? What is experiential learning like in preschool and kindergarten? For math and reading it looks something like this:

  • Math: Measuring for baking bread, setting the table for snack (who is absent, who is visiting), measuring to make a wooden plane, numbers of seeds to plant for a garden (and their the length apart), finger and body circle activities, counting, sorting, planning, and sequencing and number games.
     
  • Reading: Memory skills, poetry, verses, listening skills, story structure (through plays and puppet shows, storytelling, rich vocabulary, and phonemic awareness.” Jennifer Deathe, head of admission at Waldorf Academy, a Waldorf school, in TorontoOntario 

“Our preschool program encourages the developments of social skills through creative play, enriching stories, and time outdoors together. At this age, children engage in the world entirely through their own senses. So they will have natural toys and materials at hand and plenty of time outdoors for free play. Imaginative play, the focus of the early childhood classroom and the true ‘work’ of the child, encourages problem solving and creative thinking. It is the most effective way to cultivate a love of learning and set a foundation for academic excellence.” Lylli Anthon, faculty chair of Halton Waldorf school, a Waldorf school in Burlington, Ontario

“Children experience the joy of learning through a variety of activities that support letter and number recognition, colour and shape identification, and explore the physical world through science and social experiences. In addition, as part of our program, children will gain the knowledge of self, family, culture, and community.” Stacy Paton, ECE program manager of Queen Margaret’s School, in Duncan, British Columbia

“Rather than confining preschool learning to the boundaries of traditional subject areas, learning is centred around six themes of global significance which are explored in the classroom using several subjects. Our transdisciplinary program makes youngsters understand connections between learning and the ‘real world,’ thus engaging them and stimulating their desire for learning. The preschool curriculum crosses disciplines and empowers children to be inquisitive.” Nora Ibrahim, preschool teacher and IB PYP (Primary Years Program) coordinator at Académie de la Capitale, in Ottawa, Ontario

“Our curriculum is designed specifically for the preschool program. Language and personal expression are based on the individual needs of the child. The curriculum is rooted in exploratory, play-based learning that zeros in on math, language, gross motor skills, and social and emotional development.” Corina Gill, assistant head of the lower school at Bayview Glen Independent School, in Toronto, Ontario

“We foster academic excellence through guided and pod learning, teacher-directed lessons, and exploratory, creative, and inquiry-based activities. Subject areas such as phonics, printing, math, French, social studies, geography, and music are taught in a cross-curricular, fun, and inviting manner. Imagination, creativity, and play are a part of daily activities. Basic learning techniques and skills such as storytelling, poetry, drawing, painting, and more are emphasized weekly.” Paula Carrasco, director of Kendelhurst Academy, in Mississauga, Ontario

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