The Handy-Dandy Guide to Your Child's Education

Written by Cris Phillips-Georg


circletree Remember when we were little? “Early Childhood Education” consisted of two mornings per week at the neighborhood nursery school where we ate paste, made macaroni necklaces and slid face-first into the mulch on the playground. (sigh–good times). Nowadays, our kids attend full day preschool “academies” where they eat zero-waste lunches, log hours in the computer lab and say their daily greeting in Mandarin (“Ni Hao”).

The evolution of Early Childhood Education is certainly exciting and we’re all eager to find the “right” preschool for our genius offspring, but let’s face it, keeping up with the ever-changing terms and trends of the Early Ed sector is about as easy (and fun) as keeping pace with our 4-year-olds’ mood swings. Should we emphasize “academic rigor” or return to “play-based learning?” Is the goal of preschool “reading-readiness” or “positive socialization?” Should the classroom environment be “teacher-led” or “child-led?” It’s enough to make your brain explode.

A rose by any other name is just confusing! So, first things first, let’s clarify the difference between preschool and daycare. Here are the quick-and-dirty distinctions between them.

PRESCHOOL is a formal, curriculum-based early education program for children ages 3 – 5, with the sole purpose of preparing a child academically, socially and emotionally for Kindergarten. The program is contained to specific, limited hours (usually a 4- to 6-hour time frame), though before- and after-care may be offered.

DAYCARE (also called “child care” or “child development”) is an extended-hours program, for children aged infant to 6+ years, with the purpose of entertaining a group of children with structured activities (games, songs, crafts, free play, naptime and sometimes TV/movie watching) while parents are working. Some centers include “preschool” as part of their services, but outside of those preschool hours, the rest of the day is standard daycare.

SO, WHAT THE HECK IS VPK? Oh great, another acronym. Only this one is TWKA (totally worth knowing about), because it saves you money! Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten (or VPK) is a FREE preschool program offered by the state to all Florida children who turn 4 by September 1 of the school year. VPK is offered at both public and private preschools (meaning your preschool-of-choice probably offers it). The only difference between VPK and paid preschool is that, since it is free and offered by the state, VPK has stricter rules regarding attendance, mandating 540 instructional hours during the school year. If your family travels a lot or needs greater schedule flexibility, opt for paid preschool. If you are the show-up-every-day type, go with VPK.

READ, READ, READ! What can you do to best prepare your child for Kindergarten?

READ, READ, READ!  Reading is a natural developmental process, so have lots of fun while strengthening his/her emerging skills by surrounding your child with many kinds of books, going together to the library, and doing phonics and literature-based activities at home. A child who is experienced and confident with letters and words will have great success in kindergarten.

Beth Zwick, Director of Admissions
The Parke House Academy, Winter Park

class Despite the rhetoric, all quality preschools have more in common than you might think. Every school is trying to help children gain solid social skills: Waiting their turn, sharing feelings in healthy ways and listening to directions. Likewise, there are basic academic skills all quality preschools are trying to instill: Letter and number recognition, phonemic awareness, colors, shapes, etc.

Where preschools can diverge wildly is in the approach used to help your child learn basic social and academic skills. In recent years, trends have shifted away from the classic teacher-led model and have moved to a child-led approach. There are three different child-led methods represented in Central Florida. Here’s the breakdown on how they differ.

MONTESSORI Want the Montessori Method summarized in a tidy phrase? “Help me learn to do it myself” probably says it best. That’s because Montessori is all about instilling independence and authentic confidence. Montessori also provides individualized education. Though classrooms are multi-age (ages 3-6 mixed together), every student progresses at his own pace. Emphasis is placed on helping children cultivate concentration and inner discipline through self-directed learning. All learning tools are also self-correcting (which means that if a task is completed incorrectly, it is visually easy for the child to tell a mistake was made and self-correct without asking for assistance).

Sounds effective, but we just had to ask:
Montessori is known for focusing heavily on grounding children in reality; do kids get to use their imaginations and just be kids? Michelle Dulany, Founder, Director and Head Teacher at West Orange Montessori in Winter Garden, explains that children in the preschool years are trying to figure what is real and how their world works. Montessori aims to “give the children this world that they live in.” Therefore, fantasy play is not included in the Montessori Method but cultivating creativity and imagination are (through art, book making, etc.). The emphasis is always placed on real skills and information. For example, Montessori children don’t “pretend” to set a table in a dramatic-play center; they actually learn to set a table. Learn more about the Montessori method by visiting

REGGIO EMILIA Founded in Italy and based on the belief that there are many equally valuable ways for children to learn and communicate (and that, as such, every child is “gifted” in some way), Reggio Emilia takes an empowering approach to the child-led concept. Rather than teacher-selected themes, Reggio students engage in child-selected “projects” based on the students’ interests (castles, turtles, construction, etc.). Teachers function as co-learners and aid the learning process by constantly asking questions that prod students along in a domino effect of knowledge acquisition. “Mistakes” are encouraged and viewed as a vital learning tool, and class work is frequently revisited and revised as new information is discovered.

Sounds exciting, but we just had to ask:
If children are only doing projects they are interested in, how are other important topics being covered? Anne-Marie Boveri Schlemmer, founder of The Learning Center of Dr. Phillips and The Learning Center of South Park, explains that no preschool covers every possible topic and that Reggio children tend to explore the topics we want them to study anyway: Namely, how their world works. Because learning has a domino-effect, a wealth of subjects ends up being covered. A project on animal homes can transition to human architecture, which might transition to aspects of a community, shifting to people who work in a community, then on to doctors, ending with how the human body works. The difference is that the progression happens as the children’s interests naturally shift rather than on a teacher’s predetermined time table. To learn more about the Reggio Emilia method visit

PLAY-BASED PRESCHOOL In play-based preschools, children “play with a purpose.” Teachers prearrange the sections of the room into planned play experiences tied to a chosen theme. Learning opportunities cover the standard concepts (letters, numbers, science, etc.) but all learning is approached as play and is entirely child initiated. Teacher-to-child ratios are kept impressively low and creativity and imagination are highly encouraged. What you won’t find in a play-based preschool is children sitting at tables completing worksheets. What you will find are enthusiastic children (and teachers) sporting costumes and engaged in creative role-play. What better way to learn about the Wild West than pretending you’re cowboys on the open range? When children are engaged through their imaginations, learning happens effortlessly.

Sounds fun, but we just had to ask: With all of this playing, is any actual learning occurring? Play-based does not mean anarchistic free-for-all. Robyn King, Director of Go Play, a play-based preschool in Altamonte Springs, explains that, in play-based learning, a teacher is interacting with the children at all times. In the case of the Wild West theme, if the children are cutting hotdogs for their campfire, the teacher uses that moment to explain fractions. If the children hang their wash on the line, the teacher might use that moment to demonstrate patterns and sequencing. If the children pretend to ride a stagecoach, the teacher might use that moment to teach children about time. In short, optimizing play-initiated teachable moments is the name of the game. Learn more about Go Play preschool and play-based learning at


smallcircle Ahhh, Grade School. Remember recess? And new school supplies? (Two words: Trapper Keeper. What ever happened to those?) Oh-oh, and remember gym class? When it was still fun, that is, before you reached middle school and started hating it. Grade School, at its best, is a wonderful time of learning and discovery in a child’s life. But, holy FCAT! There sure is a lot of pressure on young students these days.

With study after study indicating that American students just don’t measure up to their global peers, modern parents are increasingly focused on securing the best possible education for their little future-leaders-of-tomorrow. In our day, parents had two choices: Public school or private school. Nowadays, there are a myriad of school choices available. And while options are great, it can be confusing to determine which option is the right fit for your child, and for your budget, and for your commute, and which one aligns with your personal philosophies, and, of course, there’s still Grandma’s opinion to factor in.  You get the point …

So, let’s break it down to the basics. Public and private schools, you’re already familiar with. Here’s our breakdown of the rest of your options. “Choice” is the new trend in public school education, thanks to the advent of charter and magnet schools. Both are subsidized with public funds, but what is the real difference between the two?


CHARTER SCHOOLS run independently of the public school system, so they do not have to follow most state laws and district policies regarding what to teach, how to teach, who to hire and how to spend money. What do they do with all of that freedom? They offer reduced class sizes, integrate a multi-learning style curriculum, and typically offer a broader range of arts and enrichment programs (think private school without the hefty price tag).

MAGNET SCHOOLS cover all traditional learning concepts but do so through the “lens” of a specific focus, typically: Arts & Culture, Community & Leadership, Science & Technology, and/or Mathematics. At a Science & Tech magnet, for example, math problems might focus on sorting animal species, students might write stories about traveling in space, and art projects might include creating 3-D digital murals.

WIN THE EDUCATION JACKPOT! Because of limited space and high demand, charter and magnet schools both admit students via a lottery system. The odds can be daunting, but the educational payoff is huge. Contact your school of choice for application deadlines and details.

There is a new breed of modern homeschoolers emerging, and they’re breaking all the stereotypes. In fact, you might be surprised (we sure were) to discover just how many hip parents are making the leap. “Progressive Homeschooling,” as the new movement is called, books balances academic rigor with creative fun to produce customized lessons that embrace a child’s varied learning style. Emphasis is shifted away from strict focus on test performance and placed, instead, on the pure love of learning.

So how does it work? The approaches are diverse. Some families purchase pre-packaged curriculum, some create their own comprehensive lessons, while others supplement at-home learning with online courses and correspondence schools. What about the age-old question: “What about socialization?” With a wealth of enrichment activities available community-wide (i.e. sports, dance, art, theatre, scouting, book clubs, etc.), keeping homeschooled kids positively connected to their peers is no longer an issue. Check out how one Orlando mom is navigating her homeschooling journey at

Another unique option is a “homeschool hybrid” approach. This combines a traditional classroom environment 2 or 3 days per week with learning at home. Some hybrid schools, such as The International Community School in Winter Park (, provide curriculum for at-home learning, which allows parents and kids to build on the topics that interest them most.

Whether you conquered a private school wait list or opted for the public school down the street, there is one thing we can all do to help enhance our children’s love of learning (and boost their grades in the process). Planning regular Family Learning Activities is the newest way savvy parents are combining much needed quality family time with academic enrichment. Pick a topic your children want to learn about (either a topic your children are studying in school already or just any topic that interests them). Then plan fun, structured activities to do together that have an educational component.

Make learning a family affair Need an example? Okay, here’s a random topic: Butterflies. Purchase a “butterfly kit” at the Winter Park Farmer’s Market and make a family project of raising a caterpillar into a winged beauty. Name it, feed it, keep a diary of its growth, and then throw a big “spread your wings and fly” celebration when its metamorphosis is complete.  Or visit the Butterfly Encounter at Lukas Nursery in Oviedo where you can pet caterpillars, watch butterflies emerge, and pick up special plants to create a butterfly garden in your own backyard.

Now keep the idea going. Do an internet search for butterfly crafts to make together at home. Check butterfly themed books out of the library. Research the difference between butterflies and moths. Once you focus on a subject you’ll be amazed by how many activities come to mind.

So give it a try. Let your kids pick a topic your family can explore together and make Family Learning a regular part of your family culture. Activities don’t have to be labor intensive or expensive, just fun and something you do together. Hmm … fun family time that bolsters learning? Now that’s what we call smart!

You might be wondering  why we are running an education article in middle of winter, isn’t it break time?  There is a reason, friends! Most schools start the admission process in the middle of spring, so do your research now and contact your “school of choice” to find out the application deadline. Many schools make their decisions in February for an August start date! Yikes, the clock is tickin’. Lucky for you, we started your homework for you (cheater). Check out these great sites to help you determine which school will be right for your kid.

  • The mother of all education sites provides information on your local school options, public and private, at one convenient place. Click “Research & Compare” to check schools out by location, performance and parent feedback.
  • This nationwide search engine will help to find the charter and magnet schools available in your county. Just click Florida and you can refine your search by clicking charter or magnet under the “schools by type” header.

Take an interest in your child's education. What can you do to best support your child’s school experience?

Take an interest! Children read verbal and nonverbal cues better than we think, so showing true enthusiasm is important. More than just asking, “How was school?” or “Did you do your homework?” Kids need us to ask, “What did you learn?” and “What interested you about that?” Kids are more likely to achieve their personal best when there is genuine interest and real accountability around what they are actually learning, instead of the focus being solely on how they are performing.

Jamee Miller, Seminole County 08-09 Teacher of the Year
Crystal Lake Elementary, 4th Grade Teacher

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  1. Chrissy
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    This was my favorite article this issue! Trying to figure out what type of educational environment is best for my family has been overwhelming. This article really laid it out nicely for us and made our decision much easier! Thanks PLAYGROUND

  2. Karen D
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Perfect! I put this info to use when choosing a school for my kids. Great article

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