Choosing a pre-school that will develop your child’s brain age-appropriately

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By Cozette Laubser |

How does one choose a preschool? By golly, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration! For many parents the choice of the child’s very first playgroup, nursery school, pre-school, kindergarten – or whatever other term you would like to use, boils down to: operating hours, school fees and the location of the school. Other factors that rank high on the priority list includes: safety and security of the child, loving and gentle care, hygienic facilities and healthy meals. These are all important factors, let us not discount the logistics and basic requirements, but is there more to it? What about what actually happens in the form of age-appropriate education – shaping a young and highly sensitive brain and body during the formative years?

Sometimes, regardless of the state-of-the-art facilities, early-learning fundamentals are neglected and because the average parent is not an Early Childhood Development (ECD) Specialist (a parent’s job description is long enough, thank you very much!), how would one actually know whether the school is a good fit or not?

Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn what needs to be learned – John Holt


There are a few core concepts that should be part of every preschools vocabulary. They include:


Concrete learning refers to the multi-sensory and movement richness of playful learning during the first six years of a child’s life. Concrete learning at its best means you can touch, smell, taste, hear and see the object as well as explore and manipulate it. Thus, the entire body, including the senses and muscles, is involved with discovering and learning on a concrete level. Concrete objects include all 3-dimensional objects – sticks, acorns, stones, pots, pans, dolls, cars, balls etc.


Multi-sensory experiences involve using more than one of the senses at a time. For instance, baking is a multi-sensory experience – you use your sense of touch when you knead the dough, you smell and taste the batter, there are sounds involved with using kitchen utensils and mixing bowls, and the eyes observe the entire process. When babies, toddlers and preschoolers engage in real life, multi-sensory experiences, fewer repetitions are needed to wire the brain, because the intensity of experience is high and learning is fun!

Please give me time to experience my world. Let me touch a tree and smell the rain, see the sunset and hear the birds. Then, when I read and write those words, I will understand what they truly mean – Unknown


Gross means big and motor means movement. Gross motor refers to moving the large muscles of the body, typically the muscles needed for rolling, sitting, crawling, walking, climbing, dancing, running, pushing, pulling, kicking, throwing, jumping, climbing, catching and stopping. Gross motor development forms the foundation on which all further development follows, do not neglect this important part of a child’s developmental needs!

The more physical the game, the greater the developmental gain – Dr Melodie de Jager


Fine means small and motor means movement. Fine motor refers to moving the small muscles of the body. The fine motor muscles of the body include, the mouth, hands and fingers, feet and toes, and the eyes. In the baby fine motor skills develop with self-feeding, later learning to screw and unscrew bottle caps, post shapes into a container and even later as a toddler learning to dress and undress, go to the toilet independently etc. In the preschooler, fine motor skills that involve the hands are most well-known. These are the muscles needed for playing with playdough, creating art, drawing, painting, cutting with scissors, gluing, baking, tying a shoe lace and more.


Language development can be divided into two parts, receptive language and expressive language. Language is the tool of thought. Without language it is difficult for your child to communicate what s/he needs, to make friends, to learn, and for the brain to develop to its full potential. Language development starts with receptive language. Receptive language is being able to hear and understand words, before you are able to speak them. Good language role models at home, and later school, are important for the development of receptive language. Expressive language follows after months and even years of developing receptive language, because as Alfred Tomatis says, the mouth can only produce what the ear can hear. Expressive language is divided into two groups, non-verbal communication – eye contact, gestures, body language, tone of voice and ‘gibberish’, and verbal communication – using words and sentences. In the preschool, language development is made fun with songs, rhymes, stories, theme discussion, language ring and so forth.


Dr Melodie de Jager, the founder of BabyGym®, says: What does play actually mean? Play means that a child “discover learns” by finding things out for himself. The opposite of this is when a child is told and directed how to do things. Telling a child what to do is so much quicker than guiding him to discover for himself, but a child has only 6 years to learn a few basic skills! Letting a child discover for himself gives him confidence, because he tells himself: “I can learn and feel clever about it”. Showing, telling and instructing a child teaches him: “You don’t know, you need me to teach you”, which leaves him feeling less confident and clever. A young, healthy child is born with a curiosity to explore, find out and learn about his environment – that is why he never sits still! He was born to learn. It is for these reasons that the early years are the ideal time for a child to learn how to learn in a fun and stress-free way whilst playfully preparing for ‘big school’.

Research by Benjamin S. Bloom reiterates the importance of these first years, he states that that 33% of all thinking skills are developed by the age of 6. To be able to think, a child must first feel confident. To feel confident, a child must know his body and what it can do, has to be able to get along with others and be proficient at asking questions and talking clearly. Hence, developing that crucial 33% takes time and needs a plan of action.

Enter into children’s play and you will find the place where their minds, hearts, and souls meet – Virginia Axline


So many adults are unaware of the structure and developmental brilliance that weaves its way through the pre-school program. Play isn’t a separate activity from learning, when a knowledgeable and caring educator plays alongside a child, many areas of development are covered.


  • gross motor movement and body awareness
  • fine motor development
  • sensory-motor integration
  • perception
  • speech and language development
  • forms of expression through imagination and art
  • emotional health and self-esteem
  • the social world and appropriate social behaviour
  • the physical world
  • logical, conceptual and mathematical thought
  • problem solving and
  • self-organisation.

And to engage the child emotionally, the areas of development are covered while different themes are explored throughout the year. The carefully constructed themes are highly personal to the child, something they can relate to and apply.


  • Me and my school
  • I am unique
  • Look at me
  • My senses
  • Clean and wise
  • This is where I live
  • Dangers in and around the house
  • My family
  • My Family and emotions
  • My clothes.

(Terblache, 2007)

Furthermore the day is structured into a programme that regulates the energy flow in a group of buzzing little bodies – from calmer activities to activities that are exciting and fun, and then back down to routine and rest. Isn’t it all done so cleverly? What’s more? During the routine moments the learning continues all the while – the developing little people learn about waiting, sharing, good manners, proper hygiene, tidying up after themselves, taking responsibility for their personal belongings and so forth.


07:30 – 08:00 Welcome time – Free play inside or outside

08:00 – 08:30 Language/ Perception/ Science

08:30 – 09:35 Creative activity

09:35 – 09:50 Tidy up time

09:50 – 10:10 Development play / music

10:10 – 10:20 Toilet routine

10:20 – 10:35 Refreshment time

10:35 – 11:45 Outside play / free play

11:45 – 12:00 Tidy up

12:00 – 12:10 Toilet routine

12:10 – 12:30 Story time

12:30 – 13:00 Children go home

(Terblache, 2007)


The first six years of a child’s life is about so much more than just gathering information, it is a time to playfully discover their world and fall in love with learning – the type of learning that Carl Rogers refers to when he says:

I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed into the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING – the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy to absorb everything he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of his ‘cruiser’. I am talking about the student who says, “I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me.” I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: “No, no, that’s not what I want”; “Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in and what I need”; “Ah, here it is! Now I’m grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!

May every child spend their early learning years in an environment filled with colour and texture and rhyme and rhythm, because as Gordon B. Hinckley says:

In all of life, have much fun and laughter. Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured.

Terblanche, B. 2007. Clever Play – Play the way to brilliance. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute Publishing

De Jager, M. 2017. Play Learn Grow – Birth to 3. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute Publishing

De Jager, M. 2019. Brain development, milestones and learning. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute Publishing


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