When it comes to the early years of a child’s life, parents and guardians face myriad decisions. Because children are not required to attend 4-year-old kindergarten in Wisconsin, one of those decisions is whether to enroll their child in 4K.
Although the National Institute for Early Education Research found over 70% of 4-year-olds attended 4K during the 2019-20 school year, many early education experts agree 4K might not be the right fit for every child.
“4K may not be (the best option) for every child, so it’s really important that parents weigh the pros and cons,” said Dana Bain, a referral specialist with Child Care Resource and Referral Fox Valley, whose daughter attended 4K during the 2021-22 school year.
Bain, other early education experts and parents shared tips on how to best navigate this important decision. With differing registration dates and some programs filling faster than others, there’s a lot to consider.
More:The new Wisconsin family? 1.7 kids, no picket fence and child care costs more than college
Related:8 tips to help Wisconsin parents find the right pediatrician for their kids
Consider how 4K might differ from other early care and education settings
The vast majority of public school districts have 4K programming, and there are also a number of private preschool options. Public 4K programming in Wisconsin is tuition-free; tuition for private schools varies.
However, all high-quality early education settings, including child cares and 4K classrooms, should facilitate learning through play, said First 5 Fox Valley outreach navigator Susan Steinhofer.
“4K should be, at its basic, a play-based program,” said Steinhofer, who helped a number of Wisconsin school districts set up their 4K programs. “Here’s the magic of early childhood: Play is how children learn best. So, by creating an environment with lots of opportunities for play, and planned, intentional play with real objects and materials and manipulatives, those children are going to be learning those academic skills.”
Some early education settings have mixed age groups, but in 4K, children are typically closer in age. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, children can attend 4K if they turn 4 on or before Sept. 1 of the school year, but Wisconsin state statute allows districts to craft their own early admission policies.
Ask about others’ experiences, review class materials
To research the 4K programs that interest them, Bain suggests families to ask others about their experiences and even reach out to the 4K programs directly.
“Every program is going to be different, so when parents are evaluating (their options), they should ask to see the lesson plans, ask to see what kind of activities they’re planning and ask the director … about goal setting,” Bain said. “(That way), parents understand ‘What is my child going to be learning here?’ and ‘How is my child going to grow in their skills?'”
Because the process of choosing a 4K program mirrors that of picking a child care, Bain encourages caregivers to use CCR&R Fox Valley’s Child Care Quality Check List at cccrrfoxvalley.org, when evaluating programs. Families may also call CCR&R Fox Valley at 920-886-1211.
More:Picking a safe, high-quality child care for your family can be difficult. Here’s some helpful tips
Related:Local Montessori Academy to nearly double enrollment, add new kindergarten program
The site can make a difference
Some school districts house 4K classrooms in school buildings, while others have sites elsewhere in the community like local child cares, YMCAs and more.
Because most school districts’ 4K programs are half-days, working parents and guardians often find it difficult or impossible to transport their child between 4K and child care.
Transportation provided by the child care or school district can make 4K possible for some families. Wraparound care at 4K sites can also accomplish this goal.
The option for wraparound care is one reason why Greenville’s Brittnie Maass chose the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s Children’s Learning and Care Center as her daughter’s 4K site come the fall.
“She’s been (attending child care at the CLCC) for almost four years,” said Maass, who also works at the center. “It just made sense to open enroll her here, where she feels safe, than to abruptly move her and put her in a 4K in the school district where I live, where she doesn’t have those connections and relationships.”
With UW-Oshkosh announcing plans to close the CLCC, and later announcing the Oshkosh YMCA would be running its own center in the space as of July 1, Maass isn’t certain where her child will attend 4K.
Pam Kugi, the Early Learning Center principal for the Sheboygan Area School District, said touring potential 4K sites can help families decide which site is right for their child.
Consider your child’s specific needs
Steinhofer said it’s important that parents and guardians examine their child’s specific needs when determining whether a 4K program is a good fit. If a child needs naps, will schedules allow for a quick rest during the day? Have they been in child care or other settings that allow them to play with peers? If not, 4K can help them get comfortable socializing with other children, Steinhofer said.
School districts might have connections in the event a child needs additional resources.
“If their child has any sort of developmental concerns or strengths, then I think 4K is a good option for them so that they can get the supports and services that are going to help their child be successful in school,” Steinhofer said.
Related:One in 5 could have dyslexia, but Wisconsin students, parents feel school support falls short
Related:With the Adderall shortage, Wisconsin families struggle to get refills and students try to focus
Consult with experts
Kyle Mick decided not to enroll his oldest child in 4K after talking to his child care provider, Amy Nogar of Amy and Kids Co. family child care in Appleton, and family members who are or were teachers. Through the curriculum and routine at child care, Mick felt that his child, who is now 5½, was already gearing up for kindergarten.
“At Amy’s, it’s a play-focused center. They’re not watching TV; they are outside. There is a curriculum that she does that helps get the kids ready for school,” Mick said, adding, “He’s also going to be in school for a long time, so do we need to rush this?”
In addition to seeking the advice of your child care provider, Maass also recommends consulting your child’s doctor and the CDC’s developmental milestones information.
4K alone does not make or break school success
While 4K can help children prepare for kindergarten, not attending 4K doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t succeed in kindergarten.
More:There’s so much to know about the youngest Wisconsinites. Here are stories that focus on them and their families.
More:Fox Valley’s young children are learning mindfulness through the Kindness Curriculum. But what is it?
Suzette Preston, director of 4-year-old kindergarten and principal of Appleton Community 4K, explained that the Appleton Area School District does not assume that every child going into kindergarten has attended 4K. Kindergarten teachers, like 4K teachers, understand children come into school with all different skill sets, and their teaching reflects this.
“I think it’s always the program’s responsibility to be ready for the child, not for the child to be ready for the program,” Steinhofer said.
Madison Lammert covers child care and early education across Wisconsin as a Report for America corps member based at The Appleton Post-Crescent. To contact her, email [email protected] or call 920-993-7108. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to Report for America.