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Why preschool is important

By Samantha Page 9 min read

Australia has seen a massive increase in enrolment in preschool programs over the past 10 years, making a significant difference to the country’s children and families.

A nurturing home environment is important for young children, who are learning and processing information from the moment they’re born. Having parents who play, read and talk with them daily lays the foundation for children’s wellbeing and brain development. In addition to this, one of the best things parents can do to support their child’s development is to get them into a quality play-based early learning service. (This could be called preschool or kindergarten, depending on which state you live in. See table “Navigating preschool and first year of school across Australia” below.)

Quality early learning amplifies the skills children are already learning at home, in a socially stimulating and supportive environment. Many parents have experienced the benefits of their children participating in quality early learning. A 2017 Early Childhood Australia survey of nearly 3000 parents found that more than 90 per cent of parents said their children had improved their social skills, confidence and emotional capacity as a result of attending early learning, and parents had observed improvements in their children’s thinking, speaking and listening skills. Parents also commented on their children’s engagement in creative projects and benefitting from building relationships with children and educators.

Erica Gardner from Victoria describes how her daughter’s early childhood educators helped her to recognise and manage her emotions: “One of her educators showed her a breathing technique, one big breath in and then a long slow breath out, repeated a few times, that is useful when she is feeling frustrated or angry. I’ve tried to do this at home with her and used it myself. I’ve even heard her muttering to herself about needing to breathe when she is feeling angry with her brother.”

A Queensland mother says she noticed her son’s concentration and attention span had really improved since he started preschool: “Now, when it’s time to read at night, he'll go and find something he wants to read, and ask us to read it. He sometimes even has a book under his pillow. I really like the way they encourage the kids to take responsibility at the preschool, like putting their drink bottles away. I’m impressed with how organised everything is and how welcoming.”

It is a great achievement that 95 per cent of children in Australia are now enrolled in a preschool program (up from 12 per cent in 2008), whether that’s in a standalone preschool or kindy, as part of a long day care centre or in a school-based preschool.

Starting a preschool program however, is not the same as going to school. Quality early education involves play-based learning in an age-appropriate curriculum.

As Early Childhood lecturers at Deakin University, Anne-Marie Morrissey, Natalie Robertson and Elizabeth Rouse write, play-based learning “enables the child to engage in the flexible and higher-level thinking processes, including problem solving, analysing, evaluating, applying knowledge and creativity”.

Their article, “Play-based learning can set your child up for success at school and beyond,” published in The Conversation, says that play supports positive attitudes to learning, such as imagination, curiosity, enthusiasm and persistence. The type of learning processes and skills fostered in play cannot be replicated through rote learning, where there is an emphasis on remembering facts.

They quote research studies that show children engaged in play-based programs use more complex  language processes and have improved literacy skills: “These include understanding the structure of words and the meanings of words. Another study found children’s vocabulary and ability to tell a story was higher in a play-based classroom than a traditional classroom.”

Erica explains how play-based learning improves problem-solving skills and cognitive development: “My daughter and three of her friends built a castle together. The educators assisted them with resources and advice [such as how to spell words when they wanted to label different parts of the castle (literacy)] but ultimately they built it because they wanted to.

“The children had to build turrets and a drawbridge (numeracy), plan and negotiate who was doing what task and share one castle between the four of them (social-emotional). Play usually provides children with pleasure and interest that is maintained without external rewards. In learning through play, children associate learning with a process that is self-motivated.”

A challenge for Australian parents is that every state and territory has a different system with differing age requirements for preschool and starting school, and even different names. In ACT, Northern Territory and New South Wales, the year before starting school is called preschool, but in all the other states it’s called kindergarten. This is particularly confusing as in ACT, NSW and Western Australia, the first year of primary school is called kindergarten. (See table “Navigating preschool and first year of school across Australia” below).

The cost and availability of preschool programs varies widely across Australia. In ACT, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania, preschool programs are often delivered via the school system and are free. In Queensland, Victoria and NSW, preschool programs are delivered through standalone kindergartens or preschools, or in long day care centres and require fees to be paid. Where programs are delivered through long day care centres, they are generally also subsidised by the Commonwealth via the Child Care Subsidy scheme.

The NSW and Victorian governments have made commitments to reduce preschool costs for parents, but there is still a long way to go before access to preschool reaches the same levels as in the other states and territories.

Early childhood educators, researchers and advocacy organisations such as Early Childhood Australia all agree it would be beneficial for Commonwealth funding to be extended to support preschool enrolment for all children for two years before they start school. The 2017 landmark Lifting Our Game report recommended extending the funding for universal access to preschool programs to include three-year-olds as “the single most impactful reform Australia could undertake, with international comparisons highlighting it as the biggest gap in the current system”.

The evidence for the benefits of children participating in two years of preschool is also outlined in the Mitchell Institute’s report, Preschool—Two Years are Better Than One. It documents UK and US studies that found students who attended two or more years of preschool:

  • Obtained higher total final exam scores, better grades in English and in maths and took more final year exams.
  • Improved Grade 4 learning results.
  • Higher scores in international test results at age 15 than those who attended no preschool or only attended for one year.

Australia lags way behind other developed countries on the participation of three-year-olds in early education. With only 62.5 per cent of three-year-old children attending some form of early education, Australia is in the bottom third of countries rated by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). The top 10 countries have 95–100 per cent of three-year-olds in preschool education. 

When children participate in high quality early education, there are far-reaching benefits, not just for them, but for the whole community. A 2015 study by the UK’s Department of Education found that these children are more likely to complete Year 12 and are less likely to repeat grades or require additional support, while another study linked high-quality early childhood education with higher levels of employment, income and financial security, improved health outcomes and reduced crime.

Parents can feel reassured that sending their child to quality early learning for a year or more before starting school is a great way for them to get the best start in life.

Navigating preschool and first year of school across Australia

State/Territory

Preschool year

Age

First year of school

School starting age

ACT

Preschool

in primary schools (no fee) or long day care centre

Can enrol your child in preschool if they turn four years old by April 30

Kindergarten

Must be five years old by April 30 in the year they start kindergarten. It is compulsory for children to be enrolled in school from age six

NT

Preschool

in government-run primary schools; no fee

Can enrol your child in preschool (or kindergarten) from the age of four

Transition

Can start Transition if they turn five by June 30 in the year they are enrolled. Compulsory schooling begins with Year 1 when children must be enrolled in the year they will turn six by June 30

NSW

Preschool

in standalone community preschools or long day care centres; fees

Can enrol your child if they turn four before August 1 in the year before starting school

Kindergarten

Children can start kindergarten at the beginning of the school year if they turn five on or before July 31 that year. By law, all children must be in compulsory schooling by their sixth birthday

QLD

Kindergarten

in standalone or long day care centres, usually in or near a school

Can enrol your child if they turn four by June 30 in the year before starting school

Prep

Compulsory to undertake Prep prior to Year 1. Children must be five by June 30 in the year they enrol. Children attend Prep from Monday to Friday, generally from 9 am to 3 pm.

SA

Preschool or Kindergarten

mostly government-run, can be community or private standalone services or in schools or with other early learning services; no fees or voluntary contribution

Can enrol your child if they turn four before May 1 in the year before starting school

Reception

If the child turns five before May 1 they will start school on the first day of term one in that year. If they turn five on or after May 1, they will start school on the first day of term one the following year.

Children must enrol at school by six years

TAS

Kindergarten

in government-run primary schools; no fee

If your child is four years old on January 1, they can go to kindergarten that year

Prep

Prep is compulsory for all children who turn five on or by January 1 that year

VIC

Kindergarten

mostly standalone centres; fees

Can enrol your child if they are turning four before or on April 30 in the year before starting school

Prep /
Foundation

To start primary school your child will need to turn five years old by April 30 in the year that they start school. Your child must be at school in the year that they turn six years of age

WA

Kindergarten

in government-run primary schools and standalone centres; no fee

You can enrol your child in kindergarten if they turn four years old by June 30 that year

Pre-Primary

Enrol in compulsory pre-primary when your child turns five years old by June 30 that year

Find out more about preschools and starting school in New Zealand here.


Early Childhood Australia is part of a national collaborative campaign called Early Learning Everyone Benefits with 25 other early childhood peak, education, community and research organisations. They are campaigning to ensure that all Australian children have access to at least two days per week of quality early learning, especially in the two years before school.


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Samantha Page is CEO of Early Childhood Australia, the country’s peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. Earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au.


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