Role in Cultural Transmission

Preschool education, like all other forms of education, is intended by the society that controls it to transmit important cultural values to the participants. As a result, different cultures make different choices about preschool education. Despite the variations, there are a few common themes. Most significantly, preschool is universally expected to increase the young child's ability to perform basic self-care tasks such as dressing, feeding, and toileting.

In Japan, development of social skills and a sense of group belonging are major goals for preschools. Class sizes tend to be large, up to 40 students per class, to decrease the role of the teacher's personality and increase the likelihood of peer interactions. Because exclusion from the group is extremely undesirable, a wide range of behaviors is tolerated. For example, a young child who is standing near the class during an exercise session is deemed to be participating in the group activity and belonging to the group, even if he does not engage in any of the exercises. Children are expected to be learn how to work harmoniously in large and small groups, and to develop the praiseworthy qualities of childhood, such as cooperativeness, kindness, and social consciousness. Because the most important goal for preschools is to provide children with the rich social environment that increasingly isolated nuclear families are unable to provide at home, unstructured, lightly supervised time to play freely with other children is valued. Teachers take a hands-off approach to most disputes between children, including physical fighting, as well as to children's choices to participate or to move to another activity. Most behavioral problems are believed to be due to the disruptive child's inappropriately expressed emotional need to be dependent, resulting in gentle care and careful attention to accepting the child, rather than a biological problem to be treated medically or a willfully chosen behavior to be punished. Consistent with the social belief that success is a result of hard work rather than inborn talent, teachers are expected to minimize innate differences between children by encouraging and praising perseverance in less-capable children and suppressing or ignoring high-performing children. Although a wide variety of attitudes and educational philosophies exist in Japanese preschools, most preschools focus on age-appropriate personal development, such as learning empathy, rather than academic programs. Academic programs tend to be more common among Westernized and Christian preschools in Japan.

In China, a vast and varied country, the preschool programs are highly variable. Some amount to little more than babysitting services, and others are university-run programs with high-quality curricula. Some are showpieces designed to impress foreign visitors, and others have very limited facilities and resources. The qualifications of staff members and their beliefs about early childhood education are also highly variable. Many are associated with an employer, and some provide overnight care during the week, frequently reserving these slots for parents who work at night or in jobs requiring travel. However, a few themes are common to most Chinese preschools: Chinese parents' traditional concerns about spoiling their children have intensified since the introduction of the one-child policy: Only children are widely seen as lonely, selfish, and prone to anti-social behaviors. Parents, however, feel somewhat reluctant to discipline their only children, thinking it may cause resentment and ultimately an unwillingness to care for the parents in their old age. Teachers, therefore, are seen as professionals whose primary responsibility is to counteract the parents' natural tendency to indulge their children and the unfortunate effects of the one-child policy, and thus produce well-behaved children who benefit society. Because parents worry about their children's health, Chinese society provides significant, visible health care through the preschools, such as on-site nurses to examine children after a weekend at home. Children are taught to behave as part of a orderly, regimented collective that is obedient to its leader. For example, children eat meals silently and sit quietly for long periods of time during the school day while the teacher reads or instructs them. Unlike the Japanese programs, group dynamics are authoritarian and vertical, with the relationship between the teacher and the children more important than the relationships between the children. Teachers intervene very early to stop inappropriate behavior before it escalates to disruption, usually by verbally criticizing the child's behavior. Positive reinforcement through publicly praising examples of proper behavior is typical. Programs permit little unstructured time and emphasize academic development. For example, a lesson may have children use building blocks to construct pre-determined structures exactly matching a printed diagram, rather than to build anything they wish. Academic progress and good public speaking skills are valued, as parents believe this will result in the child being economically successful later in life. Parents in Taiwan have similar attitudes in many respects, and many of the concerns and goals related to child rearing in the modern era echo those found in ancient Confucian writings.

In the United States, preschool education emphasizes the basic American values of individual liberty and self-determination. Rather than the teacher leading all children through a specific activity, the children are frequently permitted to choose from a wide variety of activities in a learning center model. During these times, a few children may choose to be painting, a few children may be playing house, a few children may be playing with puzzles, and a few more may be listening to the teacher read a storybook aloud. Different learning center activities are offered in each session. Children are assumed to be more different than similar, with each child having particular strengths and weaknesses that must be encouraged or ameliorated by the teachers. A typical belief is that children's play is their work, and by allowing the child to select the type of play, then the child will meet his or her individual developmental needs. Preschools also model the rule of law and American ideas about justice, such as the idea that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Teachers actively intervene in disputes between children and encourage them to "use your words" rather than to engage in physical aggression. Children may be punished with a time out or a requirement to apologize or make reparations for misbehavior, such as taking a toy from another child, but the teachers assist them through a process of "defending" themselves (by explaining what happened) before the teacher imposes a punishment. The development of self-expressive language skills, so that the child can describe an experience to an adult, is emphasized through both informal interactions with the teachers and through structured group activities like show and tell exercises. The equipment and facilities available to a preschool vary depending on the wealth of the area, but they generally have more and fancier supplies than other cultures. As most programs are not subsidized by government funds, preschools are often expensive compared to the average worker's income, and the staff is typically poorly paid. However, student-teacher ratios are lower than in other cultures, with about 15 students per group seen as ideal. Parents and teachers also see preschool teachers as being extensions of or partial substitutes for the parents, and consequently emphasize personal relationships and consistent expectations at home and at school.