With offerings from sign language to computers and drama, preschool programs in Greater Cincinnati have come a long way from the babysitting services we used to think of for this tender age. The area offers part-time programs in churches, half-day Montessori classes, and full-day programs that tout advanced curricula and the ability to keep children engaged.

Today’s parents want programs that stimulate their children and provide opportunities for them to learn, both academically and socially, so that they will have the best chance of success when they head to grade school.

“There is definitely an increased awareness of the importance of the early years and how that time is, basically, the most active for children’s brain development and gaining the skills and foundation for future learning,” explains Sallie Westheimer, executive director of 4C for Children, a local non-profit preschool coordinating and information agency that’s funded by the United Way, the city of Cincinnati, state agencies and donations. “So to the extent that parents understand this more, they’re looking at providing support for their children’s learning.”

But that doesn’t mean that the finger painting and singing of yesteryear are gone. In fact, playful activities are more incorporated than ever, as research has confirmed that play is how children learn best.

“I think there’s a lot more desire for children to learn more at an earlier age and for children to gain the socialization skills that child learning centers offer,” says Doris Moore, director of the Mason location of Kids ‘R’ Kids, which provides part- or full-time childcare, preschool and supplemental kindergarten. “Most of our parents are working full-time.”

And these days, even stay-at-home parents are sending kids to preschool programs to help them prepare for kindergarten and beyond, confirms Westheimer.

Children ages 6 weeks to 5 years learn differently than older children. In short, preschool should develop children’s love of learning and prepare them to embrace the traditional learning that will take place later, Westheimer says.

The best program, though, is not necessarily the one that has the highest price or offers the most formalized instruction, she cautions. Giving your children Mandarin Chinese lessons at age 3 or forcing rote memory activities on them at age 4 — under the guise of teaching them letters or numbers — is not the best way to approach early education.

“Children learn through play,” Westheimer says. “They should be in a creative setting where creativity and independent play can take place. There might be a pretend kitchen with labels that begins to expose children to the fact that letters and words have a relationship.”

The key at this age is not necessarily knowing letters. “Reading is important, but an additional value is talking about the books, looking at the pictures and asking the child what appears to be happening,” Westheimer says. And yes, reciting nursery rhymes, singing, and sculpting with clay really are important. “You cannot separate things like music and small motor development with school readiness and intellectual development.”

With the wide variety of choices available, choosing the right preschool can be daunting. 4C maintains a database of more than 2,600 child-care options in our region, including licensed child-care centers, preschools, school-age child-care programs, and 4C-registered family child-care homes. Westheimer encourages parents to call 4C and talk to the counselors, who can offer referrals.

Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services has established a quality rating system for preschools, called Step Up to Quality. Kentucky also has a system called Stars for Kids Now. Ohio also has a checklist for parents to use when evaluating a facility. It guides parents through questions, such as whether the children have unstructured outdoor playtime, whether teachers attend training workshops, and whether the curriculum allows children to explore subjects in depth and in multiple ways.

Other things parents should ask about a preschool:

 - Do the teachers have formal training in child development, specifically at the age of your child?

 -  Are there opportunities for unstructured play, where it is safe for children to explore?

 -  Is curiosity encouraged with creative and fun activities?

 -  Does the environment provide opportunities for the child to learn independence, self-control and sharing?

Additionally, Moore at Kids ‘R’ Kids advises parents to think carefully about what is important to them, whether it’s a faith-based program, one that provides a multi-cultural experience, or a program that runs year-round rather than just the school year.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to give your child the preschool equivalent of a Harvard education. “I think there’s a lot of anxiety on the part of parents,” Westheimer acknowledges. “I would like to give the message to parents to enjoy their children, read and talk with them, give them opportunities for constructive play, and chill out.”