It looks like a simple toy puzzle.
But when it comes to preschool, it is so much more.
This puzzle – with it's brightly colored wooden pieces – teaches children about shapes, colors and numbers.
But it does more.
It teaches them how to count in English and Spanish, how to compare sizes, trains hand-and-eye coordination and offers basic math lessons.
It may be a simple puzzle, but it's indicative of how preschool has changed.
In days past, being a preschooler meant going to a big room with lots of other kids. The day would be filled with playing with toys, making some new friends, taking a nap, eating a snack or two and waiting for Mom and Dad to pick you up.
Today's preschooler is learning to speak a foreign language, learning sign language, reading and learning basic math. There's still some time left for playing and making friends.
Shelley Doerschuk, an instructor in education at Malone University in Canton said that several major changes have occurred in preschool classrooms in the past decade. Changes range from enhanced curriculum to teaching new safety issues to new professional standards for preschool teachers.
One of the major changes is the implementation of a more rigorous curriculum.
"The focus for preschool today is to get the children ready to be learners," Doerschuk said. "Preschool teaching is more literacy-based. It's about getting the kids ready to read and teaching them mathematical reasoning."
Education is changing, in part, because the world is changing. The youngest generation is growing up immersed in technology, so the little learners are learning to embrace it.
"The use of technology is different in preschool," Doerschuck said. "Most preschools have their kids using a computer or some sort of electronic device in the classroom."
Rick Beechy owns Goddard School for Early Childhood Learning in Uniontown and Karen Marinos owns a Goddard School in Jackson Township. Both have seen a stronger emphasis on learning starting at age 3.
"Preschoolers starting at ages 3 or 4 are learning things that older people didn't learn until they were 5- or 6-years-old," Beechy said.
Goddard schools place emphasis on three areas of learning: Emotional, social and developmental.Curriculum is adapted to meet the needs of each individual child.
The curriculum used at Goddard includes language arts, physical fitness, mathematical thinking, science and technology, creative arts, music and movement, social studies and personal and social development. Enhanced studies at Goddard include teaching sign language and foreign language, manners, fitness, nutrition and art and music.
"We don't use workbooks and coloring books," Beechy said. "We use play-and-learn activities to teach the kids. Offering developmental learning at a younger age makes learning easier as they get older."
Page 2 of 2 - Learning, today, comes with added pressures. Beechy and Marinos see that parents want the best for their children and do what they can to provide a competitive edge by connecting children to learning at the youngest ages. Parents also look for opportunities to enhance what they are teaching the kids at home.
"With most families having both parents working and some still have their grandparents working, parents have come to rely more on the preschool to get their children ready to learn," Marinos said. "Parents and preschools work together to find the best way to accomplish their child's early learning experiences."
Doerschuk agrees. She has also seen parents getting busier these days.
"Many times, both parents are working and are just really busy," Doerschuk said. "Preschools used to have more involvement in the classroom from parents. Today they get the parents involved in others ways without the parents having to be at the school during the day."
Preschool used to be more like a day care.
Preschool standards have changed and most preschool teachers have degrees specializing in preschool education.
Doerschuk teaches courses at Malone for those students seeking early childhood licensure, which allows them to serve children in the preschool through third grades.
The latest trend that Doerschuk has seen evolve is the constant training that teachers have to attend. Teachers continually attend training to learn new techniques and procedures to stay current.
There is also a stronger emphasis on safety.
Malone's students work in various preschool locations as part of their educational program requirements. Doerschuk said background checks have become a requirement to work with kids. Preschool employees, including her students, have to have Federal and state background checks. Plus, her students have to have copies of their background check to give to each location where they work.
Students also must learn safety training and must teach young children about how to protect themselves if a stranger comes in the building.
"Education is constantly changing because we are working with human beings and they are constantly changing – and that's a good thing," Doerschuck said. "What stays the same is that kids are still kids. Kids are still uninhibited. They still need time to play, discover and explore and that is what really brings us joy."