Did you know that a child learns more in the first five years than he will through the rest of his life? Whether you prefer a home school environment, a traditional classroom or a Montessori setting for a youngster, childhood education plays an essential role in future academic success.

In fact, research shows that young children who participate in early childhood education programs develop better language skills, score higher in school preparation tests and develop better social skills. Once the child enters primary school, according to the Florida Department of Early Learning, chances are she will have fewer behavioral problems and increase her chances of graduating from high school.

In the past 10 years, Walton County has blossomed from offering only a few preschool options to the now having six schools in South Walton andnine schools in North Walton.

Click here for a graphic listing of all area preschools. 

Many preschool programs plan to expand in the upcoming 2013-2014 school year to accommodate the growing number of young families joining the community.

“We are opening a brand new education center that has five classrooms to better serve our community needs,” says Lisa Brooks, the director of St. Rita Catholic Church Preschool.

Not only are classroom sizes expanding at almost every school, but so are enrichment programs. From foreign language lessons to special art classes, schools are aiming to enhance the traditional learning process for Walton County students.

“It’s so exciting to see one of our three year olds waving ‘bonjour!’ to her friends because of our French lessons! Kids love to learn so we feed that curious nature by offering a variety of ‘extras’ within the traditional curriculum,” said Maureen Paine, director of The Tree House Episcopal Montessori School in Santa Rosa Beach.

For those families unable to pay for a preschool education, a number of Walton County schools plan to offer the Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) Education program, a free early education option funded by the state of Florida. The VPK program allows for eligible four year olds to prepare for kindergarten and build a strong foundation for children’s educational success.

Discovery Time Playschool in Freeport currently offers VPK and hopes to offer it again this coming school year because of the tremendous value it brings to families.

“VPK gives educational opportunities to students who are not typically able to attend a preschool program,” says Director Alicia Goddin. “At Discovery Time Playschool we conduct three assessments during the course of VPK, and we are amazed to see how much the four year olds learn within the course of a year. A preschool education is truly invaluable and we are so happy to offer this to our community.”

VPK registration opens April 1 for the upcoming school year and interested Walton County residents must apply in person at the Okaloosa/Walton County Childcare Services Office located at 10 South 4th Street in DeFuniak Springs. To qualify for the tuition-free program the student must turn four by Sept. 1, 2013, and show proof of Florida residency. For more information about specific local schools offering VPK programs, visit the Early Learning Coalition of Okaloosa and Walton Counties at http://elc-ow.org.

Whether your family plans to apply to a local preschool or a VPK program, time is of the essence in submitting applications since most schools are full by early April. All Walton County preschools are currently accepting applications for the upcoming 2013-2014 school year and look forward to serving the early childhood educational needs of our growing community.