These moveable “pop up” preschools for underserved communities are a hit

Pop-Up Preschools

Credit: The Hechinger Report, via the Orange County Register

High-quality preschool helps ensure that young children are ready to learn, academically and socially, on the first day of kindergarten. But for families of modest financial means, it’s often out of reach if their communities don’t offer publicly-funded preschools as they do with K-12 education.

In fact, according to the Department of Education, 60 percent, or 2.5 million, of 4-year olds in the country don’t attend publicly funded preschool programs. That means the young tots are already behind their wealthier peers by the time they start school, stacking the deck further against them. And it’s a quandary that disproportionately drags down children in immigrant families, Hispanics, and African-Americans.

An innovative “pop up” preschool pilot program by the YMCA is underway to help fill this access gap. In 27 states, the organization is bringing free early childhood education directly to low-income families in their neighborhoods, using sites likes public libraries, museums, public housing, and community centers.

As The Hechinger Report explains, these pop-ups are popular and successful:

Pop-Up Preschools

Credit: The Hechinger Report, via the Orange Count Register

Pop-up preschool was an almost instant hit at the Hillview library. On the day it first opened, three families had enrolled. By the next week the program was full with 15 children and their parents or grandparents. Now there’s a waiting list.

The YMCA runs 104 pop-up preschools in 27 states, serving nearly 1,900 children plus a parent or grandparent of each child, according to a Y spokesperson. The schools don’t pop up randomly. Each program is in the same place, with the same teacher, and on the same two days during its entire 38-week run. The continuity extends to the participants. Families must register in advance because, like any school, there is a specific curriculum with lesson plans that build on one another.

Local Y’s try to select sites for the pop-up programs that are centrally located in neighborhoods, so they’re within walking distance for families. Libraries are popular locations, but so are community centers, schools, churches, public housing, local YMCA centers, and museums. One program in Southern California is held in a park; in Hawaii, there are some pop-ups on the beach.

As Prof. Deborah Stipek at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education noted to the reporter, the YMCA program is also savvy for using spaces that are familiar and comfortable to the adults as well, not just the kids. That’s a dual feature of the Y’s Early Learning Readiness program, which expressly seeks to support caregivers and children together — with promising results.


Credit: YMCA

Similar efforts to increase preschool options exist elsewhere, such as the “Gus the Bus” mobile preschool program in Colorado, but the YMCA pilot is considered the largest. Given the importance of early childhood education to giving all children a strong start in life, it’s an idea worth spreading.

For more information, see “Pop-ups bring preschool to low-income communities,” The Hechinger Report (2016); “The Achievement Gap,” YMCA.