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Pre-kindergarten (also called Pre-K or PK) is the first classroom-based learning environment that a child customarily attends in the United States. It begins between the ages of 3–5 depending on the length of the program. It was created to prepare students for a more didactic and academically intensive kindergarten and is the traditional "first" class that school children participate in. Pre-kindergarten is not required. On the other hand, it acts as a way to prepare children (especially those of a disadvantaged population) to better succeed in a kindergarten (often compulsory in many U.S. states). Pre-kindergarten was also known as nursery school, but the term was phased out during the 1990s. Project Head Start was founded in 1965, as the first federally funded pre-kindergarten program. The majority of pre-kindergarten programs have been operated by private organizations for the purpose of socialization and educational benefits since 1922. Only over the last few decades have pre-kindergarten programs become necessary for mothers to enter the workforce. 
The term Pre-kindergarten is often used interchangeably with the concepts of "day care", and "child care"; however, these other early childhood settings focus their goal on substitutionary care for children while their legal parents/guardians are absent as opposed to pre-K's focus on skill building. They could involve academic training, or they could involve solely socializing activities.
Pre-kindergartens, though, differentiate themselves by equally focusing on harvesting a child's (1) social development, (2) physical development, (3) emotional development, and (4) cognitive development. They commonly follow a set of organization-created teaching standards in shaping curriculum and instructional activities/goals. The term "preschool" more accurately approximates the name "pre-kindergarten", for both focus on harvesting the same four child development areas in subject directed fashion. The term "preschool" often refers to such schools that are owned and operated as private or parochial schools. Pre-kindergartens refer to such school classrooms that function within a public school under the supervision of a public school administrator and funded completely by state or federally allocated funds, and private donations.
"K-2" is often (and controversially) used interchangeably with "pre-kindergarten". Although early childhood education experts criticize the use of the term as a way to rationalize utilizing a kindergarten model and teaching kindergarten skills in pre-kindergarten classes, public school districts continue to incorporate the term as a way to integrate pre-kindergarten into the stable of accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Most school districts describe Pre-Kindergarten(PK) as:
- Pre-kindergarten in the United States is an early learning program to prepare children for kindergarten who are identified as at risk. Pre-kindergarten provides learning to children who are 4 years old on or before September 1st. Pre-kindergarten for three year olds provides learning to children who are 3 on or before September 1st. Most programs are 3 hours but extended day is offered in some schools.
To qualify for free pre-kindergarten the child generally must be:
- 4 years old (some districts offer 3 year old programs) on or before September 1 and meet one of the following criteria:
- Limited English Proficiency. (This refers to the United States only. In Canada and other countries, free pre-kindergarten programs may not necessarily be available to parents or may have different criteria for admission.)
- Economically Disadvantaged. Students qualifying as economically disadvantaged must meet the federal income eligibility guidelines. To qualify a family must have income below about 175% of the Annual Federal Poverty Guidelines (U.S.A).
- The child of a parent in the military or injured or killed while actively serving in the military. Appropriate U.S. Department of Defense identification or documentation must be provided.
- In or have been in the conservatorship of the state. Appropriate documentation from the Department of Family and Protective Services must be provided.
"Pre-Kindergarten" may have different meanings in other countries. In India, this is also known as Nursery in Kindergartens such as Applekids.
- Pre-school playgroup - a related type of establishment found in the United Kingdom.
- Forest kindergarten
- Andrews & Slate (March 2002). "Public & Private Pre-Kindergarten Programs: A Comparison of StudentReadiness". Educational Research Quarterly 25 (3): 59.
- Applekids website