Things start to change a bit in the preschool years. You go from really trying to be present for all social interactions with your toddler to starting to allow your child some space and freedom. You will be moving into a world of play dates and perhaps even some extra curricular activities outside the home during the years of 3 and four.
This step toward more independence doesn't mean you are now removing the "wall-of-water" as I referred to in Fine Balance of Protecting Children. Your child is not ready to just be set free. This is more of a time when you are opening the wall-of-water for short times and then you close it up again that same day. The length of time your child spends at playdates or at a practice will be different for a barely three year old than a 4 about-to-turn-five year old.
As you give your child more exposure to the world around him, you will want to choose wisely who is having influence over your child. On Becoming Preschool Wise talks about the importance of community starting on page 198. Ezzo and Bucknam refer to community as "...a group of families sharing common interests, values, and a significant commitment to an ideal for the mutual benefit of the individual and the collective membership" (page 199).
A community can provide a support group for you. "Through association of like-minded peers, your children will see family standards reinforced by others who share the same values" (page 199). As you sign your child up for activities, see if friends want to join also. It is great to have peers in a class or on a team who come from families with similar values, moral beliefs, and goals. "Children do better when the community they grow up in reinforces the values the parents are trying to instill" (page 200).
As you set up playdates, do so with friends who have parents with similar parenting goals and values as you do. Doing so helps the play date be much more smooth with fewer bad habits to unlearn when the playdate is over. Now, just because you and your friend have essentially the same "whys" in life doesn't mean that will translate to you both doing the same "hows"--and that is okay. There is no one right way to do things, no one right set of rules, etc.
You will find that even with like-minded friends, you will have to limit your little preschoolers amount of time with friends. You will also need to do some retraining when he comes home. Your child's friend might be allowed to do things differently from him, and your child's friend might do things he isn't allowed to do (just like yours does sometimes). You will remind him of your rules and that he needs to follow your rules even if friends don't. This is a great strengthening time for the child. This is a time the child learns other people do things differently, and that despite that, your family rules hold true. You will also be able to find friends where your child can go play and come home with no bad habits to break. These are the friendships you really want to encourage :).
You will also have playdates at your home. You will want to allow the children some space to play without. I like to still stay close enough to be able to hear what is going on. That way, I can step in and remind, correct, teach, etc. when needed. 3 year olds won't always share, speak nicely, or talk calmly. They will need reminders. This is a great time for them to continue to perfect those skills parents have been teaching them. While you will need to give reminders, don't be too quick to step in. Give them some time to work it out amongst themselves first.
You will also guide activities with the preschoolers as you have the playdate at your house. You might do art projects, bake cookies, lead games, read stories, etc. A mix of free play and guided play is a good idea for the little ones so they can maintain their manners :).
Now what about extra-curricular like preschool, dance, music class, tumbling, swimming, and sports? First, observe the establishment before you turn your child over to be taught by it. I like to observe places. I go alone (no kids to distract me), I bring a paper and a pen, and I just sit quietly to the side and record my thoughts and observations. Also, ask moms with older children--ask the ones you have found yourself admiring. Find out where they like to take swimming, dance, preschool, and so forth. These moms are invaluable to you.
Some activities allow for parents to either be involved or be present for the lesson. These are great for the preschooler. Some will allow a parents day but ask other days parents not be there because children get too distracted. This is also great if you trust the people teaching.
If you leave your child, keep in communication with the teacher to know how your child is doing. Know if your child listens, follows instructions, is polite, etc. I have found my standards to be higher than any teacher I have come in contact with, so asking specific questions rather than just, "How was she today?" is helpful. It is also helpful to let the teacher know upfront you will not be offended or defensive if she reports that your child acted out that day.
Many parents do get offended so teachers tend to shy away from giving an honest report. I always let them know that I want to know if my child is not acting appropriately. And it happens sometimes. These are the times you talk at home about it and do some practicing at home. Remember your child is 3-4. There is no reasonable expectation for perfection. If you think your child is beyond making mistakes, you will miss out on many great teaching opportunities that will indeed help your child to know how to behave in these situations.
Choose places that share your values. One of Kaitlyn's favorite activities is dance class. There are a lot of studios to choose from where I live. I ultimately settled on one that I know is not the absolute best so far as technique. Why did I choose it then? Because the values cannot be beat. Costumes are modest. Dances are completely modest. Family values are highly stressed.
Another thing to do is to be involved when the opportunity arises. Brayden started soccer as a 4 (close to 5) year old. My husband coached that team, and he coached the next year. This year, Brayden is coached by my good friend and trusted neighbor and my husband coaches Kaitlyn's team. For Brayden's baseball team, he will be coached by that neighbor's husband, with my dad and husband as assistant coaches. Get involved. Encourage people you trust to get involved and put your children on their teams. My children have never been coached by anyone other than my husband or my neighbors.
As hard as it can be, the preschool years are a time to allow the child to step out and start to get some exposure to the elements of the world. Exposure is short. I try to limit play to about 2ish hours (sometimes it is longer) and try to not do it every day. Different children can handle different exposure. Gauge your child and you will get a feel for what is right for your individual child. Really make this part of who you are as a parent because this evaluating is something I still do with Brayden (almost 7 now). Allowing some exposure helps your child to grow stronger and better able to face the time when that protective wall-of-water will come down. Use this time wisely.