When four-year-old Dashiell Christy begins his day at the Chilmark Preschool, he decides which activity he wants to do first - playdough, blocks, or maybe making a pot of pretend coffee in a miniature kitchen.

This morning, Dashiell - or Dash, as his classmates call him - chose blocks.

Choice is a central tenet of the Chilmark Preschool philosophy, as laid out by director Christine Abrams.

"For three and four year olds, one of their biggest issues is autonomy," explained Mrs. Abrams, who has more than 20 years of experience in early childhood education. "Taking responsibility for their own learning, where it's appropriate, is very important."

Mrs. Abrams consciously designed her preschool classroom in a way that offers children the most freedom of choice. Her curriculum is not set in stone at the beginning of the year, but rather emerges from careful observation of the children's interaction with their planned, prepared environment.

"My focus is on discovery and explorations," Mrs. Abrams said this week, surrounded by a bustle of youthful activity. "We try to foster real-life experiences, and encourage children to become enthusiastic participants in the world in which they live."

Earlier this year, when some of the young children enrolled in the preschool began missing their mothers, Mrs. Abrams and her assistant teacher Laurisa Rich started a project about writing them cards. The project quickly evolved into a larger lesson about mail and stamps, culminating with a field trip to the Chilmark post office. A homemade blue postal service drop box still sits prominently in the classroom.

"It grows," Mrs. Abrams said of her preschool curriculum. "It's almost an organic thing."

The Chilmark Preschool itself has been an evolving experiment. It opened its doors within the Chilmark School for the first time this fall, aiming to provide an additional choice for up-Island families with young children.

The preschool grew out of an ongoing debate about enrollment issues at the small K through five school near Beetlebung Corner. Chilmark School enrollment hit a low of 45 students during the 2003-2004 school year, sending per-pupil expenses above $22,000 and making it the most costly nonvocational public school in the commonwealth.

The town, in response, formed a task force to investigate reasons behind the low enrollment and develop ways to boost it. After a comprehensive survey of up-Island families, the idea of a private preschool within the Chilmark School emerged as the chief recommendation.

Until this year there had not been a preschool in Chilmark for almost a decade, forcing parents from Aquinnah and Chilmark to take their young children to schools in West Tisbury or even further down-Island.

Having a preschool back in Chilmark has been well received.

"It seems as if everyone has embraced it," said town resident Alicia Knight, who served on the school task force and now sits on the Chilmark Preschool board of directors.

There was initially some concern about housing a private preschool program within a public school building - the first such arrangement on the Island. But Chilmark School officials said this week they believe the inclusion of the preschool has actually enriched both programs.

"It's been a great fit," said Chilmark School principal Diane Gandy. "We have no complaints, and I'm sure they have none either," she added.

"I think it's really alleviated people's concerns about whether the children would be disrupting the public school program," said Chilmark School kindergarten teacher Robin Smith, who is also on the preschool board of directors.

Mrs. Smith said her kindergartners now feel like the big kids in school, and she spoke about joint projects in development between the two programs. The preschool students on Wednesday participated in the school-wide Thanksgiving turkey trot, and Mrs. Abrams said she hopes to have older students come into the preschool later this year to read to the younger children.

On Monday, four-year-old Kelly Klarén spoke with a wide-eyed excitement about the "big kids" in kindergarten. About half of the preschool students have older siblings enrolled in the Chilmark School.

Mrs. Abrams has a deep fondness for the Chilmark School - where her two children and a grandchild attended elementary school - but she noted that the preschool has worked hard to forge its own identity, by efforts such as using a separate entrance on the south side of the building.

Finance committee members from West Tisbury - one of the three towns in the up-Island regional school district, which encompasses both the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools - expressed concerns this year about potential costs the preschool might pass on to the district.

The preschool paid the district $1,000 to lease the classroom space this year, and put another $1,000 into an escrow account for any additional costs the Chilmark School might incur. Ms. Gandy said the preschool has filled a room previously used only by the Spanish teacher, and that she believes it will pose a negligible cost to taxpayers or the district.

Up-Island school committee member Susan Parker of Chilmark noted that the regional agreement signed by all three towns in October 1993 includes a provision to educate preschool students in the district.

"I see this as fulfilling part of a vision, part of a mandate that was laid out in the original document," Mrs. Parker said. Mrs. Parker said the preschool may help resolve some of the inherent hurdles posed by the Chilmark School.

"The challenge is to find a cost-effective way to keep these small rural schools operating," she said. "This preschool is a marvelous way to do that. And I think it's working."

In fact, the Chilmark Preschool arrangement reflects a larger trend on the Island, in the state and across the country toward universal preschool.

In Massachusetts, the state legislature recently created a new agency charged with providing preschool for all three-to-five year olds in the commonwealth. The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care was up and running this summer.

Early childhood educators know that the first few years in a child's life offer unmatched opportunities for learning, and that preschool is one of the best investments parents can make in their children's future.

Public school administrators know that preschool is a way to reduce the cost of special needs services down the road. According to statistics from a series of Boston Globe editorials supporting universal preschool in the state, children who attend early childhood education are 40 per cent less likely to need special education or to be held back a grade and 20 per cent more likely to graduate from high school.

The Vineyard has long embraced the importance of early childhood education - dating back to the early 1970s, when the late pioneering Helen Maley established the early childhood program through Martha's Vineyard Community Services. The Island now boasts 11 different preschools, each with a unique philosophy and niche.

While almost all of the Vineyard preschools are privately run, the public school system does operate a number of programs through early childhood coordinator Ann Palches in the superintendent's office.

The school system runs the only public preschool on the Island, Project Headway, which began in 1981 and is primarily for students with special needs. Mrs. Palches noted that Project Headway this year moved to the Edgartown School from its longtime home at Camp Jabberwocky, in a way mirroring the Chilmark Preschool by moving into unused space in a lager public school setting. Mrs. Palches said that, like the Chilmark situation, she believes the move has enhanced both programs.

"The little kids in Project Headway are loving it, and the Edgartown School is loving having the little children around," she said.

Some believe the new state agency might look at the Chilmark Preschool arrangement as a possible model for private and public partnerships - or, if there is more funding in the future, to make the Chilmark Preschool public.

The Chilmark Preschool filled its quota of 10 students this year - seven from Chilmark, one from Aquinnah, one from West Tisbury and one from Edgartown. Mrs. Knight said the program has attracted great interest since it opened, and a number of families have already signed onto a waiting list. Mrs. Abrams said she plans to increase the enrollment to 15 students next year.

Whether the preschool will boost enrollment in the Chilmark School remains to be seen, but the children in the classroom on Monday seemed more than comfortable in their Chilmark School setting, and remarkably well-connected as a group.

Pouring a cup of pretend tea in the miniature kitchen, Kelly Klarén said she was looking forward to next year, when she hoped to be a big kid in the Chilmark School kindergarten.