When I was visiting preschools for my son, I started chatting with a friendly mom before one of the tours started. “How many schools have you seen so far?” she asked. It was my third. “How about you?”
Seventeen. I practically broke into a sweat. Her daughter was younger than my son and she had blanketed the city with more than double the applications I had submitted for college.
While this mom might have been an extreme case, her desire to find the right match for her child’s first education experience is one most parents share in some form. And depending on where you live, the choices can be dizzying. Here’s a list of tips for choosing a preschool that might ease anxiety and help you find a good match for your little one:
- Start early.
If you live in an area where the words “wait list” are common, the sooner you submit applications, the better you’ll feel. After that, send the occasional email or make a phone call to stay fresh in the school’s mind. From the outset, the preschool process can seem daunting, but sometimes the anticipation is worse.
- Collect your data.
Look at the websites of the schools in your area, and call to ask for the basic information: tuition, schedule (are they a year-round program or do they take summers off?), daily hours and part-time versus full-time options, and the touring and application process.
- Make a short list.
Instead of overwhelming yourself with the options, make a tight list of schools that meet some of your basic requirements. For example: Are you a working family? You can probably skip the part-time or half-day-only programs. Is there a limit to the amount you’re able to spend or the distance you’re willing to drive? Find out the bottom line on schools first so you can just zero in on the ones that meet your basic criteria.
- Tour the school.
Some schools ask you to visit before submitting an application, which is a great idea. Find the time to make all those trips and find childcare, since most will ask you to be toddler-free.
- Your mental checklist.
Before you visit, create a list for yourself of the things you’re looking for in a school to see if it matches up. Here are some things to consider:
- Does the director seem passionate about the school and the philosophy? It’s less important whether the school touts a Waldorf, Reggio, or Montessori curriculum, and more important that the director and teachers feel excited and enthusiastic about what they do. Your number one goal for preschool is for your little one to take away the feeling that learning is fun.
- Do the teachers look happy? Are they talking to the kids respectfully and getting down on their level to interact?
- How much outdoor space is there? This is especially important if your child will be in school full time. With a part-time program, you can run and play outdoors after school, but if your child is full time, the yard should be big with ample room for games of tag and superheros.
- Is it safe? Is there a secure, locked gate outside the school or could a stranger wander in off the street?
- What is the ratio of teachers to kids? And what qualifications do the teachers have? (Early childhood development and education training is a good sign.)
- Get the inside scoop.
It helps to tour and talk to the teachers, but sometimes the best information comes from talking to parents of kids at the school.
- Consider play over academics.
The latest thinking in child development tells us that imaginative and creative play is the best brain workout for your little preschooler. That means that the teachers encourage open-ended exploration and problem-solving instead of directly teaching kids the concepts. A good preschool teacher knows how to ask kids their thoughts and get them to collaborate and pitch-in their ideas instead of telling them what to think.
Check out the dramatic play area. Listen for the director or teachers to talk about kids creating their own plans for play and following through to finish work (putting a note on a half-completed block tower-fire station so the child can continue working the next day – great sign).
- Ask about emotions and conflicts.
At this age, your little one is working on identifying her feelings and using them effectively, and preschool is a big testing ground. Ask how the teachers handle conflicts between kids. The answer should involve helping them express themselves and confront their friends directly (instead of hitting or, on the other end of the spectrum, running away and crying) when there’s trouble.
The teachers should be emotional coaches for the kids, asking them to talk things through (even if this is a short, tearful talk). Simply stating the rules or chastising one child and comforting the other isn’t really helpful.
You want to see teachers getting down on the ground and saying things like, “I see you both want to work with the those blocks. What do you think we could do here?” Or “Jack, you hit Aiden and I see that he looks upset. Can you check in with him to see if he’s okay? What were you trying to tell him? Aiden, how did that make you feel?”
- Beware of the loosey-goosey preschool.
When you’re searching for a school that respects emotions and focuses on relationships and community, don’t forget that kids need order and structure, too. These two things are far from mutually exclusive; they go hand-in-hand. You want the school to have rules, schedules, and expectations that are very clear, because when kids know what’s coming and how things work, they feel safe and can get busy doing their most important job – playing.
Read more on the preschool brain and the best kind of early education.