How to Choose the Right Preschool for Your Child in 3 Simple Steps
Choosing the Right Preschool for Your Child
Choosing the right preschool is an important decision for any family. When my son first turned 18 months, my husband and I wanted to find the best place for our son – a preschool that would nurture him, teach, him, and be a good fit for our family.
The journey was NOT easy. We were overwhelmed by the options – daycare, Montessori, Academic, child-led, teacher-led, and a bunch of unfamiliar early childhood education terms and philosophies. After many visits to the local preschools, talking to friends and families about preschool choices, and reading through pages of preschool reviews online, we were lucky to find a high-quality preschool that matches our family value and provide the right social and academic education our son needs.
Preschool is the first step in your child’s education journey, and every effort should be put in to ensure the choice you made for your child is indeed the right one, and the best one. To help parents navigate their preschool search, I’ve put together a complete guide on how to choose the right preschool for your child.
In this article, you will learn everything from what is a preschool, the benefits of attending preschool, your child’s readiness for preschool, the different types of preschool out there, and the criteria for a good quality preschool.
If you have already decided on the right preschool for your child, you might want to check out our tips on how to best prepare your preschooler for a no-cry first day.
What is Preschool?
Preschool generally refers to one to three years of schooling before kindergarten. Most preschool programs are for kids between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, although many preschools now enroll children as early as 12 months. Many parents use terms such as child care centers, daycare, toddler program, and pre-K when they are referring to preschool.
Is Preschool Mandatory?
No, it is not mandatory to send your child to preschool. Most countries don’t require children to start formal schooling until the age of 6 or 7. Some parents choose to keep their children at home until kindergarten or opt for homeschooling. Whether to send your child to preschool is a purely personal choice. If you have decided to go the preschool route, here are some factors to consider when choosing the right preschool for your child and your family:
- Is it important for the preschool to be near my home?
- Is it important for the preschool to be near my workplace?
- Can I afford the cost of preschool?
- Do I want to send my child to preschool full day, half day, 5 days a week, 3 days a week, extended hours, etc.?
- Is it important for the preschool to offer childcare services in the morning, afternoon, or both?
- Am I eligible for or interested in subsidized preschool programs that offer services such as childcare programs with a focus on providing educational opportunities?
Answering these questions will help you narrow down the list of preschools you have to visit later on.
What are the Benefits of Preschool?
There are many benefits to enrolling your child in a formal preschool program. Including:
By exposing your child to the world beyond your home, preschool offers intellectual and physical stimulation that your child may not get at home (especially if she doesn’t have siblings or friends she sees everyday), and opportunities to explores a new environment. It is not uncommon to see children of age 3 to 5 years old complaining of boredom at home or spending too much time in front of screens.
Preschool offers the opportunity for kids to play and learn around others their own age and learn how to behave in a group setting. They learn how to share, wait for their turn, sit calmly during story time, and raising their hand before speaking. As children gain the ability to interact with a stable group of kids over time, they learn to be more socially adept and to communicate and work together. They also learn that their actions have an effect on others and that the world is more than just themselves. Preschool also allows your child to make friends their own age and feel a sense of identity with her classmates.
Research has shown that children become more independent sooner and develop essential life skills when enrolled in a preschool environment. Many parents are amazed to see their children take off their own coats or put away toys when they are done. By spending time away from parents, kids practice being individuals and rely more on themselves. They get the opportunity to make choices about what to play and whom to play with. They also get the chance to bond with teachers and other adults without the presence of their parents. Preschool helps kids become more self-sufficient and more confident about their own decision making.
Many preschool programs offer age-appropriate curriculum that helps children develop and prepare for kindergarten. The activities they do in preschool are suitable to their age and level of development, both physically and mentally. Professional teachers are there to help with reading, writing, playing. There are lots of books, paper, drawing materials, and equipment that you might not be able to offer at home. Studies show that children who went to preschool enter kindergarten with better pre-reading and pre-math skills. And when kids get to play with a wide variety of tools and outdoors on playground equipment, they are also learning coordination and developing their motor skills.
The most important benefit children gain from attending preschool is a love for learning and for school. Preschool gives them a chance to understand how school works and what to expect, how to make friends, and the opportunity to explore the world in a safe, fun, and age-appropriate way.
Benefits to Parents
Sending your child to preschool has benefits to parents as well, whether you are working parents or a stay-at-home mom or dad who needs some time to be her- or himself. It is also a good way to meet other families with children of similar ages. Many parents find that as their children make new friends, they make new friends as well. This opportunity for sharing and learning experience of raising children is invaluable. This is also why choosing the right preschool for your child is so important. By choosing the right preschool, you are most likely to meet other families with similar value and interests when it comes to raising a child, making the journey of parenting way more enjoyable.
So, if you have decided sending your child to preschool is the way to go, here are 3 simple steps to help you find the right preschool for your child and your family.
Step 1: Is My Child Ready for Preschool?
Every child develops at a different pace. Although many preschools will accept children at a young age, it doesn’t mean that he is suddenly ready for preschool when he reaches that age. Preschool readiness is more about where your child is developmental. Is he ready from a social, emotional, cognitive, and physical standpoint to leave their parents and take part in a classroom setting?
Here’s a checklist for you to evaluate if your child is ready for preschool:
- Your child is ok with spending time away from parents or other primary caregivers.
- Your child is independent enough to play by himself for a short period of time.
- Your child can follow simple instructions.
- Your child can focus on one task for several minutes.
- Your child can participate in group activities with other kids, i.e. circle time, story time, play dates, etc.
- Your child shows the ability to take turns. He doesn’t have to do it all the time, but he should understand the concept.
- Your child can express what he wants and needs using words and asks questions.
- Your child can handle basic needs by himself such as washing hands and feeding himself.
- Many preschools for age 3-5 years old require kids to be potty trained; although infant and toddler programs are exempted from this requirement.
If you think your child is ready, be sure to read our top tips and tricks on how to prepare for the first day of preschool!
Step 2: Choosing the Right Type of Preschool Program for Your Child
There are many different types of preschool programs out there. To be honest, I was confused and overwhelmed when I first started looking for the best preschool program for my son. Montessori, play-based, cooperative are examples of some popular preschool programs. Many parents actually have no idea when they are selecting a preschool for their children what are the differences between the different types of early education philosophies. Since every child is different, it is important for you as parents to have a general understanding of the different approaches to help you figure out which philosophy or program is the right preschool for your child.
In general, there are two major categories for preschools: “child-centered” or the “teacher-led”. Most preschools try to incorporate both categories at some point in their daily curriculum.
In a child-centered classroom, children choose what activities they want to do and when to do them. The program is fairly unstructured, and children learn at their own pace either by playing on their own or in a group setting.
Teacher-led classrooms have more structure to them. In most cases, teachers tell the children what activities to do and when they will do them. Students as expect to follow a schedule and the teacher’s directions. All children do the same thing at the same time.
Tip: When reviewing the different types of preschools, picture your child in each setting. It is likely that your child will do well in more than one kind of program.
Remember, all of the following approaches have valid points, it’s up to you to decide which one is right for your child’s personality traits and needs of your family.
1. Play-Based Preschool
The play-based philosophy is the most common preschool philosophy in North America. It falls under the “child-centered” category. The program is built based on the belief that children learn best through play; so children are allowed to choose their own activities based on their interest at the time. This would increase their motivation to learn and try new things, build creativity, confidence, and a love for school. As the child masters each activity at their own pace, teachers support and encourage her to try slightly more challenging activities.
In a play-based classroom, teachers set up stimulating materials and activities that children are allowed to play and explore. Different play stations are set up around the room, i.e. a reading corner, a dramatic play area, a puzzle table, a sand table, etc. Activities are often open-ended like blocks, sand table, and art stations to help promote creativity and cooperation. By exposing children to stimulating materials and age-appropriate play activities, they develop pre-reading, pre-math, hand-eye coordination, and other skills naturally without the child even being aware of them.
In play-based programs, strong emphasis is often placed on developing social skills and emotional intelligence, along with negotiating skills, problem-solving skills, and decision-making ability. Children get practices by asking and answer questions, following orders and leading, and accommodating others by sharing, taking turns, and understanding empathy. In this kind of play-based settings, the whole class will only come together for circle time, snack time, nap time, etc. but otherwise kids aren’t expected to sit still for long periods of time.
Is a Play-Based the Right Preschool for Your Child?
Most children like the play-based approach, although some kids may do better with more structure learning. If you are looking for more social and developmental growth rather than academic training at this point in your child’s life, a play-based preschool may be the right choice for you. Children with lots of energy, enjoy socializing with other kids, and aren’t bothered by lots of noises and stimulation going on at the same time will probably do well in a play-based preschool.
2. Montessori Preschool
In the early twentieth century, Dr. Maria Montessori in Italy developed her child-centered teaching philosophy for preschool-age children. It is based on the concept that play is the child’s work. In contrast with play-based preschools, Montessori schools focus on academics. The goal is to let learning happen naturally through real-life experiences and at the child’s own pace. Another important goal is to foster independence and self-esteem. Schools do this by allowing children to make their own decisions and by teaching them practical life skills such as putting the shoes on the right feet or pouring themselves a glass of milk. Montessori classrooms are always warm and inviting, calm and orderly. Classrooms are structured around 5 particular areas: practical life, sensorial, language, mathematics, and culture (i.e. geography, science, music). Within each of the areas, there are specialized toys called manipulatives. Many manipulatives allow for self-correction, which means that they allow children to find mistakes by themselves and keep trying until they are successful. This approach allows children to solve problems on their own and build confidences to tackle more challenging tasks. In the sensorial area, they might learn about colors by ordering wooden color tablets from lightest to darkest. In the math area, a child may learn numbers by tracing sand-textured number cards and saying the number as they trace. In the practical life area, children may learn how to use buttons and zippers using manipulatives; they may also learn how to bake cookies, sweep the floor, or wash dishes. As part of the culture area, children are encouraged to sing, dance, and do art activities. Everything is called “work” in a Montessori setting, however, it feels like play to children. In a Montessori setting, teachers serve as guides. The main role of the teachers is to demonstrate how to use the manipulatives. He/s then step back to let the children explore on their own. Students usually work on floor mats called “working mats” independently or in small group settings. The teacher would quietly move around the classroom helping and observing kids. As each child gets to learn at her own pace, once the child asters a work, the teacher will introduce a more challenging one. In this setting, children also learn responsibility and respect for one another and their environment. Children always put their work away in a proper way and place when they are finished, and clean up after themselves after snack time. All materials are to be properly used. For example, a broom can only be used for sweeping, not as a pretend spaceship. The unique thing about Montessori classrooms is that in each class, there is a mix of students from 2.4 years of age to 6. The belief is that older children learn to help the younger ones, and the younger kids benefit by having older peers as role models and tutors.
Is Montessori the Right Preschool for Your Child?
If having a calm, child-centered learning environment with a strong emphasis on academic is important to you, Montessori is a great choice. Children may do well at a Montessori preschool if they:
- Are independent and like playing on their own
- Can follow instructions and directions well
- Have a long attention span
You can learn more about Montessori preschools at:
3. Reggio Emilia Philosophy
This is yet another child-centered approach that began in Italy around the 1940s. The belief of this philosophy is that children are capable, curious learn who must be free to learn for themselves and express their thoughts and ideas. Reggio-inspired preschools follow a project-based curriculum guided by the interests of the students. For example, if a group of children starts observing and asking about dogs, the teacher may be doing a dog project. The class may read books and sing songs about dogs, do arts and crafts about dogs, and take a field trip to a local pet store. Projects can last anywhere from a few days to a full year, and the teacher can choose to involve a group of kids or the entire class based on the kids’ spectrum of interest. In a Reggio Emilia setting, children are encouraged to explore, ask questions, and look for answers. This fosters their intellectual curiosity and helps build independence, problem-solving skills, and confidence. In contrast to the Montessori setting where the teacher acts as a guide, teachers in Reggio Emilia setting actively participate in the projects and learn alongside the children. When questions are asked, teachers guide them toward the information rather than answering for them. Teachers also observe and document everything that goes on in the classroom with photos, videos, and written notes. This thorough documentation lets kids and their parents revisit things when needed. It shows them their own progress and their work is important, as well as self-reflection. Under the Reggio philosophy, the environment is considered as the “third teacher”. A typical classroom is filled with sunlight, plants, and natural materials. In addition to documentation and artwork displayed areas, there are areas for small and large groups to work on projects together, as well as common areas for children from different classrooms to interact with each other. Parental involvement is extremely important in this kind of setting. Many Riggio preschools provide volunteer opportunities and hold educational workshops for parents where they can discuss anything from curriculum planning to school policy.
Is a Reggio Emilia the Right Preschool for Your Child?
If you are looking for a preschool that follows your child’s natural inclination to learn, a Reggio-inspired school could be the right choice. Reggio Emilia may be right for children who:
- Are creative and enjoy art, dramatic play, or music
- Do well in a group setting
- Love hand-on activities that involve a lot of exploration
You can learn more about Reggio-inspired preschools at:
4. Waldorf Approach
The Waldorf approach was found in 1919 by an Austrian scientist named Rudolf Steiner. The Waldorf philosophy is also child-centered, but with a strong group orientation and a predictable structure and routine. Each day of the week is contributed to a specific theme, i.e. Mondays are baking day, Tuesdays are music day, Wednesdays are story day, etc. This type of rhythm and predictability give children a sense of familiarity and well-being. Waldorf also focuses on arts and creativity and emphasizes cooperation and working together. Based on the idea of educating the whole child – mind, body, and spirit, Waldorf schools often provide a warm, nurturing environment that feels more like a home than a school.
In Waldorf classrooms, children use natural materials to stimulate all 5 senses, i.e. shells, rope, crayons, cloth, wooden toys. Instead of writing tools or books, there is a lot of storytelling and singing. Parents are encouraged to not let their children use electronics and television at home.
Is a Waldorf the Right Preschool for Your Child?
If nurturing, home-like environment with a strong emphasis on creativity is important to you, a Waldorf school might be a perfect choice. Keep in mind that Waldorf has a weaker focus on academic learnings when compared to other preschool models. A Waldorf preschool may be right for children who:
- Like playing and exploring in groups
- Learn well through repetition and imitation
- Are imaginative free spirits
You can learn more about Waldorf preschools at the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America
The academic model is also known as traditional. This approach is more structured, teacher-directed, with a strong focus on formal reading and math readiness skills. The belief is that children benefit by preparing for the rigors of kindergarten and beyond at an early age. Children in an academic preschool have a structured daily schedule of planned activities so each day is consistent and predictable. Play takes place only during recess or during a free-play period. Classroom time is devoted to developing academic skills such as naming colors, measuring time, problem-solving, reading, writing, and math. Curriculums are often placed around a theme, i.e. farms.
The classroom settings resemble those in play-based preschools with art, blocks, reading, and other areas. But instead of having the kids choosing what they want to play with, the teacher explains and leads the activities. The idea is to introduce kids to the way an elementary school classroom works and to ease the transition into formal learning.
Is an Academic the Right Preschool for Your Child?
If academic focus in a structured environment is important to you, an Academic preschool might be the right choice. Children may do well in an academic preschool if they:
- Can follow instructions, sit still, and pay attention for at least 20-30 minutes
- Do well with structure and direction
Step 3: Visiting Potential Preschools
Now that you have narrowed down your choices and know which program or philosophy you are interested in, schedule a time to visit each preschool. You can learn a lot about a preschool by the way staff approach introductory visits with you and your child. During your visit ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I feel welcome here?
- Does my child seem interested in what they have to offer?
- Do the children in the setting seem happy?
- How do the adults and children interact?
- Is the preschool clean and safe? If eco-friendliness is important to you, ask if they use non-toxic cleaning agents.
- Does the preschool cater food or have an in-house kitchen?
- What is the workload or homework expectation?
- Is the preschool accredited?
- What is the ratio of staff to children?
- What are the credentials of staff members?
- What I the turnover rate for staff members?
- How does the preschool handle discipline?
- What are the safety procedures for picking up and dropping off children?
- Ask for a copy of the curriculum, menu, and school policies
For a complete checklist of what to look for and ask about during your visit, you can use the Parent-Teacher Association/Pre-K Now template: “Finding High-Quality Pre-K”
The Right Preschool is the Best Preschool
Preschool is the first step in your child’s academic and social journey. It can serve as the basis for all future learning and development. We hope you find this guide helpful. Remember, there’s no right or wrong answer to which preschool you choose. The bottom line is, the right preschool is the best preschool for your child and your family.
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