Choosing the Right Preschool for Your Child
By Jenifer Wana
As your child’s first school experience, preschool is an important foundation for future educational experiences. In preschool, kids learn important social skills like how to share and take turns, cooperate with others, and be independent, while being exposed to pre-math and pre-reading skills such as numbers, letters, and shapes.
To find the right preschool, plan ahead and make the time to do some research. The following suggestions will help you guide your preschool search and help you find a program that matches your child’s and your family’s needs.
When should I start?
If you can, give yourself a year to find the right preschool. Most children begin preschool at 3 or 4, though some preschools enroll kids as early as age 2 or 2 ½. Applications may be due as early as the December or January prior to the September your child will start. Check for tours or open houses. Ask about minimum age and cutoff dates, as well as potty training policies.
Figure out your priorities
Narrow down your search by understanding what you’re looking for in a program and focusing on your priorities. Preschools vary in many aspects, including their tuition, program lengths, philosophies, and student-teacher ratios. For instance, how close should the school be to your home? Do you need after-school care? How much are social skills emphasized compared to academics?
Preschool can be pricey, especially in larger cities. Focus on preschools in the range you can afford. Include all the costs, not just tuition, but registration fees, after-school care, meals, and so on.
Some offer half-days or a few days as week, others are full-time, five days a week. If you work full-time, you may need a full-time program that goes year-round or offers a summer camp. If you’re looking for part-time, decide if you prefer mornings or afternoons—and keep in mind that if you don’t get your ideal schedule, it may be possible to switch the following year.
Distance and Transportation
If you’ll be driving, think about the length of the commute (especially during morning rush hour) and how easy it will be to find parking. Enrolling your child in a preschool close to your home can also make it easier for you to set up play-dates and get to know other families in the neighborhood, plus many of your child’s classmates may end up going to the same elementary school.
What is the preschool’s philosophy? In the U.S., most preschools are play-based, where kids learn naturally through playing and get to choose their activities. Montessori schools foster independence and use special toys called manipulatives to teach specific concepts. Waldorf schools are known for their home-like environment and emphasis on creativity, while Reggio Emilia encourages exploration and discovery. Other preschools have an academic focus, teaching letters and numbers to kids as young as three or four. Some preschools focus on religious traditions or language immersion, and co-op preschools are run by the parents themselves.
One of the most important aspects of choosing a preschool is the teacher. If possible, spend some time in the classroom. How does the teacher communicate with the kids? Is there an open line of communication with the parents, like chats during drop off and pick up, email or weekly newsletters? Ask the director how much turnover there is among teachers. If the teachers are happy, the parents and students most likely will be, too.
Each state determines the maximum number of children per teacher for different age groups. The National Association for the Education of Young Children guidelines call for 1:9 or lower for 2 ½ or 3 year olds (maximum class size = 18), and 1:10 or lower for 4 year olds (maximum class size = 20).
A great way to find preschools in your area is to ask your friends, coworkers, and other parents you meet at the library or the playground. Ask where their children attend, what they like and don’t like about the program. Websites such as www.savvysource.com and www.greatschools.org also offer online directories of preschools, allow you to search preschools in your area, and read parent reviews.
It’s very important to visit every school you’re considering. Call to schedule a tour or a time to visit, ideally when class is in session. If it’s OK with the school, bring your child along to meet the teachers and see the classroom. Talk to the director, teachers, and other staff members. Ask about safety and security policies. Is the classroom well-lit, clean and cheerful? Can you picture your child enjoying this environment? Are the teachers kind and respectful? Do they seem to enjoy teaching?
Make your decision
Once you’ve done your research and made your visits, you can narrow down your choices. Consider how closely the preschool meets your criteria, and how hard it might be to get a spot. If your favorite preschool is in high demand, apply to several others so you’ll have options.
Preschool is a great way for your child to build the social and cognitive skills needed in kindergarten. To be sure your child has the best experience possible, take the time to do your research and choose the preschool that’s truly right for your child. If your child is comfortable and happy in preschool, that will lay the foundation for a lifetime of learning.
Jenifer Wana wrote How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child: The Ultimate Guide to Finding, Getting Into, and Preparing for Nursery School after going through the process of researching and applying to preschools for her son and doing a pro bono consulting project for GreatSchools, a nonprofit education organization that helps parents find and evaluate preschools and K–12 schools.
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