Choosing a preschool is a difficult decision for many parents. The factors to consider can be overwhelming and finding the right fit for your child can be a challenge. However, with all of the choices available it IS possible to find a preschool that gives you and your child a fulfilling experience to build on for future growth.
There are several factors to take into account when looking for a preschool. A preschool’s educational philosophy, class size, qualifications of the teachers, schedule and location are all items to consider. But for some, the process may start with the question, “Why preschool?”
The Benefits of a Preschool Experience
Parents may wonder if preschool is even necessary. After all, they may not have attended preschool when they were young. Kim Siffring, director of Denver Cooperative Preschool (2002-2008), provides the following reasons for adopting a preschool experience:
- Children are sensory learners. They need a place to make a mess and learn through the process.
- Children need socialization. Being around other kids helps them learn to make friends, how to play together, share and problem solve.
- Parents need a break. Beyond giving parents some time to recharge their batteries, separation from parents aids children’s independence and lets them learn that there are other adults to lean on, learn from and listen to.
- Society’s expectations may be different. Seeing that there are different routines and different ways of doing things widens a child’s perspective and helps them learn to adapt to different situations. There is a growing body of research demonstrating that social and sensory-motor experiences during the first three years of a child’s life directly affect neurological development of the brain, with important and lasting implications for a child’s capacity to learn (Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives 1996). Ms. Siffring added, “A good preschool experience can also build a foundation for future learning by creating a positive association.”
Teaching philosophy will likely be a large component of choosing a school for your child. There are several different types of teaching philosophies for preschool and within any given philosophy there can be many differences from one classroom to another due to the style and interpretation of the individual teacher. Parents should visit several schools, sit in on a class and see what philosophy is most appealing given your child’s personality. General explanations of some of the common philosophies in the area are:
- Montessori. The Montessori classroom has an emphasis on reality. The tasks and activities the children do are reality oriented. Each manipulative material has a systematic procedure for being used and is focused toward a specific learning concept. A child’s choice is a key element in the Montessori method and children are free to choose their own activities in the classroom with minimal structured time.
- Play-based. The Play-based philosophy is centered on the belief that children naturally engage in and enjoy play as a means of learning on their terms and at their own pace. A basic routine for the class gives some structure and allows children to anticipate what is next. The teachers’ expertise is used to set up the classroom and interact with children as they play to introduce concepts and expand their play. The way children interact with the classroom environment is child-directed, as is the amount of time they spend on any given activity.
- Waldorf. The Waldorf classroom works to enhance a child’s world of fantasy and imagination to stimulate play. Storytelling and fantasy are prevalent in the curriculum. There is also an emphasis on using natural materials and hand-made toys–with the belief that the less finished and the more suggestive a toy is, the greater its educational value. No early thrust into intellectualism is found in Waldorf, just the nourishment of the child’s healthy imagination and creative thinking powers.
No matter what the school’s philosophy, dedicating time for open-ended play is essential. Many researchers have found that children’s play is a highly supportive context for development and learning (Piaget 1952; Fein 1981; Bergen 1988; Smilansky & Shefatya 1990; Fromberg 1992; Berk & Winsler 1995). Children are active constructors of knowledge and play gives them opportunities to understand the world, interact with others in social ways, express and control emotions and develop their symbolic capabilities.
Research also demonstrates that children’s language and literacy skills can be enhanced by teachers providing a thematic organization for play; offering appropriate props, space and time; and becoming involved in the play by extending and elaborating on children’s ideas (Levy, Schaefer & Phelps 1986; Schrader 1989, 1990; Morrow 1990; Pramling 1991; Levy, Wolfgang & Koorland 1992).
Teachers and Class Size
Parents should review the qualifications of the teachers. Do the teachers have a certificate in early childhood education? What training was required prior to employment at the school? Is ongoing training provided? Are teachers required to participate? Ask the school about teacher turnover; a low turnover rate in teachers is usually a good sign.
Kim Siffring also suggests, “Check the teacher-child ratios, and note how many children are in a classroom. Smaller classes allow for more individualized attention. But larger class sizes may be okay if there is more than one teacher attending to the class.” Generally, a 1:4 teacher-child ratio is ideal for 2- to 3-year-olds, 1:7 is ideal for 3- to 4-year-olds and 1:10 is ideal for 5-year-olds.
The Practical Aspects
Beyond the impression a school makes, other hard factors come into play. Proximity to the house or a parent’s work may be important, as well as the class schedule. Parents should review what days and times classes are offered to be sure they fit in the family’s schedule.
Cost may be a factor. Some schools provide some type of financial aid program for families in need and in some cases more parental involvement can be traded for expense.
The overall involvement of parents required by a school is also something to consider. A cooperative preschool has a lot of family involvement and is a great way to develop friendships for both the parents and children. You may find a place that builds community between attending families appealing, or you may want to be more hands-off.
Visit in Person
After whittling down a list of possible schools by asking questions over the phone and speaking with other parents, take the time to visit the schools in person. Observe a class, talk to the school’s director and teachers and talk to parents whose children attend the school. A good time to do this is in the fall or early winter the year prior to your child attending. Most preschools hold open houses for new parents around that time and it is an excellent opportunity to learn first hand about the school and its teaching philosophy.
The Right Fit
“A lot can be said for a school that makes the parents feel comfortable, both being there themselves and leaving their child there,” stresses Ms. Siffring. “Taking the time to visit different schools will give you a sense of the atmosphere and how children are treated and interacted with.”
Ultimately, choosing a preschool is a personal decision. If, after visiting a preschool, you love the idea of having your child there, it is probably the right place for you.
Kim Siffring was the director at Denver Cooperative Preschool from 2002-2008 and has over 25 years of experience in early childhood education. This article was originally published in the Fall of 2005.