Oh, preschool! As parents, we frequently twist ourselves into knots of angst over finding "just the right" preschool – the one our children will adore with kind teachers, sweet classmates, and interesting learning experiences. Oh, and by the way, it should be located right around the corner and cost very little.
But, there is no perfect preschool. Instead, the ideal school is one that is a pretty close fit while considering your child, your family, and your philosophies.
Back to Basics
Basic preschool considerations include schedule, location, and cost according to Jenifer Wana, author of the new book, How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child: The Ultimate Guide to Finding, Getting into, and Preparing for Nursery School (Sourcebooks, $14.99).
"You may go visit a school and find that the facilities are nice and there's a big playground, but it's not going to work for your family to drive 45 minutes," Wana says. Add traffic and a 20-minute drive each way can easily turn into an hour in the car en route. At the same time, your down-the-block preschool may not work for you if the class size is too big for your child's shy personality or the classroom class composition and school layout. Maybe you do not want the 28-child classroom for your shy child, but perhaps the 15-kid class could be just right!
Dig around a bit to find out how involved and active the parent community is in the daily functioning of the preschool. Are parents welcome in the classroom? How do they raise money for the preschool? Are there preschool picnics or other community festivals that you would attend?
Community, in the classroom and outside, boosts your child's "EQ" or emotional quotient. "The goal and benefit of preschool is socialization," Wana says. New academic pressures in elementary school can lead to less time for social skill-building. "If your child doesn't have social and emotional skills, he may have a challenge with cooperation, sharing, taking turns and doing things independently," she adds.
A preschool that models positive social skills should reflect that at all levels. Hunt around for first-person experiences via friends, Facebook or neighborhood e-mail lists. Preschool parents can give you the inside scoop on favorite teachers and positive aspects (and challenges) of the school experience. Ask what they would change, if anything, and what they most missed when their child left for kindergarten.
Despite everything a parent should consider: location, hours, class size, educational philosophy, parent involvement...it comes down to this: a good preschool experience often comes down to one thing: The teacher.
When visiting a school, all eyes on teacher, Wana says. "Are teachers interacting with the kids? Are they engaged, crouched down to the child's level, talking with them about what they're doing?" "Observe during free-play time," she suggests, "rather than during more structured circle or snack time. Even the playground reveals preschool clues: The free-form, social nature is often a test of a teacher's equilibrium and involvement with the children."
Observation also helps you figure out whether the in-classroom style matches the school's stated philosophy. "It almost does not matter what the proposed methods or teaching style or title of the school's approach is, if the teachers and directors are not on the same page," says Sharlet Driggs, who tried three different preschool approaches (Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia) with her son. She ended up enrolling her son in the Reggio Emilia preschool. From the director's level to new teachers, the school was consistent in approach and communication. The school made an effort to understand each child, observe the child's interests and growth, facilitate community, and create events to build the parent community. "They practiced what they preached," Driggs says.
Keep in mind that there's no "perfect" preschool and if your child is missing out on what you feel is an important preschool experience, you can boost that skill at home. "School isn't the only place for your child's learning," Wana says. If you wish your child's school had Spanish, enjoy a Spanish story time with your child. No art or music at school? Add parent-child art classes into your week or attend free concerts.
Once you've narrowed down your preschool search; feel confident. No matter which preschool you pick your child will thrive. "There are so many great options and so many types of programs that, chances are, the preschool you select will likely be a very comfortable match," says Wana.
Lora Shinn was once all "angsty," too. While Lora works as a freelance writer, her son happily attends a basement-level, play-based preschool run by two fun-loving moms.