Choosing a Preschool – Questions to Ask

After you’ve thought about your goals for a preschool and made a list of local options, you can learn more about those options by looking at their websites, going to open houses and visiting. Here are some things you’ll want to think about as you do that:

What do they teach?

  • They should work on all the “essential skills” areas listed here. If they don’t, you may need to think about how you’ll work on that skill at home or elsewhere.
  • You should see materials and planned activities that help children build: large motor skills (playground, balls, dance), small motor skills (puzzles, craft supplies), critical thinking skills (sorting games, pattern making), life skills (putting on their shoes, hanging a coat in a cubby), social skills (unstructured playtime with others), music, art, literacy (books, story time), math skills, and pretend play (dress-up corner, dolls, kitchen). This reveals a well-rounded attention to the development of the whole child.
  • Some schools also have a specialty focus: nature-based, language immersion, arts, academic, religion. These can be excellent, but may not cover all the essential skill areas. Again, you might think about how to supplement them. For example, if your child attended a very structured academic program each morning, you’d plan time for unstructured self-guided play, and free play with other kids in the afternoon. You might also choose two preschools… my oldest child went to a theatre preschool two days a week which was very focused on storytelling, acting, and singing, and was structured so that they could produce a mini-play at the end of each month. Another two days of the week, she went to a broadly-focused play based cooperative preschool.
  • What is the daily schedule – how is time divided between the subjects taught? Play time? Quiet time? Outdoors? Snack? Children this age have short attention spans for structured activity, so it’s best in short doses, and they need plenty of unstructured time in between to explore and discover. (Note: If children are at a preschool/child care all day, they should have a naptime/quiet time on the schedule. Quiet time for rest helps us to absorb what we learned during class time.)

How do they teach it?

When you start looking at preschools, you discover a whole world of jargon you never knew: play-based, emergent, teacher led, benchmarks, coop, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and so on. It can be overwhelming. And to make it more confusing, different people use words differently.. two schools that both call themselves “child-led” or “play-based” may look very different in practice.

A couple big picture ideas:

Structured vs. Play-Based: A structured preschool might use group time, worksheets, and individual projects to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. (Think of your elementary school education – these are similar methods moved down to a younger group).”Circle time” or group story time that is facilitated by a teacher is another part of structured preschool.

A play-based preschool typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose, spending as long as they want at an activity. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations to further the learning. (Here is a research summary about play-based learning: www.easternct.edu/cece/documents/TheCaseforPlayinPreschool.pdf) Most play-based preschools include circle time to provide some balance between structure and free play.

Teacher-Led vs. Child-Led: A teacher-led curriculum (may also be called didactic or standards-based) means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (it might be their own creation or they may use a curriculum written by someone else) and sticks to it.

A child-led curriculum (may also be called emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests. So, for example, the teacher may know the math concept of the week is more than/less than. But instead of teaching that in a formal scheduled way, she talks about it in circle, then she follows the children around – asking the children playing with trains whether there are more blue trains or red trains, then asking the children playing with blocks which tower has more blocks in it, and so on. A good child-led preschool is not just a free-play, no guidance, free-for-all. Instead, although the children may view it as just playtime, the teacher is making very conscious efforts to expand their knowledge and skills as they play. This article, though written for teachers, does a nice job of describing the process a teacher may go through in developing a play-based “lesson” for this type of classroom.  www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=453

Brand Name Teaching Methods

Here is my summary of the methods. You can find many more descriptions online, including helpful comparisons at www.pbs.org/parents/education/ going-to-school/choosing/comparing-preschool-philosophies-montessori-waldorf-and-more/ and www.privateschoolreview.com/articles/180. But remember that the actual practice of a school may differ from the theory of “the brand”.

  • Classic Montessori: The teacher sets up learning centers around the room, with “self-correcting” materials (e.g. a puzzle where the child can tell if they’ve done it right or wrong and thus can work to fix it themselves if it’s wrong.) Children work independently at their own pace, and are in a multi-age classroom.
    Important note: The word Montessori is not tightly controlled, and anyone can use it, no matter what teaching methods they use. Some schools use it because it’s a known brand name that “sells” well, but the classroom experience may only have a very loose connection to Montessori practices.
  • Rudolf Steiner/ Waldorf – Nurturing, predictable structure and routines. Natural materials, with time outdoors, baking bread, working with wool, wood, and wax materials, no plastic. Lots of imagination and oral story-telling, but no electronic media (families are discouraged from having any screen time at home). Reading is not taught until age 7. Learn more www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoW0pCIG-FM and www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZmAX5adCl0
    Note: Waldorf requires all teachers and schools to be certified, so there’s much more consistency between schools with the Waldorf name.
  • Reggio Emilia. Child-led investigations. Project-based: when the children come up with an idea for a project, the class focuses for a few weeks on it, finding out together what they need to know to make it happen (including pre-reading and math.) They document projects with photos and journals. www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVv5ZL9nlgs
  • Nature-based or “forest kindergartens“. Common in northern Europe, they are newer to the States. There are at least 5 available on the Eastside of Seattle (My son attends Tiny Treks). Children spend most, or all of their time outdoors (yes, even in the winter). Child-led, play-based, emergent curriculum where teachers respond to children’s interests, rolling in math and science where it fits logically, often doing story-time, snack, and circle outdoors. To learn more, search for “forest kindergarten” on YouTube or check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBoXaQKoWL0
  • Academic preschools. There are preschools that have an academic focus that are taught in developmentally appropriate ways. But there are also schools which drill rote facts into children. These children will in fact learn to read words younger than they might otherwise have done, but this doesn’t appear to give them a long-term advantage. An occasional worksheet is a good experience for kids as preparation for future school experiences, but a worksheet-based curriculum is not appropriate for a 3 year old. (Read more:  www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=134)
  • Cooperative preschools. Most cooperative preschools are balanced programs with time split between play-based learning at learning centers (e.g. dress-up area, block area, art, sensory), circle time (includes story time, literacy skills, and concepts like days, seasons, colors, etc.) and outdoor or big motor play. There is a professional teacher who plans the curriculum and leads structured activities. What distinguishes coops is parent involvement. For a 3 year old, a typical program might be attending preschool two mornings a week. On one of those mornings, the parent drops off. On the other morning, the parent stays and works in the classroom with the children. A 4 year old might go 3 days a week, with the parent volunteering one of those days. This means there is a very high adult to student ratio. Coop isn’t the best answer for a parent who needs child care so they can work or do other activities. However, for parents who have the time available, many report that they enjoy the time spent in the classroom, and like knowing more about what their child does at preschool and who the other children are in the class. Parents also have the opportunity to build friendships with other parents. Note: Cooperative preschools tend to be much lower cost than other options.
  • Head Start. For families whose income is less than 130% of the federal poverty level (i.e. less than $25,000 in 2013). Provides preschool for child, but also: medical, dental and mental health screenings, meals for the children, and support for the parents. Fact sheet: http://wsa.iescentral.com/fileLibrary/file_71.pdf. To register for Head Start: http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/family/for-families/Inside%20Head%20Start/Frequently%20Asked%20Questions%20%28FAQs%29/HowdoIapplyfo.htm

When considering which method you prefer, it’s worth keeping in mind what we know about brain development (see this post): Children learn best through hands-on experiences with tangible materials, through interaction with engaged human beings, and in environments where they feel safe and happy.

Who are the students?

  • How many students are in the class? The number of kids per group matters as much as the student to teacher ratio does. For example, a 12 student school with 2 teachers (6:1 ratio) will feel very different from a 24 student school with 4 teachers (6:1).
  • What is the age range of the class? Some parents prefer that all the kids be as close as possible in age to each other, but many schools tout the benefits of multi-age classrooms. The oldest kids have a change to lead and mentor and may build empathy for the younger ones, and the younger ones benefit by the presence of an older role model.
  • What are the cut-off dates for age? It’s usually August 31 or September 1. If you have a child born in August, they might be the very youngest child in a program for 4 year olds. A September baby would be the very oldest. But if you’re able to find a program for 3.5 – 5 year olds, that would put them more in the middle…
  • Diversity? Are all the kids like your kid? Are all the families like your family? Or different? Which do you prefer?
  • Neighborhood: Do the kids in the program live near you? (This allows for easy play-dates outside of class, and maybe carpooling options. If you commute to a school, it can be harder to arrange play-dates.)
  • Families: If you’re doing drop-off, it may not matter as much to you because you may not interact much with them (except maybe at birthday parties), but if you’re looking at a coop you may ask more and observe more about what kinds of parents participate to see if they feel like a good match for you.

Who are the teachers?

  • Student/teacher ratio. For three year olds, NAEYC recommends a maximum group size of 18, with a student/teacher ratio between 6:1 and 9:1. In general, the smaller the better for individual attention.
  • Training. Do the teachers have degrees in early childhood education? Do they attend continuing education opportunities? Do they read books about child development in their off hours?
  • Teachers should have CPR and first aid training. There should be emergency plans for the facility.
  • Longevity / turnover. Learn how long the teachers have been there. If there are lots of new teachers in and out all the time, not only does that mean your child won’t gain the benefit of experience or consistent caregivers, it also may mean that the teachers don’t enjoy their work there! Generally, the longer the better. (Although on rare occasions, longevity can mean burned out teachers and uninvolved supervisors… That’s why we also watch the teachers to see if they enjoy their work!)
  • Do they enjoy kids? Do they sit on the floor with the kids, smile, and engage with them? Or are they standing on the edges talking to other adults, occasionally calling instructions to a child?

How do they handle discipline? What are their rules and how do they reinforce them? How do they deal with inevitable conflict between kids? How do they respond to hitting and biting? Is their discipline style similar to yours? It’s best if children have consistent experiences between home and school.

What is the learning environment like?

There are many things you can learn about a preschool on the web and over the phone and by asking friends, but really the in-person visit is the best opportunity to really learn what the school feels like.

  • Clean and Safe: Is the environment clean? Safe? Well-lit and ventilated? Are there procedures for cleaning? Policies for sick children? Fire extinguishers? First aid kits? Appropriate child proofing?
  • Materials: Is there a wide range of toys and supplies? Look for things which build large motor skills, small motor skills, imagination, literacy, number skills, social play. It’s OK if everything isn’t shiny and new. But, you do want to see materials in good condition. You want to see “enough” toys, but not so many that it’s cluttered and chaotic.
  • Outdoors space: Do they have a place to play outdoors? How often do they use it? Do they go out when it’s raining? If not, do they have some place for kids to run and move?
  • Look at the art on the walls: If it’s all the same, that tells you a teacher is focused on product more than process and very actively guides the process. If there’s a wide range of art, it shows kids are given creative range. Probably for a three year old class you want more free choice exploration, for a four year old class, you might look for more signs of structured learning.
  • Look at the ratio of desk space to open space. If the room is filled with desks, it’s clear that’s where children are expected to spend their time. If there are areas for children to move around, explore, learn socially and learn independently that shows the school values a wider range of learning experiences.
  • Look for worksheets. I once visited a school that talked a lot about how all children proceeded at their own pace, but then I saw a stack of workbooks and skimmed through. Every child was on the same page.
  • Look at the books on the shelves: non-fiction? Fiction? Personally, I want to see a mixture. Children benefit from learning factual information from non-fiction books, but their imagination and creativity benefit from good story-telling.
  • Vibe:  The most important thing you’re “looking” for is something you can’t see. How does it feel? Is it warm, nurturing, full of exciting learning experiences, and full of happy children and teachers? Or is it cold, institutional, uninvolved? We know from the science of brain development that children learn best when they are happy, so look for a place where they will be happy and engaged.

Making the Choice

After you visit a school, give yourself some time to reflect on what you’ve seen. Sometimes what feels like love at first sight sours on further reflection. And sometimes a school that didn’t seem right at first glance may grow on you. Don’t let yourself be pressured by schools that attempt to create a sense of urgency by using words like “waitlist” and “we can’t promise there will still be space” and “only one space left.” Yes, there’s a chance that a preschool will totally fill up while you’re deciding, but if it does, there are plenty of other good options out there. Assuming you live in an area with multiple good preschools (like Seattle’s Eastside!), you can trust that you’ll find something that works for you.

Often the right answer for your child may be a combination of options. Maybe you choose a two-day-a-week academic preschool and a two-day-a-week play-based. Or maybe you choose a structured five-morning program for your child, but ensure that your afternoons include quiet time at home and unstructured play with friends. Or maybe you “homeschool” on the academic skills, and seek out one-day-a-week dance classes, language classes, and so on. Choose the routine that works for you and the experience you want your child to have. Children benefit emotionally from a predictable routine. And their brains benefit from a wide array of experiences. You’ll have to work to find the balance that is right for your family, and right for your child’s temperament.

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10 thoughts on “Choosing a Preschool – Questions to Ask

  1. You pointed out that there is structured and play-based teaching methods at preschools. My daughter is about to preschool age, so I’ve been starting to look for somewhere for her to go. I think she would do better with something play-based, and her natural curiosity would more satisfied that way, so maybe I could find a preschool that uses that approach.

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