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, he 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, co-op, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and so on. It can be overwhelming.

Let’s look at two opposite ends of the spectrum of preschools:

  • Structured / Teacher Led: A teacher-led curriculum (may also be called didactic or standards-based) means the teacher 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. Children are expected to all be doing the same activity at the same time.
  • A play-based / child-led preschool (may also be called emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests. They typically have 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. Learn more about play-based preschool and activity stations at a play-based preschool.

Most preschools fall somewhere in the middle. You can get a sense of it by looking at their schedules. If you see lots of transitions, and a schedule that says something like “Morning meeting 9 – 9:20, math 9:20 – 9:40, blocks 9:40 – 10, music 10 – 10:20… “, that’s a very teacher-led plan. If the schedule says “Morning gathering 9 – 9:10, free choice time 9:10 – 10:30…”, that’s a play-based format. You can also get a sense of it by looking at classroom materials – If there is a shelf of matching workbooks, that’s a more standardized curriculum. If there are 10 different books about dinosaurs and trains and kittens, that’s a child-led school. Or you can look at artwork that’s displayed: if you see 18 different pictures of a snowman made of three circles, a top hat, button eyes and a carrot nose, that’s a teacher led project. If you see a crayon drawing of a rainbow next to paper covered with star stickers next to a collage with sequins, tissue paper and pompoms, that’s a play based art process display.

If you want more information on types of preschools like: Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio, forest kindergarten, and more, check out my post on Types of Preschools.

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.

15 thoughts on “Choosing a Preschool – Questions to Ask

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  10. Lillian Schaeffer

    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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  13. Daphne Gilpin

    I like your tip to evaluate the preschool’s materials to see if there is a wide range. My husband and I need to find a good preschool for our daughter soon. Your tips will be really helpful as we start searching.

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