Let’s talk about cooperative preschools (usually called co-ops).
How does a coop work?
It varies a little between schools, but typically, if you have a three year old, they would attend two days a week (for a 2 – 3 hour session). You would work in the classroom twice a month, and drop off on the other days. If you have a four year old, they would attend three days a week, and you would work in the classroom 2 – 3 times a month. Classroom assistants supervise kids at play, help with craft activities, read to kids, or assist with snack time. You would also occasionally be asked to provide snack for the kids.
Coops are run by a volunteer board, and you would attend a monthly coop meeting. You would also be asked to take on an additional job, such as board member, registrar, field trip coordinator, play-dough maker, and so on. Parents also help with occasional clean-ups and with fund-raising. These other responsibilities might take up 2 – 8 hours of time per month in addition to working in the classroom.
What is a child’s experience at like at a coop?
Coops are typically play-based preschools. The majority of time is spent in free choice time – there are a number of typical “stations” in the room, such as: a dress-up corner, pretend kitchen, block play area, sensory table, drawing table, trains, and a book area. Plus, each day, the teacher prepares special activities for the day (invitations to play), such as art projects or nature explorations. The children choose which of these things to explore and for how long. There is typically also a group play time – often outdoors. There is also usually a group time where kids practice essential school readiness skills such as: sitting still, paying attention, and following directions. The mix of activities is chosen to help children learn all the essential kindergarten readiness skills.
Although they may introduce developmentally appropriate pre-academic skills (such as the alphabet, counting, days of the week, using scissors, pencils and so on) they are not academic preschools. (Read here about why preschools don’t need to be academic…)
What are the advantages to coop preschools?
- Low cost: typically one of the lowest cost options available for a middle income family. (Low income families may have access to other free or steeply-subsidized options.)
- High adult-to-child ratios. A typical preschool might have anywhere from 6 to 10 children per adult. A coop preschool is typically 3 to 5 children per adult.
- Play-based. The best way for young children to learn!
- Children see their parent participating in their school, which reinforces how important the child’s education is to the family.
- Parents are more involved in the child’s education, and can reinforce at home what was talked about in class. Parents also know the teacher well, and get to know all the other children in the class, so they can help nurture their child’s growing friendships.
- Parents also make friends! Working side by side with other parents gives you the chance to make social connections and get parenting support from peers.
- Most include a monthly parent education session where you get expert advice on things like discipline, early literacy, teaching social/emotional skills, and how to support your child’s development.
What are the disadvantages to coops?
- Limited hours: Coops are held for only a few hours a day a few days a week. If you need more than 10 – 12 hours of child care a week while you work, then a coop is not a good match.
- Child care logistics: If you have two children under 5, it can be trickier to work out a schedule that works for all of you. For example: on the days you work in the coop classroom, who will care for your other child? Some coops have a child care option, where coop members who are not in the preschool classroom take shifts caring for kids of the coop members who are working that day. But it is extra logistics compared to a drop-off preschool.
- Parental involvement: Coops do require a high degree of involvement, between working in the classroom, attending parent ed / coop meetings, and additional volunteer jobs. If you’re not interested in this, or unable to meet those commitments, you may prefer a preschool that only requires you to drop-off and pick-up.
My experience with coop preschool:
I offer my experience here not as “here’s how YOU should do things” advice, but more to illustrate one parent’s decision-making process for one particular family.
My oldest child attended coop preschool two days a week. At the time, I also had a baby, and so it was a little tricky to juggle child care for the baby so I could work at the coop. She also attended a drop-off theatre preschool two days a week. The time she spent at that preschool gave me time for focused one-on-one time with her little sister. Two years later, I returned to the same coop with child #2. (Crossroads Coop, sponsored by Bellevue College Parent Education.) She also attended two days a week, and on the other days, participated in other activities.
I definitely experienced all the benefits I listed above. I met several friends myself, and I saw who they were friends with at class, and was able to set up playdates with those families to cement those relationships. And I loved parent ed, which helped to inform how I parented all my kids through those early years.
With child #3, I’ve done drop-off preschools, because I work while he’s at preschool. And although I LOVE both of his outdoor preschools, I definitely find that drop-off is a very different experience than coop. Although I have met all the parents at his preschool, and I know the name of all the kids, I don’t know any of them as well as I knew the parents and kids at coop. Although I observe as much as I can when I drop off and pick up, and although I read his class newsletters religiously, I just don’t have anywhere near as deep of a connection to what’s happening in his classroom as I did with his siblings.
If you’re a stay-at-home parent, or work part-time, I’d absolutely recommend coop preschool as a great enrichment program for your child, and a fun learning experience for you as well!
How to find your local coops?
In the Seattle / Puget Sound area, most coops are run through parent education programs at local community colleges. I list all their contact info at the bottom of this post: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2014/05/14/parent-ed-programs/
The Bellevue College coops are hosting open houses over the next few weeks. Learn more at http://bellevuecollege.edu/parented
If you live elsewhere, try internet searches to learn your options. Sometimes coops are sponsored by churches, county extension departments, or other groups.
Learn more about preschool choice
Also check out these posts:
- Choosing Preschool: Figuring out your Needs and Goals
- Choosing a Preschool: Questions to Ask
- Is Preschool Necessary?