Co-op Preschools


Let’s talk about cooperative preschools (usually called co-ops).

What is a child’s experience at like at a co-op?

Co-ops are typically play-based preschools. The majority of time is spent in free choice time – there are a number of “stations” in the room, such as: a dress-up corner, pretend kitchen, dress-up clothes, block play area, sensory table, writing table, trains, equipment for large motor play, a science / nature station and a book area. Plus, each day, the teacher prepares special activities for the day (invitations to play), such as art projects or science experiments. The children choose which of these things to explore and for how long. There is typically an outdoor playtime. 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…)

How does a co-op work?

It varies a little between schools, but typically, if you have a three year old, they would attend two or three days a week (for a 2 – 3 hour session). You would work in the classroom 2 – 3 days each 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 assist 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.

Co-ops are run by a volunteer board and all parents attend a monthly co-op meeting. In addition to working in the classroom, 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 are the advantages to co-op 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 co-op preschool is typically 3 to 5 children per adult. This allows for more guided play opportunities that help to extend a child’s learning.
  • 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.
  • Because co-ops are part-time, they also allow for lots of family time and other activities outside of preschool.

What are the disadvantages to co-ops?

  • Limited hours: Co-ops are held for only a few hours a day a few days a week. If you need 20 or 40 hours of child care a week while you work, then a co-op is not a good match.
  • Child care logistics: If you have two young children, it can be trickier to work out a schedule that works for all of you. On the days you work in the co-op classroom, who will care for your other child? Many co-op parents set up a trade with another family in the co-op, where when one parent is working in the classroom, the other one is watching the children who aren’t enrolled in the preschool. It can be worked out, but it is extra logistics compared to a drop-off preschool.
  • Parental involvement: Co-ops do require parents to be actively involved. 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 co-op 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 co-op preschool two days a week. At the time, I also had a baby, who stayed with her grandparents on the days I worked in the classroom. On my drop-off days, the time my son spent at preschool gave me focused one-on-one time with his little sister. Two years later, when my oldest was in kindergarten, I returned to the same co-op with child #2.  She attended two days a week, and on the other days, we participated in other activities.

I definitely experienced all the benefits I listed above. I met several friends myself, and was able to set up play-dates with those families to cement those relationships. (My older kids are now in their late 20’s, and I’m still friends with two parents I met at co-op!) And I loved the parent ed discussions, which helped to inform how I parented all my kids through those early years.

With child #3, I had to do drop-off preschools, because I worked while he was at preschool. And although I LOVED both of his outdoor preschools, I definitely found that drop-off preschool is a very different experience than co-op. Although I met the other parents and I knew the name of all the kids, I didn’t know any of them as well as I knew the parents and kids at co-op. Although I observed as much as I could when I dropped off and picked up, and read his class newsletters religiously, I just didn’t have anywhere near as deep of a connection to what was happening in his classroom as I did with his siblings.

If you’re a stay-at-home parent, or have a flexible or part-time work schedule and don’t need full time child care, I’d absolutely recommend co-op preschool as a great preschool option for your child, and a fun learning experience for you as well!

How to find your local co-ops?

In the Seattle / Puget Sound area, most co-ops are run through parent education programs at local community colleges. I list all their contact info at the bottom of this page: . I teach at Eastgate Co-op in Bellevue.

If you live elsewhere, try internet searches to learn your options. Sometimes co-ops are sponsored by churches, county extension departments, or other groups.

Learn more about preschool choice

Also check out these posts:

photo credit: Emma and Alice via photopin (license)


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