Category Archives: Early Learning / Preschool

Preschool Choice Time

choiceIf your child will be 3 this September, then January through March is a great time to look ahead and choose a preschool for next year. I have a whole collection of posts on things to think about – check out whichever ones apply to you!

First decide: Is preschool necessary? Is it something you want for your child?

If you decide you’re looking, the first thing to think about is logistics: What do you need in a preschool in terms of location, schedule, cost, and so on. What are your goals for preschool?

Then, research your options. Have you considered cooperative preschool? outdoor preschool? specialty preschools (e.g. bilingual or religious)? academic preschool or play-based learning? online preschool?  multi-age programs? What’s the difference between Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio?

Then visit, or attend an open house, and ask these questions to learn more.

After you’ve done all the research with your head, narrowing it down to the list of the best three options, then listen to your heart. Which school feels best to you? Where will your child be happiest? From the science of brain development, we know that we all learn best when we feel safe and happy – our brains have a high degree of neuroplasticity and we can absorb all the teacher has to teach. In the end, it’s that happiness and preserving the love of learning that will serve our child’s educational future the best.

FYI: I teach at co-op preschools sponsored by Bellevue College, so if you live on Seattle’s Eastside, check us out! www.bellevuecollege.edu/parented.

photo credit: JoshSchulz via photopin cc

Parachute Play with Children

Parachute from Lakeshore Learning

Parachutes can be a fun accessory for indoor story-times or outdoor play, for groups of children from birth to adolescence.

Benefits of parachute play:

  • Collaborative and non-competitive – children work together, need to spread out around the chute and all participate for it to work
  • Helps to develop rhythm
  • Builds shoulder, arm and hand muscle strength
  • Good for practicing listening to instructions – if they didn’t understand it when you say to lift it up, but then their hand is lifted up into the air along with the parachute, that helps them learn the meaning of the instruction
  • It’s a great way to gain children’s attention when it’s wandering, or to settle down chaotic energy in a group time
  • It’s fun!

Getting Started

If you don’t already own one, buy a parachute. (That’s an Amazon affiliate link to a product that looks good quality and comes in a variety of sizes.) Parachutes are fairly inexpensive, and fold up pretty small so they don’t require a lot of storage space.

The size you need depends on two things – how big is your room and how many people will participate?

Parachutes are described in diameter – so 12′ means 12′ from one side to the other. You need space all around it for the people to move, so really, it’s best to have a 20×20 space at least for that 12′ parachute.

Parachutes typically have one handle per foot of diameter. So, a 12′ parachute could work for 6 people if they all held onto two handles, or for a maximum 12 people.

Ages

In my activity descriptions below, I’ll code what age groups they work best for:

  • B = Babies. The parents hold the parachute and do the actions while the babies observe
  • P/C = Parent/Child. For toddlers and preschool age. Parents all hold the parachute and do the actions. The children may hold on, they may go under the parachute, they may wander off…
  • P = Preschool. A group of 3 – 5 year old children and 1 or 2 adults can do this without needing more adults to help.
  • O = Older Kids. Kids 5 and up can do this.
  • All = OK for any of these contexts

Up and Down

You can simply stand in a circle, say “up” and everyone lifts the parachute up high and “down” while everyone lowers it. Kids can be holding on the edge raising and lowering, or they can be standing under it or lying down under it. So easy, and it manages to feel intriguing yet soothing at the same time. ALL

You can also put on calming music and raise and lower in rhythm with the music for a calming moment in the midst of a story time. B, P/C

Sing this song to the tune If You’re Happy and You Know It. “When the parachute goes up (raising it up), shout hurray. Hurray! (as you lower it down). When the parachute goes up, shout hurray. When the parachute is high and floats up in the sky. When the parachute goes up, shout hurray.” Repeat with “dance a dance” or “stomp your feet” and so on. P/C, P

Toast in the Toaster chant – shake side to side, then “pop” it up at the end
I’m toast in the toaster / I’m getting very hot / Tick tock, Tick tock / Up I pop!

You can also do lap songs with up/down motions like “Grand Old Duke of York” or “Let’s Go Riding in an Elevator” except instead of lifting a child up in your lap, you’re raising the parachute.

Side to Side

You can stand in place and swish the parachute from side to side. Here’s a chant to go with that motion: “I am a washing machine. Washing clothes till they are clean. I am a washing machine. Swish swish swish swish swish.” P

Making Waves / Shaking

You can shake a parachute slow and gentle, or fast and rough.

With slow waves, sing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” B, P/C, P

With shakes, you can use some songs you use with shakers: “Oh you shake and you shake and you shake and you stop… (3x) Shake it up high, shake it down low, shake it on your tummy, and way down to your toes.” P/C, P

There’s a video here of a nice shaking song: https://nancykopman.com/parachute-songs-and-games-for-young-children/

Walking Songs

Merry Go Round. The children hold onto the parachute with one hand and walk around the circle clockwise. Play any music – as long as music is playing, they walk, If the music stops, they stop. Turn to face the other direction (e.g. counterclockwise) and wait for the music to begin, then walk more. P

Ring around the Rosie. P/C, P
Walk around as you sing: Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posy, ashes, ashes
Kneel Down: All fall down!
Shake gently, close to the ground: cows are in the meadow, eating buttercups.
Then shaking fast: Thunder, Lightning, stand We all Stand Up!

Roly Poly (a chant) P/C, P
Roly Poly, Roly Poly, Up, Up, Up lift the parachute up
Roly Poly, Roly Poly, Down, Down, Down parachute down
Roly Poly, Roly Poly, In, In, In, walk toward the center of the circle
Roly Poly, Roly Poly, out, out, out
…. fast… slow… shake it

Zoom. (tune) P/C, P
Zoom Zoom Zoom. We’re going to the moon. walking around
Zoom Zoom Zoom. We’re going to the moon. stop walking at the end of this line
In 5…. 4…. 3… 2… 1 lower the parachute gradually to the ground
Blast off!!! quickly raise your arms and let go to launch the chute up in the air

Pop Goes the Weasel P/C, P
All around the cobblers bench (walk around a circle),
the monkey chased the weasel (rattle parachute).
The monkey thought it was all in fun (lower the parachute to the ground).
Pop goes the weasel (pop it up)

Wheels on the bus. Go round and round… wipers go swish… babies go up and down…

Children on Top of the Parachute B, P/C, O

For 3 – 6 month old babies, you can lay the babies on the parachute, and the adults hold on to the parachute and walk in circles, and give the babies a ride. You have to be slow and gentle so they don’t roll on top of each other!

For older toddlers, who are able to sit well and stay where you tell them to stay, you can have them sit up on the parachute and take them for a ride.

This activity does NOT work well with the “wobblers” in between those ages – the children who can sit but not very well and would tip over, or the children who will try to crawl away, and knock over the other children.

Many of the songs above and below here combine well with taking the children for a ride, as does “Here we go round the mulberry bush” or “we’re going to the zoo”.

Children Under the Parachute B, P/C

Babies can lay on the ground as the parents hold the parachute above them. Toddlers or preschoolers can sit or walk under the parachute as the parents hold it.

Colors Over You. (tune)
Red and Yellow, Green and Blue, these are the colors over you. Red like the apple, green like the tree, yellow like the sun and blue like the sea. Red and yellow, green and blue, these are the colors over you.

Peekaboo. hold the parachute low, just above the children Someone is hiding, hiding, hiding, someone is hiding, Who could it be? lift it up high Peekaboo!

Come Under My Umbrella (tune of The More We Get Together)
Come under my umbrella, umbrella, umbrella. lift it up high so it “balloons” up a bit
Come under my umbrella, it’s starting to storm. again
There’s thunder and lightning and wind and rain. shake it hard and fast
Come under my umbrella it’s starting to storm. lift it high

Sitting Down with the Parachute P

The children sit on the floor in a circle, holding on to the parachute.

10 Little Bubbles (tune: 10 little indians)
shake the chute as you do the counting part – pat the parachute with your hands for the “pop the bubble’ part
1 little, 2 little, 3 little bubbles. 4 little, 5 little, 6 little bubbles.
7 little, 8 little, 9 little bubbles. 10 little bubbles go pop, pop, pop!
Pop pop pop pop those bubbles. (x3) Popping all the day.

Row Your Boat – divide the children in half – those on the left half and those on the right half. (It helps if there’s a teacher on each side! They “row” the parachute – holding on and leaning back, then forward. So, as left leans back, right leans forward, and so on. Sing row your boat.

Props on Top – P/C, P, O

For parent/child classes, it’s easier for toddlers to see what’s on top of the parachute if the parents are sitting down and the parachute is down low. Preschoolers or older children could do it sitting or standing.

Popcorn – put several balls on the parachute and do this chant:
Popcorn, popcorn in a pan (hands go gently side to side),
shake it up, shake it up, (shake it fast side to side)
bam bam bam! (three quick “pops” of the chute – will send balls flying off the chute.)

Autumn Leaves. Put lots of silk leaves on the parachute. Sing this song to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down
Autumn Leaves are Falling Down, Falling Down, Falling Down… All Around the Town. up and down gently, so the leaves lift off the chute just a little
The wind will blow them round and round… swish the chute
Then you shout “oh no, it’s a storm” and you all shake like crazy till all the leaves fly off.
Now it’s time to pick them up…. gather up the leaves

Five Little Monkeys Jumping on a Bed. (use monkey puppets)

Games – O. (maybe P)

Ball through the Hole: Only works for parachutes with a hole in the center!
Place a ball on the parachute. Try NOT to let it fall through the hole in the center! For children 4+, divide the kids into teams (e.g. everyone who is holding onto a blue or green section of the parachute is one team and the other team is everyone holding onto red or yellow). Put two balls on the parachute – team 1 is trying to get their ball in the hole before team 2 can get their ball in.

Knock the Ball Off: If your parachute has a mesh circle in the center instead of an opening, you can adapt this game and have them try to keep their ball on the parachute while they knock off their opponents ball.

Swap Places. Everyone is raising and lowering the parachute. Then you say “stop” and everyone freezes with the parachute held way up high. You announce who needs to trade places. They swap quickly, then you continue going up and down. “Up and down, up and down. Up and stop! Bobby and Sally swap!”

Parachute Cave – lift up on 1, 2, 3 – when you get to 3, everyone (still holding on!) steps 3 steps forward under the parachute, then sits down with the parachute under their bottoms. You’re all in a parachute cave together!

Pass the ball – put a beach ball on the chute. Person A lowers the parachute till the ball comes to them – they raise one hand to roll the ball to the person next to them. That person then raises the chute to pass the ball to the next person. Keep going, trying to make it all the way around the circle.

Cat and Mouse – Children sit on the floor holding the parachute. One child is the cat – they sit on top of the chute and close their eyes while everyone counts to 10. The “mouse” child crawls under the parachute. Then the kids all shake the parachute to hide the mouse. The cat opens his eyes and crawls around trying to find the mouse.

Sources: https://childcarelounge.com/pages/benefits-of-parachute-play; https://www.earlyyearscareers.com/eyc/learning-and-development/top-5-parachute-games-children-early-years/; http://brampton.momstown.ca/baby/parachute-songs-kids; https://earlyimpactlearning.com/14-parachute-songs-for-preschoolers-games-lyrics-tips/; https://klmpeace.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/parachute-play-with-babies-and-toddlers/

More Resources

Also check out my posts on

(Re)Adapting to In-Person Classes

This fall, many young children may be returning to in-person classes or preschool after a long time away, and some toddlers may be joining their first group activities with peers. Parents may worry about how their child will adapt. We can support the transition by: getting ourselves ready, choosing the right program for the moment, preparing children by teaching social skills and self-help skills at home plus talking to them about what to expect and what will be expected of them, then supporting them through all the new experiences in the first few weeks of class. We should expect that it will not all go smoothly and all children will have some rough days at school – because that has always been the case!

I know this feels like an unprecedented situation, and yes, COVID is unprecedented. But parents have always worried about sending their child off to school and wondered how they can help with the process. Those steps that parents have been following for decades all apply here, and we’ll throw in a couple COVID specific tips in our suggestions about what you can do to increase the chances that the transition to in-person learning will go smoothly.

Prepare Yourself

If you are anxious, your child will pick up on that, and they’ll be anxious too. So, before you start talking to them about going to classes, do whatever you need to do to build your own confidence that it will be OK. Get support from others if needed.

If you’re worried about COVID – remind yourself that even if children catch COVD, they typically have mild cases. (Yes, there are exceptions – some children who get very sick – but the chances are small.) The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a return to in-person school. You can also think about layers of protection – all the things you can do to reduce the risk for your child. [If you’re evaluating whether or not to return to in-person classes, here are factors to consider.]

If you’re worried your child won’t adapt well to being around other children, listening to other adults, or being away from you, keep in mind that children are very resilient – they often adapt to things much easier than adults do.

Ideally, you should work on your worries out of sight of your child. But, if your child notices your anxiety, then trying to pretend it’s not there can actually cause them more worry than if you just calmly say “I’m feeling worried now – here’s what I’m doing to calm myself.”

Planning for Success

Jumping from social isolation at home to a full-time program could be overwhelming for some children. Some parents are choosing to start small with a program that meets for only a few hours a week, and gradually build up to more. Some are choosing to start with a parent-child class or a cooperative preschool where they can stay with their child in the new setting to help make the transition to being with other kids and adults easier. Some will choose full-time school but simplify the rest of the child’s schedule to keep things manageable.

When looking at programs, I would consider their COVID protocols: Vaccines for the adults, masking for everyone over age 2, increased ventilation / more outside time, and social distancing can all reduce the risk.

I would also look more broadly at their approach to scheduling and rules. I would look for one that has a nice balance between providing structure with predictable routines and a little flexibility to adapt to your child’s needs of the moment. Our children really need both predictable routines at this time and responsiveness to their needs as they re-adapt.

Preparing Your Child

While returning from COVID is new, asking kids to adapt to new situations is not new. So there are a lot of things we know to do to ease transitions into toddler classes, daycare or preschool.

  • Teach self-help skills. Help your child learn how to put on their coat, take off their coat and hang it up. Help them learn how to open their string cheese or yogurt containers by themselves. Teach handwashing skills, and also practice how to use hand sanitizer.
    • During COVID, teach them how to wear a mask, how to take it off to eat, and put it back on, and what to do if their mask gets wet or dirty. (Early in COVID, many parents wondered if they could ever teach their child to do something “as weird” as wearing a mask – but remember, that’s not weird to a kid. It’s no weirder or harder to learn than how to wear pants in public.)
  • Teach and practice social skills: how to make friends, how to invite someone to play with you, how to ask to play with a toy someone else is using, taking turns, and so on. Set up playdates where your child can practice these skills.
    • During COVID, teach them about “giving space” around them rather than crowding other kids. In dance classes and sports classes, teachers have long used the idea of “bubbles” – imagine you have a big invisible bubble around you and so does everyone else and you can’t bump inside anyone else’s bubble. You can teach and practice this. Be careful not to give your child the message that it will always be dangerous / scary to be close to other people. Just say that right now with COVID we need to make extra space.
    • It always helps to teach emotional literacy skills – how you can tell how someone else is feeling. During COVID, be sure teach your child to watch for body language and tone of voice since they can’t see facial expression for people who are masked.
  • Create routines. What routines can you establish at home to make it easier to get out the door in the morning? If you’ll need to be up earlier in the morning than you’re used to, do you need to adjust bedtime? Learn about what routines they use at school and try to have similar practices at home. (For example, washing hands before snack time.) If your child will use new tools at school – like a backpack or a lunchbox or water bottle – get them early and practice.

Preparing them for Class

Talk about what to expect at their class, and what will be expected of them.

  • There are lots of great books and TV episodes about starting preschool. Some good book options include “Rosie goes to Preschool” by Karen Katz. (video) “Maisy Goes to Preschool” by Lucy Cousins (video), Lola Goes to School by McQuinn (video), Pete the Kitty’s First Day of Preschool by James Dean (video). Or watch “Learn what happens when Sadie starts school.” These provide good starting points for conversations and for pretend play.
    • Note: Many books address separation anxiety and other fears. If your child is already fearful, these can be reassuring. But if your child is feeling confident, don’t read these books – you don’t want to introduce anxiety! Some examples: Bye Bye Time by Verdick (video) is great for kids who are just a little anxious – it helps you develop a ritual for goodbye time and a plan for them for what to do if things are hard. “Llama Llama Misses Mama” by Anna Dewdney (video) is about a llama who has a really rough first day at school – it’s a perfect book to read after your child has a rough day. “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn (video) is about a raccoon child who is very reluctant to go to school – if your child is already reluctant, it offers good tools. Or watch Daniel Tiger Goes to School.
    • Here are recommendations for kids starting kindergarten or first grade: https://www.thoughtco.com/childrens-picture-books-about-starting-school-627520
  • Talk about what to expect at their school. Visit the school, if possible. Or, at least look at pictures or a video tour if available. Visit the outside of the building and walk around. Show your child pictures of the teacher. Get some materials like they’ll have in the classroom – like markers – and practice using them at home. There’s an idea called a social story which was created for kids with autism – where you create your own little book with pictures that clearly describes what to expect, what’s expected of them, and what they’ll do if something is challenging – I find these can benefit any child, so you could create one for your child.
  • Teach and practice how to interact with a teacher. Explain that the teacher is there to help them and will take care of them. Explain that the teacher is in charge. Teach how to get the teacher’s attention and how to ask for help. Teach them that sometimes they have to wait for a grown-up to be available to help them. Play listening games (like Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, or Copy the Rhythm I Clap).
  • Pretend play. Pretend to be going to school – who will play the parent? The child? The teacher? Play at things like: waiting in line (with stuffed animals), doing circle time, taking turns, asking the teacher for help, saying goodbye at drop-off time.

When Classes Begin

  • Don’t make too big a deal of the first day. That anticipation and excitement can turn into anxiety.
  • Don’t introduce all new clothes and shoes and backpack on the first day. Let them wear familiar and comfortable items. Pack their favorite foods, and pack the exact same lunch for the first several days so they know exactly what to expect. Ask your school’s policy about “transitional objects” – for some children, having a toy from home or a picture of family or favorite book, can help them adjust to all the new things around them.
    • Note: pre-COVID, this was often a stuffed animal, but during COVID, only send things to school that can be easily cleaned.
  • Allow extra time to get there – you want time to relax beforehand, remind your child what to expect, and get there with everyone calm. (Note: this is especially true if you have a child you think of as shy – I call them “slow to warm up.” These children do best when they can arrive a little early, before most of the other children and settle in. They don’t do well running in frantic and late to a full and busy classroom.
  • Build a relationship with the teacher(s), other kids, and other parents. When your child sees that you feel comfortable interacting with them all, they will feel comfortable too. Let the teacher know what things most engage and calm your child. (When my child was three, I told his teacher(s) that any time Ben was feeling worried, all they had to do was ask him about the planets, and give him nine objects to line up to show which was closest to the sun and which was furthest… it was guaranteed to calm him any time!)
  • For drop-off programs, ask if it’s possible to stay a while at drop off time in the early days. (It may not be possible during COVID.)
  • When it’s time to leave, keep your goodbyes brief, radiate confidence that they will be OK. Do say goodbye – don’t try to sneak our when they’re not looking. Tell them what they will be doing while you’re gone, and when you’ll return. (Be sure to honor that promise, and be prompt and predictable for your return.)
  • Make your goodbye ritual simple and sweet. Make sure your child is either settled into an activity or knows that to do next, or hand them off to an adult for care so that when you walk out the door, your child has something else they’re focused on other than your absence.
  • Remember that fear of strangers is developmentally normal for all children 7 months and up, and that separation anxiety is common in all toddlers around 18 months. If you see them, they’re likely not due to coronavirus or anything you did or didn’t do. And any advice that you can find for separation anxiety at any time will apply, whether or not it’s COVID specific.
  • Resist the rescue. If your child is sad/crying when it’s time for you to go, be caring and validate their feelings but stick to the plan and leave. Trust the teachers to be the professionals they are and manage the common challenges of separation anxiety. Typically a child who cries at drop off times cries only briefly and will soon calm down.
  • After class, give your child a chance to debrief and talk about how the day went.

Handling the Challenges

You may be one of the lucky few parents that everything goes well for and your child sails on through with no challenges. Or you may have a toddler who bites his classmates. If that happens, it’s not your fault and it’s not because of COVID isolation – it’s because sometimes toddlers bite their classmates. If your seven month old cries when strangers hold them, it’s good to know that 7 month olds have always been prone to fear of strangers. If you have a child who has a hard time sitting still for story time – maybe it’s because they didn’t have to sit still during quarantine… however, there have always been children who had a hard time sitting still! And the teachers will work with your family through the challenges, as they always have.

Be careful not to catastrophize. If your response to every setback is stress, anxiety, and “why does everything always go wrong?” that makes it worse. Try to have a resilience approach – “this is hard right now, but we’ve faced hard things in the past, and we’ve made it through, and look how much we learned.”

Some things to be aware of: if your child is having big feelings, it’s important to acknowledge them, not just try to distract them away. Regression is normal – for example, a child who was potty trained may have accidents – don’t punish or shame, just acknowledge the issue and say “let’s try to do better tomorrow.” If your child is really clingy, maybe they just need more snuggling for a while – soothe and reassure them. If they are misbehaving, remind yourself: children who are loved will always try to do well if they can. If they are misbehaving, ask yourself – is there a skill or support that they are lacking? If so, help them build it. Ask yourself – could it be that they have an underlying need that is driving the misbehavior? If so, meeting that need may resolve the issue.

Be patient and remember that any challenges are just a phase. Just keep doing your best every day and encourage them to do their best, and you’ll make your way through to the other side of this challenging time.

More Ideas

Should I push my child ahead in school?

I often have parents ask questions like:

  • can I enroll my 2.5 year old child in a preschool that’s for ages 3 and up?
  • my child will turn 5 in October – should I apply for early entrance into kindergarten?
  • my child is a few months younger than the requirement for the camp – can I sign them up anyway?
  • my child is gifted – should they skip a grade?

I also notice in classes in our area that if the class is for ages 5 to 7, it’s filled with 5 year olds, because all the 6 year olds are in the class that’s for ages 6 to 8, and so on.

It seems as if many parents believe that “the best” education is the most advanced education that they can possibly squeeze their children into.

I know that as a parent, we want what is best for our children. It may seem like starting on skills earlier will benefit them, but that is often not the case.

If we push a child up a level in classes, that means they will be the youngest child there. They may be developmentally ready in some areas, but they may be behind in others. They could end up feeling successful in some ways but perhaps also feeling like they’re always the smallest, always the slowest or least socially skilled. They may feel like they can never quite catch up to some of their peers in some areas.

I believe it is so much better to place them in an age appropriate class that is still able to challenge them. In that setting, it is easier for them to feel successful, easier to feel like they fit in, and easier to develop in all areas into a well-rounded individual.

When we push kids faster along a certain track, they may succeed at that track, but that focus can mean they miss out on other learning opportunities. For example, a child enrolled in academic preschool may move further ahead on reading and writing, but may not have the opportunity to fully develop the social skills and independent decision making they would gain at a play-based preschool. A child whose time is all focused on moving forward in baseball never has the opportunity to learn the physical skills they would learn in swimming or gymnastics classes, or the emotional intelligence that could be learned in a theater class.

Rather than trying to jump your child forward to the next level (the accelerated approach), try to think about what other opportunities there are to broaden their learning at their current level (the enrichment approach.)

For example, if you have a toddler or preschooler who is doing well with language and literacy type skills, think of ways to enhance their other intelligences:

  • Could they take music classes? There are a lot of benefits to learning music that go far beyond that realm.
  • Could they spend more time in free play outdoors? Learn about the benefits of nature play, and about outdoor preschool.
  • Could they spend more time learning social and emotional skills through pretend play? Or go to a theatre preschool? Or have more playdates to practice their social skills?
  • Could they build their small motor skills and creativity in art classes?
  • Could they build their knowledge of how to use their body (which will help in all sports, or dance, or just moving through the world) by taking aikido classes? Or dance? Or climbing trees and clambering on rocks?
  • Could you choose play-based classes (like co-op preschools) that offer a wide range of experiences and let your child choose the ones that most engage them at the moment? The most learning will occur when your child is fully engaged in an activity of their choice.

You can find lots more ideas for activities to enhance all types of intelligence in this post on Toys and Activities to Build Young Brains.

At whatever level your child is at, there is always more to learn, without needing to push them ahead to an older level.

As a teacher, I also have to say that when I have let children who are younger than the designated age into my class, it has rarely been the best fit for them, or for us. Not that the children “failed.” They were able to participate in class, and learn from it. But they did not learn as much as they could have learned if they had waited a year. Also, I had to leave some projects out of my class that wouldn’t have been safe for the little ones, and I had to choose simpler books to read aloud so the little ones would understand, and I had to do more classroom management to keep the little ones focused, and my older children missed out on some learning they could have gotten if all the children in the class were fully developmentally ready for the content.

So, I would encourage most parents, in most circumstances, to trust the teachers when they tell you what age children their program is the best fit for. Your child will learn best when they are in an environment where all the aspects are age appropriate.

Learn More

These articles are all about starting kindergarten, but the concepts could apply to starting preschool early, skipping grades in school, and so on.

Also, be sure to check out my post on acceleration vs. enrichment.

Choosing the Best School / Preschool

On a regular basis, I see posts on social media from parents asking for advice on choosing “the best” preschool, or the best private school in the area, or asking which is the best public school as they plan a move. (And, of course, parents of older children agonize over what is the best college.)

There truly is not a “best” school. There are LOTS of great schools, and some mediocre ones, and a very few bad ones. What’s best is the school that best meets your family’s unique needs and goals, and best suits your child’s unique learning style.

Here are some steps to take to figuring out YOUR best option:

Step 1 – Needs Assessment

Before you bother researching all the options, and before you fall in love with an option that won’t meet your needs, let’s start with the pure nitty gritty essentials:

  • Schedule: Are you looking for full-time or part-time, or are you flexible? If the regular school day isn’t long enough, do they offer extended day care? What days do you need? What wouldn’t work?
  • What times could work for you and what just doesn’t work? (e.g. if you’re not a morning person, choosing an early morning program may not be a realistic bet)
  • Location: really think through the commute and whether it will work – I can’t tell you how many parents have chosen what they thought was a great school, but by October were miserable about having a cranky kid in the car in never-ending traffic)
  • Cost: there is a wide range in costs – be realistic about what’s affordable for you. If you stretch your budget, then it can make any little frustration with the school really stressful as you think – “I can’t believe we’re paying this much and this is happening!”
  • Drop-off or stay? For younger children, there are often parent-child options where you always stay, or co-ops that are drop off some days and have you work in the classroom on other days. These are generally cheaper than drop-off programs and also allow you to be closely involved in your child’s education.

Step 2 – Goal Setting

What do you hope your child will get out of the experience? Are you hoping for academic development? Social-emotional skill building? Art? Music? Physical education? Science? Religious education?

Are there things that you know you could do a great job of teaching your kids? Then you may not need the school to cover that well. Is there something you think you won’t be good at teaching? Choose a school that does it well.

Do you prefer a very structured teacher-led program? Or more of a play-based or inquiry-based program where the teacher works the lesson plans around the children’s interests? How do you feel about homework – are you happy to guide practice time at home for them to improve on their skills? Or would you like out of school time to be free choice for your family?

Is the school’s approach to learning compatible with yours? When our oldest was little, we looked at one school which discouraged use of technology and screens, and actually discouraged reading before age 7, instead focusing on things like oral story-telling. This did not work for our tech-heavy family and also didn’t make sense because my kids all learn to read by age 3 or 4. (Not because we drill them… but because we love books so much in our family that they couldn’t wait to read themselves.) We looked at another school where there were only non-fiction books on the shelf in the kindergarten classroom, and I asked “where are the story books?” They disdainfully said “they have plenty of time for that sort of reading at home…” I knew that wasn’t the school for us!

Take a good look at your child’s temperament and learning style. I had a very social chatty child, and we looked at one school where the children were expected to work quietly and independently and not chat with each other. Not a good match for that child. I had a high energy child who tended to get overstimulated in indoor classrooms, but stayed calm and happy outdoors, so we sent him to outdoor preschool. You want to choose a school where your child will feel competent and valued, not one where they never fit in.

During goal setting, it’s also worth asking: What do you hope to get out of their school experience? Some preschools and schools offer parent education and support. Some actively work to encourage community building amongst families. Cooperative preschools and home school coops are the ultimate example of involving parents in school in meaningful ways. On the other hand, some parents may prefer to outsource school, and have a pretty hands-off approach, and there are certainly schools that will also support that.

Step 3 – Learn about Your Options

OK, now it’s time to turn to the internet and social media.

In Facebook groups for parents, you probably don’t even need to ask a question – you can typically search the archives for preschool or school, because probably 50 people before you have asked “what’s the best school” and you can just read through all those answers!

You can look at Yelp and Google reviews and such – but, as always with reviews, you’ll see a lot of 5 stars and a lot of 1 stars and nothing in between. People only bother to write reviews when they’re really happy or really mad. So, reviews never tell the whole story. But, they can give you some hints of what to watch for.

Look for directories, and look for school fairs and preschool fairs, or special issues of local parenting magazines. For example, in the Seattle area, for preschools, you’ll find the directory for the ParentMap preschool fair and the preschool night at Lake WA Toddler Group. For private schools, here is the directory for NW Association of Independent Schools and Puget Sound Independent Schools. Search online for ratings of local public schools.

Once you’ve got the names of schools, it’s easy to do lots of internet research on them. Check out their websites. Don’t just read the words, but also look for what’s NOT said. (For example, in my experience, if they don’t tell you the tuition up front, it’s probably high.) Look for what the pictures show, and what’s missing in the pictures. (For example, many schools try to portray diversity in their photographs to let folks know that everyone is welcome, but I’ve been involved in schools where we didn’t yet have a lot of racial diversity, and so we had the same few kids appearing over and over in several photos. I believe that we were welcoming, but when BIPOC kids came, there would not yet be many peers for them.)

Look at ads. But note: you may see a ton of ads for one school that make you think they’re great, but it could just be a big school with a big marketing budget (and likely high tuition to support that). Some really great small schools never run ads, because they’re trying to keep costs low to increase accessibility for families. They count on word of mouth – current and alumni families who had great experiences and tell their friends and family.

So, that leads to your best source of options: word of mouth. Ask friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, parents at the park! If you ask on social media, instead of just saying “what’s a great school”, say “we’re looking for a part-time, play-based, affordable preschool – what do you recommend?” Or whatever other criteria you want to state. That makes sure the recommendations you get are relevant to you.

Step 4 – Questions to Research

What do they teach? What would your child learn there?

What is the daily schedule? How is time divided between activities? Play time? Quiet time? Outdoors? Snack? Young children have short attention spans for structured activity, so it’s best in short doses, with plenty of unstructured time in between to explore and discover, and quiet time to process what they’ve learned.

How do they teach it?

A couple big picture ideas: A teacher-led curriculum means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (and may use a standardized curriculum) and sticks to them. A child-led curriculum (a.k.a. emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests and adapts to what the children want to do.

A structured class might use group time, worksheets, and formal instruction to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. A play-based class typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations, and asking questions to further the learning.

Who are the students?

  • How many students? How many teachers? The number of kids matters as much as student to teacher ratio. A 8 student class with 1 teacher (8:1 ratio) feels very different from a 16 student class with 2 teachers (8:1). And a 24 kid class is really different from a 6 kid class no matter the ratios.
  • What is the age range of the class? Some parents prefer that all the kids be as close as possible in age, but many programs tout the benefits of multi-age classrooms. The oldest kids have a chance to lead and mentor, and the younger ones benefit by the presence of an older role model.
  • What are the cut-off dates for age? Your child will do best when they’re in the middle of the recommended age range. If your child is a fall baby (born in September or October), I do NOT recommend trying to push them ahead… if they’re the youngest child in their class, they’ll always feel small, slow, and socially behind, even if they can keep up academically. Let them be the oldest – it’s a confidence booster. If they need more academic challenge than their classmates, most teachers are happy to give extra challenges to kids who can handle it.

Who are the teachers?

  • Training and experience: Where and how did they learn the content that they are teaching in the class? Where did they learn about how to teach? Do they participate in continuing education?
  • Longevity / turnover. As a general rule, the longer the teachers have been there the better. (Unless you get the sense that they’re burned out and only there due to inertia….)
  • 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 out instructions to a child?
  • How do they handle discipline?What are their rules and how do they reinforce them?

What is the learning environment like?

  • Is the environment clean? Safe?
  • Is there a wide range of materials and supplies? Are materials in good condition?
  • 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?

What is the parent experience?

OK, now it’s time to go back to social media with specific questions: “We’re trying to decide between X School and Y School. We’d love to connect to parents who have recent experience with them – we’re especially curious about _____.”

Step 5 – Go With Your Gut

We know from the science of brain development that children learn best when they feel safe and are happy, so look for a place where they will be happy and engaged. Look for a place where you would feel great every time you drop them off to spend time there. Our family has been lucky to participate in some schools where I just felt blessed to have found that environment for my child.

So, all the steps above are logical and focus on practical evaluations. But I think this final decision point often comes down to what feels right to you? That’s the best school.

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