How do we pick a preschool that's right for us?

Updated Oct 12 2015
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This is a Montessori School in Jorethang, Sikkim, India. How do we get Jazz in there?! Photo from Wikimedia, used with Creative Commons license.

Jasper just turned two, but the questions about preschool have been coming since… oh, I don't know, his birth? And to clarify, we live in a moderately-sized Southern city — we're not exactly rolling with the fancy New York City preschool crowd. Sean and I have never really had a game-plan for daycare; since I work from home and he's a student, we both figured it'd be easy enough for us to keep Jasper during the day. But now that he's of "preschool age" (right?), we're starting to look into education options.

Back in the day (when Jasper was a few months old), I was 100% dedicated to the idea of unschooling or homeschooling Jasper… until I realized I'd have to do it myself. I love and respect every single unschooling and homeschooling family I know, but I know my limits. Sean was intrigued by the idea of teaching Jazz, but he's now in a demanding degree program that will land him in full-time outside-of-the-home work in two to three years, which in the meantime takes up an awful lot of spare time he does have. So, preschool. Here we are.

How did you guys choose what preschool was right for your kids? Is there a secret list of things we should and shouldn't look for that I haven't found on the Internet, or should we just go with our instincts (as we are oftentimes wont to do)?

  1. I'd love advice on this too. We live in Ontario, Canada, and here they have junior kindergarten at age 4. I went to preschool and then started kindergarten at age 5 in BC, but it seems like preschool is pretty much non-existent here…but maybe I'm just missing something? Our daughter is 2 1/2, turning 3 in August, so if she's going to preschool in the fall I really should be figuring it out now…

  2. All the preschool sites I've read haven't been anywhere near as helpful as talking to parents of kids in preschool about their schools. You can tell when someone feels like they're school is "pretty good" versus "I LOVE MY KIDS SCHOOL!"

    Also, in my area there is a yearly mini-convention where parents of preschool age kids and representatives from preschools meet up to discuss the programs.

    Also… my kid is 4 and will only be going to PreK. A good preschool in my area was literally more than what I pay for a semester of college, and we made the choice to research the hell out of elementary schools, skip preschool, and find a pre-K that was close to our home and enjoyable for our kid. While I am usually the sort of parent who compulsively plans and researches to find the BEST BEST BEST option I can, I'm not too worried about the curriculum in his pre-K. I'm more worried that my kid learns going to school can be fun, and learns to sit and divide his attention.

    But elementary school… at that point, we'll be on a million waiting lists for the schools we've heard the most promising things about.

  3. Some things you can do:
    Find a preschool and schedule a visit where you can go to the classroom and watch the kids and teachers interact, take a tour and ask questions.
    Ask LOTS of questions, a good preschool wont mind and will understand that your a parent and its your job to make sure this is the right place.
    See if there are any parents you can get in touch with to ask about their experiences.
    Because my daughter is disabled our options ended up being limited, but we found a great school anyways and the biggest factor? you guessed it our INSTINCTS! We just knew after talking to the main teacher that this was going to be good. and its been great 🙂

  4. Hey Steph

    I taught at 4 different preschools over the course of 8 years. I have a lot of opinions and ideas, and I can either share them in the comments or I can write a submission separately. You can email me questions, too.

    But when looking into preschools, I think its less important what philosophy they put on the front door, and more important how they view PLAY.

    What I mean by that is, do they view preschool as an academic primer for elementary school, or as a place to learn how to play with others and interact with other adults who are not family? You want the second one. Preschool is for social skills. The academia comes later. Sure they will learn colors, shapes, opposites, and letters, to write their name, etc. but that just comes along with the playtime, the songs, circle time, etc.

    IMO, preschool art should be something kids want to do, not something they are made to copy so they have something to take home. A lot of preschools put emphasis on take-home art so that mom and dad feel like their kid accomplished something that day. As if playing, sharing, dancing and singing are a waste of time. Ummmm. No.

    So look for places where the teachers have been there for years, even decades. It means they love their jobs. Look for places with a big out door play area, not state of the art electronic toys. Look for places where kids are encouraged to have responsibility for their environment, clean up jobs, and small tools like brooms and dustpans. And look for places that have small classrooms, not a ton of kids.

    This http://www.rosevillecommunitypreschool.org/ is, in my opinion, the best preschool in the world.

    • I totally agree with all of that! The teachers at my child's preschool told us during our getting to know you session that they don't send kids home with performance pieces except on occasion. They said in their experience it just added "stuff" to the kids' and parents' lives and didn't serve much purpose.

    • Especially agree on socialization. A lot of success later in school is tied to feeling comfortable within a group.

      I never thought about copy-art being made especially so kids could have something to show the parents so they would think the program is "doing something."

  5. I feel fortunate in that preschool is not a necessity for us, more like an "extra" activity for our child. We were only looking for part-time preschool (a few days a week) because that's what we can afford. I have a 2.5 year old and initially I was certain Montessori was going to be the way we went but knowing my child and what she likes to do, and reading about what toddlers need vs adult preoccupation with preparing them for college, I decided my priorities for her right now were lots of play, as much contact with nature as possible, and an environment where non violent communication, warmth, and mutual respect were fostered. So I ended up going with a preschool that has a heavy emphasis on nature and spending time outdoors regardless of the weather (I live in the Pacific NW, so it is rainy/cloudy/cool a lot of the time). They have chickens, rabbits, and other animals; the kids are free to play outdoors as much as they like. They help make the meals. They do chores. They play. No sit down and "learn" time. They learn through interacting and problem solving, asking questions, trying things out. I want her in preschool to practice being with other kids her age, and to get a break from me. I also chose a place that was close to where I lived so I'd spend minimal time getting her there and back.

    • This is actually really similar to our situation! Jasper doesn't HAVE to go to preschool, we just think it'd be a good thing for him for a few different reasons. We're planning on starting out very part-time and seeing how it goes. 🙂

  6. This is a topic near and dear to my heart…I have taught preschool for 12 years, took 2 years off to have a child and then went back to work (gag) for a financial institution. But I am not cut out for office living, so I'm now gearing up to be an independent child care provider. I also went through the same pains in looking for child care for my son, before I said adios to the office.

    First of all, look at your child's personality-are they shy or insecure? Outgoing? Aggressive? Those are all key factors in choosing a school. My son is very sensitive and shy, so we made a point of finding a small, private school with a very low ratio (4 kids to 1 adult). A more outgoing child may do better with a larger group. If you have an aggressive child, you may want to look at a center that focuses on more physical play, for example.

    Also look at your own values. Is it really important that your child not have any TV exposure? Want your child to only have an organic diet? Do you hate the idea of a structured learning center and want your child to learn on his terms? Ask about these things when interviewing prospective schools. There are centers that cater to special diets, or focus on healthy living. Or ask if you can provide your child's food. Read up on Montessori or specialty schools. Just remember that every school is different, and there will be things you may have to compromise on. Just be certain of what is negotiable, and what isn't, before you start looking.

    And talk to other parents! Like Rodrigues said, find a school that parents say they love-they ask why they love it. If the reasons they love it sound good to you, check it out! If you don't have any parents you can talk to up front, ask schools for references. And don't be afraid to think outside of the box. I found our preschool on Craigslist. We met, and clicked. She was very understanding of my son's shyness, and made special arrangements to start gradually and work his way up to a full day. She had specialized in speech therapy, which was perfect for my speech-delayed guy. She also was prepared to start a second language with a child once she felt he or she was ready, which was also important to us (we're considering a language immersion elementary when the time comes.)

    But most importantly, DON'T PANIC. It's a tough choice to make, but keep the biggest part of the equation-your child-front and center in your decisions. If it feels right, and you and your child are happy, you've made the right decision.

    • As a preschool teacher for the last 3 years, this is all wonderful information!
      Find a school that fits in with YOUR lives. If you want your child to play all day, then find a school that caters to that. If you want your child ready for Kindergarten (our public schools are VERY advanced and Kindergarten is more like 1st grade. We work a lot to get our kids ready for Kindergarten), then find a school that will insure that your child will be ready.
      Don't be afraid to ask questions. No question is too dumb! Ask about their potty training requirements, ask about their biting policy, ask what their discipline policy is. Don't be afraid to sit and watch a classroom. Would your child feel at home here?

  7. I am in a similar spot, except that I need to find care for more hours than a preschool typically offers. I don't want to send my son to a preschool AND a daycare, so I'm trying to find something comparable to a preschool, but with a longer day. (I hate to leave my son for so long, but it will be best for us in the end.)

    I have been looking around and it seems like there are some pretty huge differences in options for a 2-year-old versus a 2.5 year-old, potty trained vs. not, etc. I would love to have more information on those subtleties.

    • Have you considered going with a Nanny? costwise it might end up being better … or doing preschool and THEN a Nanny to fill in the extra time? (It would also allow your child some downtime from a classroom full of other kids.)

  8. here in the UK, the term after your child turns 3 they get 15 hours a week free at a nursery (either state or private).

    I am totally looking for a place that plays first & learns from that. The academics start way too early here – she will be in school the term after she turns 4.

  9. First off, its helpful to know what preschool actually IS in your state. Some states provide half or full day PreK within their school departments, but this is rare. In most states, childcare is handled by the Department of Human Services. All states have licensing regulations and systems to keep care high quality. In Vermont, we have a great online system where you can search childcares and get all the basic details, plus find out if they've ever had a violation. Childcare centers and preschools are legally obligated to be honest with you about these violations. Some states also provide resource centers for parents trying to find the right fit.

    Also, some states will pay for a certain number of hours of preschool. The more research you do, the more prepared you'll be to find the best option.
    If you live in a state where preschool is private business, the first step is evaluating your own needs and whats important for your family. If food is a big deal, look for a preschool thats part of a food program or has a cook so you know exactly whats going into your diet. If you think multi-age settings are important (which I personally do) look for a childcare center or provider where your child can interact with toddlers, infants and possibly even schoolagers as well as other preschoolers. If the outdoors is important, look for someplace that has trees and grass on their playground instead of just mulch and metal/plastic equipment.

    If you want guaranteed high standards, look into NAEYC accredited centers or centers that have passed the ECERS.

    The best way to find out if a place is right for you is to visit with your child. Any reputable childcare center or provider will allow this. Observe the classrooms, ask lots of questions, and get a feel for how you and your family will fit into the center. Childcare isn't just for children, its really for the whole family.

    Once you do choose a center, the most important thing is communication. If you feel like you're being kept out of the loop, or something is making you uncomfortable, make sure you speak up and let someone know! Taking care of children can be really challenging since as providers we'll never really know them as well as you do. If you have suggestions or needs that aren't being met, express that to your childs teacher or the director. And if no one listens, or you feel like they're doing things that may be detrimental to children, call the Child Development Division in your state!

    If anyone has any questions about state-specific info or any other help I'd be happy to answer them – just drop me an email!

  10. I LOVE MY KID'S PRESCHOOL!!!! okay, I totally did have to shout that, cuz its totally true. My boys go to a montessori preschool. I told the director there one time that I felt like my kids were totally and completely utterly safe there, and I mean safe as in a "not-crushing souls" safe. There are maybe 75 kids total enrolled at the school, which means that there are less then that in the building at any given time. They have one male teacher, which is the class I put my boys in. All the teachers are awesome, but "Mr. James" is incredibly so. My sister picks the kids up from school and told me that shes never seen an adult treat kids the way he does, " he treats them like they are real people!"
    But beyond the gushing of how absolutley awesome it is and how I cried when my oldest had to leave, as afar as starting out… I had no clue. I chose the school I did becasue it was either them, or a regular school. I didnt know anything about montessori when I first started sending my boys. I just knew that a "regular" school setting didnt seem right. My oldest goes to a "regular" school and it still doesnt seem right. i really wish I was the kind of person who could homeschool, but seeing as how that would probably result in me ending up in a nuthouse, I know thats not the best option for our family. I dont think you can know ahead of time how you will feel about a certain place. I say trust your gut. As a parent thats about the best you can do. And get involved, be as involved with the school as you can be, spend time there, volunteer, whatever.

  11. I would suggest you pursue unschooling a little more. If your husband is willing to be the parent at home, it's a great opportunity, I think. Also, I am generally anti-preschool, and I think that 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 is too young to be forcing a child into education. I do understand how terrible that sounds, but I have my reasons. If you'd like some unschooling info, feel free to email me at conradreingold@gmail.com

  12. My daughter is only 10 months, so I'm not there yet. But I am so excited for her to go to preschool. I remember going very vividly, and I LOVED IT! I ended up going to the same preschool for three years (my mom was going through a divorce, so the school let me in when I was young, and let me stay on even when I was in Kindergarden. They understood that my mom didn't have anywhere safe for me to go. Plus I was such an awesome kid ^-^)

    I still remember Mrs. Mary. That woman was so kind. I was very shy, and she was always there with a big bear hug to get me excited for the day! She came to my award ceremony when I was in kindergarden, and for my birthday she took me and my mom out to eat at a restaurant.

    So, as someone who LOVED preschool, my advice would be to pick a school where the teachers understand you. I remember playing on the floor with the puzzles the principal gave me while she talked to my mom. My mom was close to tears, because of our situation, and the teachers responded with care. They understood that she was like them, a teacher, and she needed someone to put her daughter first because she often had other children as her priority, which made her feel guilty. So I definitely got the love and attention every kid should get from their teachers!

    I just love preschool! The right fit can be such a magical place for kids : )

    • That video is great! They seem to have a philosophy very similar to Steiner education. I will be sending my son to Steiner preschool and school, where he won't learn to read until about 7 years old. Academic learning starts way too early here as in the UK and US and there is good evidence that it does children no longterm good at all.

  13. Although this is pre-school aside, if you've ever even considered unschooling, please don't discount free schooling in terms of future education! Free Schools are democratically-run, age-mixed schools that are controlled by the students directly, with a great emphasis on play and kids learning at their own pace. I attended one, and it was an incredibly awesome dose of unschooling and community responsibility combined; if there's a free/sudbury school in your area, I urge everybody to give them a visit and see what they're all about.

  14. I did remember one other option that a friend of mine was able to capitalize on. In our area, there are preschools aimed at helping differently abled children gradually integrate into "mainstream" schools. As part of this program, they will allow children who do not have any of these challenges to attend the preschool free of charge, and act as a companion/role model for the other children. My friend loved it because he received his education in a smaller, more intimate environment, and he learned life-long lessons in compassion and equality. Just a thought, but I loved it!

  15. I worked at a Preschool for the past 5 years and my number one tip is to talk to as many of the employee's as you can. Try to talk to the teacher that will teach your child and make sure you can get along with them. Not everyone will share the same idea's and beliefs as you but a good teacher will be understanding and respectful to what you want. Also it's good to bring along your child and see how the caregiver interacts with your child and see how the other children interact as well. Also if there is no open door policy which allows you to see your child at anytime of the day, don't do it.

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