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Preschool Shopping 101

Top tips for finding the right fit for your child and family

Published on: March 22, 2019

Boy holding two thumbs up at preschool

Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Bright Horizons.

The process of choosing a preschool can stir up plenty of anxiety for parents, as this is often the first decision we make about our child’s education. It’s easy to put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and feel like we have to get this right and not make any mistakes. Common worries include: “How do I know if this school is right for my child? What if we don’t get into the right preschool? Will the choices I make now affect elementary school, high school and college choices later on?”

What’s really important to keep in mind is that preschool is a wonderfully positive opportunity for your child to experience time with peers, learn how to separate from a caregiver, and build their social/emotional skills. Ultimately, the “right” decision is about what works for your family, addresses your child’s individual needs, and reflects the type of early education community that you want to be a part of. Last time I looked, there were about 1,000 preschools in the greater Seattle area, so there are plenty of options and you will find the right place for your child.

When supporting your child’s early education and development, it’s really important for parents to keep in mind that learning happens best through play with young children.

Window shopping: Understanding different preschool learning philosophies

There’s a variety of different early-learning philosophies that we hear about from schools and other parents, and I think it’s helpful for parents to have a general idea of what the key differences are.

Montessori programs tend to focus on individual learning. It’s very self-paced and self-directed, with not a lot of group work. Teachers act as guides to help move children on to the next activities that might be right for them.

Reggio Emilia programs have four main characteristics. The first is that they’re group-based, so much of the work happens in both small and large groups. This approach also emphasizes teaching in a variety of different manners, so that learners with diverse learning styles and needs are able to engage with the material. Reggio Emilia programs tend to be project-based, and teachers work from an emergent curriculum. What that means is that they create and adapt the curriculum directly from what the children are interested in at that time.

Waldorf schools prioritize a focus on the natural world, favoring lots of time outdoors; in the classroom, you tend not to find technology, plastics, or synthetic items. The Waldorf philosophy is really about engaging and bending the child’s mind, spirit and soul toward a love of learning in their natural environment. Activities tend to be group-focused.

Cooperative preschools employ a lot of parent involvement in the running of the classroom. They’re often parent-run with a board, and the board hires the teachers.

Occasionally, you’ll hear about academics-based preschools — these would be teacher-driven settings that emphasize rigorous preparation for elementary school, without as much emphasis on what the children are motivated by or interested in learning and exploring. I can’t recommend this model, as it moves kids away from the way they learn best: by playing. Play is the work of children, and it allows them to focus on developmentally appropriate tasks, which act as building blocks to naturally move the child forward to next stages and discoveries.

How do I find the right fit?

When thinking about the right preschool for your child, start with your child. Think about who your child is and what activities they enjoy. Is she a social butterfly who likes to play with her peers, or does she prefer individual activities? Does he like a calm, quiet classroom environment? Or would a more active, engaged classroom better match his personality? Really focus on your child’s unique attributes and preferences for activities — and make sure that those qualities and options are supported by and reflected in the school.

Next, think about you and your family. Although you’re choosing education for your child, it’s important to think about what kind of community you as a parent want to be involved in. If it’s a community you feel like you can connect with, you are more likely to be actively involved in your child’s preschool experience. Thinking about your own child and your own values helps tune you in to a preschool that will be the right fit for everyone.

Play is the thing

When supporting your child’s early education and development, it’s really important for parents to keep in mind that learning happens best through play with young children. During play, kids learn how to: share, solve problems, delay gratification, regulate their emotions, and practice flexibility. In addition, play gives children ample time and occasion to develop empathy. This is a life skill that is critical for problem-solving and dealing with conflict. More and more research findings confirm that social/emotional skills really are the critical building blocks for future academic success, so we need to prioritize play so that our children are ready to learn when they hit elementary school.

Sometimes our drive to make sure our children are prepared for success later in life can create unrealistic expectations for what we want them to know coming out of preschool. For example, having an expectation that our kids should be able to read and write in preschool would not be a developmentally appropriate objective or outcome, because focusing on those skills might come at the expense of tasks and experiences that would be more developmentally appropriate and essential for that age. If your child is interested in reading and writing, of course a teacher supporting and providing opportunities for your child to further develop those skills is great.

Realistic expectations about what your child will learn from preschool include: having ample time to practice skills without fear of making mistakes; developing social/emotional skills through learning how to interact with their peers; developing confidence in their abilities; and learning that school is fun and learning is fun.

How do I make this decision?

The first step in thinking about preschool decision-making is to identify your priorities. This includes thinking about childcare needs — do you need part-time or full-time? Carefully consider the location: There might be a terrific preschool across town, but are you willing to drive there during non-school days to support your children’s developing friendships?

Consider what curricular activities you would like your child to experience. Is a second language important? Is music or the arts important? Consider what kind of community you want to be a part of: Do you want a setting where you need to be involved, or do you want something that’s a drop-off? Is it important that the program or school philosophy affiliates with a cultural or religious practice?

After identifying your priorities, you need to do your research. This involves talking to other parents, attending preschool fairs and evaluating available programs online.

After doing your research, it is imperative to visit schools and ask a lot of questions. Kid-test your top choices: Bring your child with you, and notice how the teachers and staff interact with them. Also pay attention to the environment. Is it bright and well lit? Is it clean? Are there any safety red flags that you notice? When you have a chance to ask questions of teachers and administrators, it’s important to inquire about their discipline philosophy and strategies. How do they handle situations when kids get into mischief? Asking about staff retention may give you a clue as to how happy they are in their jobs.

Keep reflecting back to the values you identified as priorities for a preschool fit for your kid and evaluate if those seem to be a part of the curriculum and environment.

Keep reading ...

You've found the right school and day one is right around the corner. Keep reading for Sarina's tips on preparing your child — and yourself — for a smooth transition to preschool

Lastly, trust your instincts. You know your child best, and you will be able to find the right fit for them. And, if for some reason it doesn’t feel like the right fit after you’ve started, know that children are incredibly resilient, and if you need to switch schools, you’ll be able to do so.

My biggest piece of advice is to try to not let the preschool hype overwhelm you: Pay attention to the specific factors that are important to you. When you shift your focus to the bigger picture, the decision becomes less about the “perfect” preschool and more about the best fit for your child and family.

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