I loved preschool: puzzles, paints and plenty of play. We adored musical chairs, were crazy for crackers, and at rest time, dutifully rolled out blankets and teddy bears.
I have no idea whether Miss Mimi — our practically perfect preschool teacher — followed any sort of standardized curriculum. I do remember feeling happy and secure in that class while somehow managing to meet the requisite scholastic objectives, which in those days amounted to “gets along well with others.”
Simplicity is bliss. But so, as they say, is ignorance; maybe that’s why navigating the preschool terrain these days is considerably more complicated. The truth is, we know more than we used to. Thanks to advances in child development and neuroscience, parents and educators are paying closer attention to the way kids process information during their preschool years.
We know, for example, that early socialization facilitates learning. While you can provide your children with countless opportunities for social interaction at home, the kind of group interaction kids encounter in a preschool setting is difficult to duplicate.
We know that while all play promotes learning, physical play helps children develop motor and cognitive skills, and creative play helps them connect with their own feelings. And we realize that early childhood education experts — using carefully selected games and materials most of us don’t stash in the playroom — understand how to maximize that play environment.
What to look for
The array of philosophies and preschool options available today can be downright confusing. What to choose: Montessori? Reggio? Waldorf? The days when parents happily settled for the little nursery school down the block seem a distant memory.
Though preschool programs vary, the kinds of elements that shape excellent preschools remain consistent, experts say. So before stressing over educational theories and learning philosophies, take a look at the big picture: Think about what kind of preschool environment you’d like — overall — for your child.
For starters, look for quality, says Jerlean Daniel, Ph.D., deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “Good preschools give children a readiness boost for the rest of their lives,” says Daniel.
Identifying a quality preschool
Check out the preschool teachers. Are they qualified? NAEYC professionals feel preschool teachers should hold degrees in early childhood education. “This tells parents these are people who have studied children and have studied education,” says Daniel.
Find out if those teachers stick around. Frequent staff turnovers undermine stability. “Young children learn at their best when they have consistent relationships with the adults in the preschool program,” says Daniel.
Quality early learning experiences come in many shapes and sizes, says Marty Jacobs, family services director at Child Care Resources in Seattle. “Parents must make sure their own values are consistent with the preschool program they select.”
So look for a preschool program that fits your child and jibes with your own cultural background — and your youngster’s personality. Would he be happier in a busy, boisterous preschool setting — or in a more subdued, quieter one? Make sure the preschool's discipline policies and behavioral expectations match your own.
Find out how kids spend their day. Do they play outdoors? Work on computers? Take field trips? In Montessori preschool classrooms, everything has a purpose, says Eve Buckle, principal of Lake Forest Park Montessori in Shoreline. “Activities are called ‘work,’” she says. “Every piece of material in the classroom has a cognitive development component.”
What’s your style?
You won’t find dress-up corners in a Montessori classroom, but you might them in a Waldorf program, where cooking, singing, art, story time and dress-up thrive. “We find children learn most efficiently through play,” says Meg Petty, admissions director at the Seattle Waldorf School.
The Reggio Emilia approach emphasizes collaboration — groups work together — with teachers taking their cues from the kids. “We listen to the children and investigate what they are interested in,” says Diane Kroll, director of early childhood services at the Puget Sound Education Service District.
Maybe a cooperative preschool is more your style; these preschools are run by parent volunteers and are often less expensive than other programs.
Visit a variety of preschools and watch the way the adults interact with the children. “Look for preschool teachers who are interested, engaged and enthusiastic, who like the children and like being there,” says Jacobs.
Then take a good, close look at the kids. Are they happy? Having fun? Engrossed in activities? “Get a feel for the tenor and tempo of the class,” says Daniel. “Go there when things are happening. Then ask yourself, can I imagine my child in that room?”
Linda Morgan, ParentMap associate editor and education writer, is a former writing instructor.
Selecting a preschool
- Watch to see that children interact with other children and adults.
- Ask about the curriculum, which should include a variety of activities appropriate for the children’s ages and needs.
- The staff should have the educational background to promote your child’s learning and development. Ask what degrees and training teachers have.
- Ask how long teachers have been with the program. Teachers who stay in the program longer are more able to focus their attention on the children and establish bonds with them.
- Ask how information and concerns are communicated between staff and families.
- Make sure the program is licensed by the state.
- The facilities should be age appropriate and well maintained, both indoors and outdoors.
- Check whether the program has policies and practices to help keep children safe from preventable illness and injury.
- Ask about the child-to-teacher ratio, which helps determine how much individual attention your child will get.
Source: National Association for Early Childhood Education; from NAEYC Early Childhood Program Standards
Other things to consider
Is the school NAEYC accredited? The National Association for the Education of Young Children sets standards that preschools must meet to earn accreditation. Check out a description of these guidelines — and a listing of accredited preschool programs — at the NAEYC website.
Find out if the program is licensed by the state. The Department of Early Learning (DEL) licenses child-care centers and home child-care providers based on health and safety checks, CPR training, the skill and training of providers, staff-to-child ratios and other standards. Go to DEL website for more information.
Check out teacher-child ratios. NAEYC standards require one teacher per six students in a class of 12 2-and-a-half- to 3-year-olds, for example. For 4-year-old preschoolers, the ratio should be one teacher for eight students in a class of 16. Go to the NAEYC website for teacher-child ratio charts.
Other considerations for preschools: cost, location, and schedule. Working parents might need full-time before- and after-school care. Others may opt to send their tots to school for a few hours a day, several times a week. For more information about licensed care, go to the Washington State Child Care Resource and Referral Network.
Originally published in the January, 2009 print edition of ParentMap.