There are so many different types of educational philosophies it is easy to see why the preschool search process can quickly become confusing and frustrating. This post will serve as an introductory to How to Choose a Preschool. I am a firm believer that simply by walking through a school you will be able to tell whether it is a good fit. Today I’m sharing my knowledge as an Early Childhood Educator to teach you what to look for in a preschool setting and the questions to ask in order to make the process easier and find the best environment for your child to thrive.
HOW TO CHOOSE A PRESCHOOL
So here you are. You’ve Googled a bunch of schools in your area. Maybe you have asked some friends where their kids went to preschool. Now it is time to actually visit the schools. But what are you looking for? What do you need to ask?
A GREAT PRESCHOOL WILL HAVE…
A HAPPY DIRECTOR AND TEACHING STAFF
Trust your instincts on this one. From the first time you meet a director and the teaching staff you should feel welcomed and happy to be in their school. Observe how the director and teachers speak to children and about children. Teaching is an art. Educators should be smiling and laughing and playing amongst the children. Are the adults down on the child’s level when they talk to them? Are they engaged in the classroom activities? Are they using a gentle tone when speaking to children? Notice how the director speaks about the school, teachers and students. Does s/he have joyful stories to share? Observe how the director speaks to children in the hall or classroom. Respecting children and the space they learn in should be the number one concern when choosing a preschool. Inquire about the discipline practices at the school. Discipline means to teach, not to punish. During these early years teachers should make every effort to focus on age-appropriate expectations and redirection whenever possible. Children are learning at this age and do not need to be punished for mistakes. Mistakes and experimenting are how we learn.
ART THAT IS CHILD-MADE AND PROCESS-BASED
This is so important! I can go into a classroom without any teachers or students present and tell how the children are being educated simply by what is on the walls. Early childhood art should be process-based. This means that children are being given the freedom and respect to explore the art materials from their own point of view rather than being told exactly what to make by an adult. So much learning occurs when children have the time to experiment with materials without the constraints of art having to “be something.” Look at the work on the walls. Does each child’s work look unique or are their 16 papers with the same cut out pumpkin on the wall? There is nothing better to see on the wall than a 3 year old’s art of torn papers glued to another piece of paper. This is age appropriate art. Learn more about process over product here.
AGE-APPROPRIATE, HANDS-ON CENTERS IN CLASSROOMS
When entering a preschool classroom look at the type of learning opportunities. Preschool classrooms should be set up to allow children to easily flow through the room and engage in a variety of experiences. There should be activities set up for exploring writing/drawing, sensory experiences (water, sand, pom poms, etc.), block area (more on this later), art, playdough/silly putty, dramatic play, gross motor (Is there a loft, see saw, stairs to climb?), small group games, cooking opportunities, science exploration and math activities. Obviously, not all these activities would be occuring at one time, but I would love to see 4-5 at a time. Questions to ask: How do children choose their activities? Do children get to rotate through different activities? What do teachers see as their role in the activities? A knowledgable teacher will understand that the classroom environment is often described as the “third teacher”. A great teacher puts a tremendous amount of thought into how a classroom is designed and the activities that are presented to children. Preschool teachers are facilitators of knowledge.
My daughters are very lucky to be at a school with an amazing outdoor environment including wooded trails to explore. I taught in New York City where we had space constraints that did not allow for an enormous play yard, but that did not mean we stayed inside. Besides using our play yard in all types of weather we also went for walks around the city and visited local playgrounds for more space to run. Outdoor time is incredibly important and one I believe we need to continue to fight for in our schools. Walk through the outdoor space. What type of structures are included in the space? Is there room to run? Jump? Climb? Use tricycles? There is no need for fancy playground equipment. One of the best schools I ever trained at simply had enormous wooden hollow blocks and ramps where the children created there own play structures. Talk about using those big muscle groups and imaginations! Questions to ask: How often do the children get outside? How long is the outdoor time? What type of weather do the children go outside in? Nothing makes me cheer louder than a school that embraces the weather changes! I love knowing my girls put their rain boots and coats on to go out in the puddles at school and snow paints are a must in the winter to sled on their hill. Kids (and adults) need outdoor time!
LITERACY RICH CLASSROOM
At this age there is no need to be teaching isolated skills such as individual letters of the alphabet, handwriting or reading. Literacy in preschool is about singing, informal conversations between students and teachers, formal class discussions during meeting/circle times, children seeing their name in print multiple times throughout the school day, labels on objects in the classroom, dictations of their observations and imaginative stories, listening to picture books, exploring books on their own, dramatic play, playdough for building fine motor muscles that are necessary for writing and following recipe instructions when cooking. I will stop myself here, but the point is a well-taught and designed preschool class is rich with literacy without ever having the need for a “letter of the day” curriculum.
BLOCK BUILDING AREA
I believe so strongly that block building should be an intrical part of the preschool curriculum that I am dedicating an entire section to it. Unit blocks are an amazing learning tool that all preschool teachers should be embracing in the classroom. You can read about the importance of Block Building here. The block area should be a large section of the room dedicated to building. The space should include the unit blocks sorted by shape and kept in a shelving unit. Learn more about the history of block building and how to create your own block are here.
Creating a diverse classroom is not just about the students you have in your room. Take the time to explore the children’s books on the shelves. Do the books reflect diverse ethnicities, gender roles, various family dynamics (single parents, two parent households, same-sex couples, etc.)? Ask questions about how family cultures (including holidays) are included in the preschool education. How does the school embrace non-English speaking families?
Last, but by no means least, a wonderful preschool program will be filled with happy kids. Look around a classroom. Are children engaged in activities? Close your eyes. What do you hear? Is there a happy buzzing sound of children playing? Is there laughter? The overall mood of a school should be joyful.
Preschool is a magical place. It is often children’s first introduction to a school setting. Help your child learn that school is a place to play, learn, explore and have fun.
Parents and teachers- if you have any questions about the preschool experience please feel free to message me. I’d love to hear from you!
Special thanks to the School for Young Children for allowing me to photograph your beautiful space. Learn more about the school here.