I learned the hard way that when it comes to preschools, looks can be deceiving.
The first preschool my daughter attended had a charming appearance. It was like stepping into a page from The Land of Nod catalogue. I fell in love with its decor and forgot to pay attention to the really important pieces of how the classroom functioned and what my child would be doing all day. We knew after the first few months that it wasn’t a good fit for her. When I did my second round of looking the following year, I had my priorities straight.
All preschools you consider should be licensed and have qualified, caring teachers. Beyond these two basics, what should you look for?
1. Play At The Center of the Day
Most grown-ups look at playing as simply an activity for amusement or recreation, because that is how we tend to use it in our own lives. For children, there is far more to play than meets the eye.
Playing, the kind of free, unstructured play that most children excel at, is essential to healthy development in all areas of a child’s functioning. To parents who want a preschool environment with strong academics and instruction, I say there is no better teacher for your child at this young age than play.
University of Cambridge researcher David Whitebread reviewed relevant research evidence on the benefits of play-based preschools and found, “Pretend play supports children’s early development of symbolic representational skills, including those of literacy, more powerfully than direct instruction.”
Free-play does not mean a free-for-all. A skillful teacher will know how to guide children’s play to amplify it’s benefits. They will also know when to intervene in order to help children negotiate parameters of their play with other children.
Talk to the teachers about how they prioritize and manage play throughout the school day.
2. Outdoors Everyday
Research is mounting to show the many positive side-effects of spending time outdoors. Direct experience with a natural environment improves student learning and behavior, and promotes emotional well-being. Interestingly, researchers at the University of Illinois found that symptoms of ADD were significantly reduced in children when they engage with nature. Children need to move in all directions to strengthen and develop the vestibular system. Climbing trees or playground structures, doing cartwheels, rolling down hills, etc. are necessary activities for kids.
Talk to the teachers to find out how much time kids spend outside and in what conditions. Bonus points if they engage the children in nature studies within the classroom.
3. Classroom Community
For many kids, preschool is the first place outside the home where they learn how to be a member in a community. While the teacher should get to know each child as an individual, you also want your child to feel like they belong to this special group. Socialization, relationship-building, and conflict resolution are at the forefront of creating a safe and positive classroom. The classroom should emphasize manners and respect for all, as well as personal responsibility. When it comes to discipline, emphasis should be placed on teaching rather than punishment. Children should participate in tidying up and having small jobs as helpers in the classroom.
Talk to the teachers about the ways in which they foster a sense of community for the kids and the parents. Understand their policies around discipline to make sure they mesh with your values. Ask about ways you can contribute and cooperate with the school over the course of the year.
What do you see when you walk in? How does the space make you feel? Things should be organized, clean, and safe.
There should be plenty of toys that encourage imaginative play such as dress-up clothes and building blocks. There should be art supplies and children’s artwork on the walls. The room(s) should be big enough for kids to move around comfortably. There should be outdoor space for play and preferably a quiet indoor space where kids can rest and relax. There should be a sense of order (even in the midst of children playing and creating) and routine so children feel secure in the predictability of the day.
Have a good look around all areas of the preschool including classroom, kitchen, and bathrooms. Talk to the teachers about safety, cleanliness procedures, and daily routines.
5. Teacher Rapport
Having good communication with your child’s teacher is key for a successful school year. Make sure you feel comfortable talking with the teacher and get a good sense of how communication between school and home takes place. This relationship becomes especially important if your child has any learning or behavior difficulties. Teachers should always be open and responsive to the parent’s understanding of their child.
Look for a teacher who emphasizes student strengths and participation over deficits and performance.