How to Spot a High Quality Play-Based Preschool

It’s January, and in many families that means time to register for preschool.  I’ve had several readers email me describing the overwhelming task of selecting a quality preschool, and asking for my suggestions.  So I’ve assembled a list here of what I would look for in a quality play-based preschool.  This is my dream list, and you have to realize that there are some great programs that won’t have every component I list here.  You have to be aware of what your priorities are and what you’re willing to live without or make up for at home. 

Structure/Schedule

Free Play.   I would want to see about one hour of a part day program devoted to free play.  This doesn’t mean everyone in the classroom is running around screaming.  This means the children get to choose from a variety of planned and prepared activity areas (discussed below) that they can engage in with little direction from teachers.  (Notice I said ”little direction” not “little interaction.  More on that later too.)  This format provides for more valuable social interactions, allows children to be inquisitive and follow their interests at their individual paces, while also teaching children to plan and organize their time.

Large Group.  A smaller portion of the day would be spent in a large group setting where all of the children meet together for group games, music and movement, fingerplays, stories, group discussions, or active and appropriate mini-lessons.

Small Groups.   Time would also ideally allow for children to be divided into smaller groups for book activities, cooking opportunities, or other projects that require more individualized attention.

Snack.  I like to see a snack in the structure, not just because I like food, but because there is a lot that can be taught about social skills in that setting.  A little food along the way also helps to keep little bodies on an even keel.

Environment

The preschool room would be inviting, print-rich, and child-centered.  Get down on your child’s level and see it through her eyes.  Can you see the decorations?  Can you reach the supplies?  The room should be arranged in a way that invites your child to participate, and teachers should be able to identify the developmental objectives of each activity.

These are the activity areas I would look for in an ideal room:

Dramatic Play. This is the dress-up area.  Ideally the props and themes would change from time to time.  Language and social skills are strengthened here, along with problem-solving and symbolic thinking (critical for reading and other academic endeavors).

Art.  Along with an easel, it’s ideal to see a table in an area that encourages creative art.  Supplies may be organized as to be available every day, but ideally the media would change from time to time.  I would hope to see more arts than crafts here.

Sensory.  Whether it’s a homemade sensory bin or a high-end water table, I’d like to see an area where children can explore a variety of sensory media.

Blocks/Construction/Large Motor.  A large open area should be available for block play where children might build with unit blocks as well as a variety of other construction sets like marble tracks, pipes, or tracks.  This large open area would also be used for large motor movement activities like obstacle courses or music and movement activities.  (Of course it could be so ideal that they have both in two separate spaces! :0)

Small Manip.  One area would ideally be devoted for manipulatives that promote fine motor development.  This is the place for puzzles, lacing beads, peg boards, and small blocks like Legos.

Writing Area.  To encourage literacy, there would be an area of the room with writing supplies (notebooks, clipboards, pencils, crayons, envelopes, etc.) available to the children at any time.  Additional writing supplies would be integrated into other areas as props, lists, or sign-up sheets.

Book Shelf.  There should be a book shelf in the room that visually calls the children to come and read.  The area would ideally include soft areas for the children to plop down with a book.  In my ideal scenario, children would be read to in a variety of settings throughout the day: whole group, small group, one-on-one in free choice time, or simply browsing independently.

Outside.  In my perfect world, every preschool program has a devoted outside area for the children (which is offered as part of free choice and also integrated into other planned activities.)  This area would be safe, but also with natural rough edges.  Fancy slides and play equipment are nice, but I’d trade it for a big sandbox, gardens, trees, and bushes. 

Teachers

I would hope to observe teacher interactions in the classroom.  Teachers would be interacting with children (not just other teachers) during free choice time, questioning, rephrasing, and challenging the children, not just directing or reprimanding them.  I would watch for signs of rapport with the children: getting down on their level to make eye-contact, appropriate touch, enthusiasm, positive guidance, and a passion for what they do, as well as a positive response from the children.  In a perfect world, a preschool class would maintain a teacher to child ratio of one teacher per four or five children.  I would want to know that the teachers were well-trained and that the staff had a low turnover rate. 

Questions

If I had the chance to ask questions during an orientation or a visit with the director, in addition to any questions about what I’ve already written above, I’d ask:

What type of communication can I expect? (I’d hope not only for an open-door policy and open communication, but also for newsletters that tell about what’s going on and what’s being learned, not just when I need to pay and when the next parent event is.)

What is your philosophy about play and academics?  (I think I’ve made my own opinion clear here.)

What do you do to encourage developmentally appropriate practice?  (If the director is unfamiliar with this term, I’d be pretty nervous.)

How do you deal with behavior issues?  (I’d be hoping for some positive guidance techniques of course.)

What can I do to help in this program?  (I want a program that sees me as a partner, not just a bus driver with a tuition check.)

You’ll want to spend some time thinking about other questions that pertain specifically to your own child’s needs.  It’s also a good idea to connect with other parents who have or have had children in the program.  (You can ask the director for references.)  Parents will give you a different perspective than directors and teachers.

What I’ve described here is my ideal.  Keep in mind that you may not find everything in one program.  Decide which things are deal breakers and which ones you can compensate for.  Each child is different, and responds differently to different details.  In the end, you have to go with your gut.

What would you add to my lengthy list?  What do you look for?

Photos by Anissa Thompson.
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19 Comments

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19 Responses to How to Spot a High Quality Play-Based Preschool

  1. This is an AMAZING post. I am a preschool teacher and what you have written here is exactly what I needed to hear! I want to be the change- I want to be different. And I want the children in my room to learn, but also have fun. Thank you for this post- I am going to print it and take it to school with me so that everyone can read it!!!

  2. Having worked in two daycares, one of which was low quality, I think these are great standards, particularly the teacher-to-child ratio. I worked in a good daycare the second time, but our ration was 1 teacher to 11 two-year-olds. Not kidding. It was pretty much impossible to manage.

  3. Thanks for the great post – I’ve literally been looking forward to Friday just for your post and you didn’t disappoint! I’m going on preschool tours the next 2 Thursdays and you can be sure I’m printing out this list and bringing it with me!

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  5. Sarah Bilbao

    Great points, Mandy! I especially liked that you wouldn’t ask, “So will my child be reading when they leave your program?” Or (my favorite) “You mean these kids just play a majority of the time they are here?” Something I would look for, that I believe makes a big difference, is some level of education about Early Childhood from the head teacher or director. Experience is great but having the know-how to back it is critical! I’ve seen programs where the director boasts loads of experience but has no or little knowledge of how children learn best. I tell people to steer away from mini-Kindergartens where activities are teacher-directed and children are given little choice in what they do or how long they participate. Thank you for being such a great advocate of play and developmentally appropriate methods of teaching!

  6. Tina

    Thank you, thank you.
    This list amazing and a relief to have. It verbalized what I loved about one program I found and am now looking for in another program. While reading, it I realized I was super lucky that the first preschool I found for my child had everything on the list–including a separate large motor room for bad air and rainy days.

  7. Megan

    Wow, I feel so great about the choices we have made for our son after reading this list! His preschool has everything on your list, and I chose it based on my gut reaction and my own experience as an educator. I’m so proud of myself now. ; ) But the most important thing to me? My son LOVES going to school each day. What more can a parent ask for?

  8. Kristen Kevorkian

    Great post!!! I know I am a few months late reading it, but its amazing. I taught infants, toddlers, and preschool. I have been in bad centers and great centers. This is a spectacular, concise list of what parents need to know while looking for a center. My daughter just turned one, so we are not looking around yet. But I linked this on my facebook page for all of the moms I know! I agree with Sarah that adding “Teacher education” to the positives would be good. Another great resource for quality centers is NAEYC accreditation (buts its a lot of work and money to get it, so not all quality centers have it). And there was nothing in your post about worksheets, identical artwork, or being prepared for kindergarten through academics. I am so happy!!!

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  10. I particularly love your section about the teachers. No, they’re NOT paid to stand around talking to each other, or to parents for long periods of time (which usually means it’s just local gossip!). I think for me that’s the ‘crunch’ observation that makes the difference between a place that’s just okay and a place that’s great for your kids.

    It seems to me that the place to watch for this aspect is in the great outdoors. Many carers seem to take the view that once the kids are outside, the carers’ job is just to mop up after accidents and try to prevent risky behaviours- but NO, interacting and scaffolding learning is still a huge part of their job.

  11. Shesapeach

    I think one thing most parents need to realize is that all teachers in preschool and daycare programs are severely underpaid. I’ve worked in this field for 12 years and whereas I have a bachelors and many years under my belt there are many things you don’t know about what makes a quality program. Is it important to have these vital things you mentioned? Absolutely. I agree with everyone. But what you don’t have listed IS the staff connections with each other and the parents. You can have all the training in the world and experience to boot, but if you have your child in a program where the staff doesn’t have great communication skills with each other (yes, this does include talking to each other occasionally) and the parents (YES this ALSO means talking to parents about whatever THEY would like to talk about…) then you are missing some key components to a great childcare atmosphere. Children see the relationships between teachers and parents and feed off that energy. It affects the way they learn respect and the way they also interact with each other. For all you parents that see a lot of turnover, you WON’T if you find a program that has the couple things I have mentioned. These people that spend an insane amount of time with your children are making little to nothing because they are passionate about what they do and the family it has become to them. You can have all the designated sections to a center… but really unless you have that child/teacher/parent/staff interaction it doesn’t even matter.

    And how about if the center is clean?

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  13. Debbie

    I was always a stay at home parent but now some of my grandkids go to daycare/preschool. I watch a couple of them but the ones I don’t, I made sure I checked the one 2 of my granddaughters attend. I talked to the owner and was satisfied but what I really liked was I was able to come anytime. Some places want notice. If thats the case it would make me wonder why? I like knowing they don’t have anything to hide and I can pop in anytime. I also like knowing there are security cameras and we can look at them anytime. You may want to add these to your list also. Good luck to everyone looking, I know it is nerve wracking but there are good ones out there.

    • notjustcute

      Good tip, Debbie. I can understand a school having policies that will keep interruptions to a minimum, but when I hear of a school that does not welcome parents into the classroom at all, I get uneasy as well!

  14. Helen Rubin

    Great post Amanda! I agree about outdoor play space – I’ve started looking at the outdoor spaces for daycares I pass and I would like spaces exponentially larger than any I’ve seen thus far. 3-5s need large spaces to kick balls while allowing plenty of space for others in the class, and not to damage plants, veggies and flowers I would hope to see.
    I also think many indoor spaces are too small for group size. I’m attempting to come up with a square footage per child that I’ve auccessfully worked in with infants, indoors and out, so as to give an actual size of space per child – probably way larger than legally required!
    I also would like far more hours of free play – for me this means more highly qualified and aware caregivers – ‘free play’ doesn’t mean adults do nothing. I totally agree with Aunt Annie’s comments about carers being ‘on duty’ when they are outside – it’s still part of our work and gives many great opportunities to connect with children, which I truly love! Thanks again for a thoughtful post and comments.

  15. This is a great list to start with but really I would also ask about what the center offers for teachers to further their development. In the Early Childhood it is important that teachers are updated and reminded regularly about recent changes in legislation which happens quite frequently here in the UK.

    Therefore I would like to know that my child is in a setting where the employer understands their responsibility in developing their own staff. Also this makes staff happier and helps them to better themselves in their work – which usually also helps with staff turnover.

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