It’s that time of year again. Parents everywhere are standing behind one-way windows or sitting on child-sized chairs, trying to peek in on preschool classrooms and hoping to ascertain whether or not it’s the right fit for their children.
I often have people ask me what they should be looking for. My first answer: You have to know your own child and pay attention to those specific needs and interests. Once those individual needs are taken into consideration, here are some things I look for in a quality play-based preschool setting, originally posted last year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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? What other questions do you have as you check out preschools for your child?
Get a free download to guide you through this process – PLUS, check out the podcast discussion with master teacher, Deborah Stewart – all found here!
Photos by Anissa Thompson.
With the days of choosing pre-schools now in my past, I can play the Monday morning quarter back. We chose our eldest daughter’s first pre-school simply because everyone else thought it was great. Clearly this was not the way to go! After doing that, I realized that chosing a pre-school is a lot like choosing a husband. What is right for one person is not right for everyone. When we looked again, I honestly went with my gut. There was one place I walked in to and just knew it was right. Sort of a wishy washy response but it certainly worked for us!
Beth Torah says
As a preschool director I enjoyed reading the article.I think the suggestions for parents are excellent.
Find the place where your child and you can be comfortable-
not necessarily where your adult friends’ children go.
Amanda @NotJustCute says
So true! At the end of the day, you have to know your own child and trust your own gut.
My daughter will be 3 in July, and come September (I am in the UK) she will be allocated 15 hours free pre-schooling. I am wondering, is 3 too young to start out in a pre-school environment? My gut tells me 3 is too young, but my family and friends disagree with me, saying I worry too much.
We go to playgroups twice a week, where I am there, sometimes playing alongside her or sometimes sitting talking to the other parents/carers and watching her interact independently – but friends have said that it is developmentally important that she is in an environment without me there. My daughter has a morning with her grandmother and an afternoon with her other grandmother each week.
Have I got it all wrong? I am conscious of pushing too much, too soon, and perhaps I have dug my heels in and am pushing too far in the other direction that I have lost my perspective??
Thanks for this post, it is really timely for me as I sit with the number of a few playgroups on my to-do list.
Sorry for hijacking a little.
Amanda @NotJustCute says
Your question is a great one. Though I suppose the answer is yes and no. In my opinion, three is not too young for preschool if you’re considering the question as it pertains to a group. That being said, not every three year old is ready for preschool, and not every three year old needs preschool. It’s another one of those situations where you have to know your own child and feel out which road is best for her. It may be worth seeking out a program and getting registered so that you have a place if you want one when fall rolls around. It’s amazing how much your daughter will change in that time period, and it tends to be easier to drop out of a program than to get in to one late. Good luck with your decision!
As an avid follower of your blog, and someone who respects everything you have to say – it means so much that you have taken the time to respond to my quandary. I feel calmer about the idea of preschool just from one short paragraph.
You are so right, she is changing so much, so quickly. I think it is very likely that I worry too much, and am just terrified of sending her off into the big bad world without me. Crazy, I guess. But human.
I will go visit, asking all the questions you have armed me with and make my choice, get her registered, and then see how we feel in September.
Thank you so much.
I have been working in childcare for 8 years and I believe your list is VERY good! I would also look for cleanliness, professionalism, and would not schedule a tour, but stop in when I know it wouldn’t be crazy, but the kids were active. Generally a good time is between 9 and 1030 (after breakfast, drop offs, and before lunch) or after 230/3 when the children are up. I would also look at the behavior of the other children as this can show a prospective parent the children their child will be with, as well as how the teachers handle the kids. I would also want to know about teacher’s education and if the school has teachers continuing their education. I want to be sure my kids teachers are there because they want to do this and help my child grow and learn, not just because they like kids and need a paycheck.
Sheri Brown says
How do you view behaviors? Are they clues? Is there a developmental support person to help teachers figure out why children behave the way they do – and to keep teacher frustration levels low? Is there adequate staffing to reduce teacher burnout? Does staff view children as competent? Are families partners?
Great questions to add!
Thanks for the tips on what to look for in a preschool. My little daughter is about ready to start, so I want to find the best option for her. I like how you said to find a place with a nice bookshelf and a comfy reading area. I want her to love to read, so that is a good thing to look for!
Callum Palmer says
I hadn’t really thought about how snacks could be so important when it comes to choosing a preschool, but you do raise a good point. After all, sitting down to eat snacks with their friends can be a very social situation for young preschoolers. It is a great opportunity to teach them about interacting in social situations.