A Preschool Primer
Choosing a preschool can seem overwhelming given the wide range of schedules, philosophies, costs and more.
Stephanie Barry Agnew, assistant director at Parent Place on the Peninsula and a former Palo Alto preschool director, offers the following tips:
• Plan ahead. Start your preschool search at least a year before you want your child to attend. “The earlier you start, the more options you have,” she says. But don’t panic if you get a late start. Many schools offer rolling admission. Flexibility – such as a willingness to attend an afternoon class – can help secure a spot.
• Consider your needs. How far are you willing to drive, and how much do you want to spend in tuition? Do you need full-time childcare, or do you want a part-time experience for your child?
Agnew recommends at least three half-days a week but says full-time preschool isn’t necessary unless childcare is needed. If your child is already in daycare, consider whether it is structured close enough to a preschool day – with a set program and children grouped by age – to leave him in the same setting. Two-year-olds can benefit from group settings such as classes in lieu of starting preschool.
• Check educational philosophies. Montessori and language-immersion are just two of the many different types of preschools now available. Some schools emphasize academics, while others focus on play. (See sidebar.) Check out schools with approaches that interest you and that you think would be the right fit for your child. But know that even schools with the same philosophy can vary greatly.
• Do your homework. Talk to friends, co-workers and neighbors about their children’s preschools and their pros and cons. Attend preschool fairs, many sponsored by local mothers’ groups. Then check schools websites, review sites or other resources such as www.BayAreaParent.com. You may want to check if schools that interest you are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. While plenty of quality schools are not, Agnew says a school making the effort and paying the expense to earn accreditation is “a feather in their cap.”
• Plan a visit. Observe the program and meet the director and teachers. Check with schools you are considering to see if they offer set open houses or tours or will allow you to schedule a visit of your choosing. Agnew recommends parents visit initially without their child. “Look for teachers who are very engaged with children, not just cleaning and setting up and telling kids what to do.”
In addition to observing teachers, determine whether the indoor space is clean, well lit and safe, and what the outdoor space has to offer. Check out the children’s artwork. Does it look fun and creative, or does the school use a lot of worksheets?
Make sure the school’s license is posted (or ask to see it). Check out class sizes, and see what the school’s teacher-student ratio looks like in person.
“You can have a 1-8 ratio, but still have 40 kids in a class,” Agnew says. “Even if you have a lot of teachers, if you have more than 25 (students) in a room, it can be really overwhelming. … It’s too much noise, too many bodies, too many germs. It’s too much for most kids to process.”
• Let the school know you’re interested. Once you’ve identified a school or schools you like, make sure to let them know what you can offer, whether volunteer hours or special skills. “The more involved a parent is, the more the child gets out of it,” Agnew says.
Types of Preschools – Which School is the Right Fit?
Academic Preschool – A structured approach to preschool, academic programs focus on kindergarten and school readiness, emphasizing reading or reading readiness and mathematics.
Co-op Preschool – Preschool cooperatives are nonprofits formed by parents with similar philosophies who own, administer and maintain a preschool and pay less for it in the process. A teacher plans the curriculum, and parents contribute their talents to help enrich the classroom. Sometimes, parents can opt out of participating by paying more for their children to attend.
Developmentally Appropriate or Play-Based Preschool – The most common type of preschool philosophy, it tends to emphasize the different areas of a preschooler’s development: physical, cognitive, emotional and social. The classroom is set up with a “hands-on” approach, with a mix of self-directed and teacher-directed activities.
Forest/Outdoor Preschool – Schools generally have an outdoor/nature focus and may or may not have a classroom component. Classes that take place entirely outdoors typically have a shorter school day.
Home-Based Preschool – Some home daycares, especially those run by teachers with early education training, may provide an environment as enriching as a standard preschool. Ask about the structure of the day and how children are grouped by age.
Language-Focused Preschool – Programs range from immersion, in which children are taught in a language other than English, to less stringent approaches in which English is used but children are introduced to another language and culture.
Montessori Preschool – Dr. Maria Montessori, who developed the approach in the early 1900s, believed that children learn by accomplishing different tasks or using toys as tools to accomplish these tasks. Teachers control the environment, not the child, who moves from activity to activity at his own pace. The goal is for children to develop strong self-discipline and lengthened attention spans. Some Montessori programs now incorporate some developmental activities into the day.
Reggio Emilia Preschool – Developed in Reggio Emilia, Italy, this approach combines some characteristics of both developmental programs and Montessori. It emphasizes a child’s symbolic language through drawing, dramatic play and writing. Great importance is placed on the partnership between school and home. The classroom is very child-directed. It is unusual to find a time limit on any one project, as they are revisited over time.
Religious Preschool – Many churches, synagogues and other religious institutions offer preschools. Participation in the institution or faith is often not required, but elements of it may be incorporated into the school day.
Waldorf Preschool – Waldorf is based on Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner’s work in the early 1900s. The classroom offers opportunity for dramatic, imitative and creative play, as well as an emphasis on practical activities, such as gardening and cooking. Academics are de-emphasized, and there is a strong importance placed on developing the child’s senses. Toys and materials tend to be natural and non-commercial, and media use is discouraged.
Upcoming Preschool Preview Nights and Fairs
Iron Horse Mothers Club. Will hold its preschool night on Oct. 5, 2017. 7-9 pm. FREE. ClubSport San Ramon, 350 Bollinger Canyon Lane, San Ramon. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/preschool-night-tickets-37666339034
Lamorinda Moms. Will hold its annual preschool fair on Nov. 9, 2017. 6:30-8pm. FREE. Oakwood Athletic Club, 4000 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. www.lamorindamoms.org.
PAMP Preschool Fair. Hosted by the Parents’ Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Nov. 5, 2017. 11 a.m.-1 p.m. (9 a.m. early entry for PAMP members). FREE. Computer History Museum, Grand Hall, second floor, 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View. pampclub.org/page/PreschoolFair.
Preschool Preview Night. Golden Gate Mothers Group will host this 25th annual event for parents of preschool and pre-K children, with support from Parents Place San Francisco. Sept. 28, 2017. 5:30-7:30. $15 in advance, $20 at the door, FREE for GGMG members and guest. San Francisco County Fair Building, 119 Ninth Ave., San Francisco.http://bit.ly/preschool-night-rsvp .
Bay Area Parent’s Childcare & Preschool Directory. Offers information, photos, videos and more for preschools and childcares throughout the Bay Area. www.bayareaparent.com/Directories/Childcare-Guide/.
First 5 California: State-funded education and health programs include guides for choosing a preschool. 916-263-1050. www.first5california.com/learning-center.aspx?id=13.
Great Schools: This Oakland-based organization’s website includes information and parent ratings and reviews for Bay Area preschools, as well as articles on preschool and more. www.greatschools.org.
National Association for the Education of Young Children: Provides early child education resources and lists childcares and preschools that have received its accreditation. families.naeyc.org.
Parents Place: This arm of Jewish Family and Children’s Services offers online resources and in-person workshops on selecting preschools, as well as consulting help in selecting preschools and elementary schools. 415-359-2454. parentsplace.jfcs.org.
The Savvy Source for Parents: This website offers information, reviews and ratings on preschools across the country, including the Bay Area. www.savvysource.com/preschools.