Helpful Hints on Choosing a Preschool

The Journey Begins

Choosing a preschool for your child can be difficult. If it is your child's first experience away from home, it is understandable that both you and your child may feel anxious.

As parents, we always want what is best for our children, but we often don't know what "best" is. There is no single right answer to this question. A lot depends on your expectations and the learning style and temperament of your child.

Before you select a preschool, you may find it helpful to consider the following questions:

  • How much can your family afford to pay?
  • Are you seeking full day child care or a half day program?
  • Are you available to participate in the program from time to time (which is a requirement of co-op preschools)?
  • How close is the center or preschool to your home or where you work?
  • What skills would you like your child to gain by participating in a program?
  • What philosophy or curriculum does the program use?

Having answers to these questions will probably make it easier to decide what type of program best meets the needs of your family.

Listed below are several of the different types of preschool settings that are available and also a number of the most common philosophies/curricula used in preschool programs.

There are, indeed, other settings and approaches that are not listed here. Be sure to ask the staff what philosophy or approach they use. For a comprehensive checklist of things to look for when visiting a center, visit Great Start to Quality.

Preschool programs are offered in different types of settings. Many of those settings or options are listed below.

Many preschool opportunities are offered through local parks and recreation departments, YMCA, Jewish Community Center, child care centers, public schools and other community based or private settings. These preschools offer different philosophies and approaches, so be sure to ask when you visit the program.

Many churches and religious schools offer preschool programs. Some are non-denominational and some are not. They might follow any preschool philosophy or curriculum. Many incorporate varying degrees of religious content and/or training. If you are interested in a religious program, be sure to check on the curriculum and philosophy, too.

A less expensive approach to preschool is to consider a cooperative preschool. These programs also use a variety of philosophies, and you should ask what approach is being used. In a cooperative preschool, a professional teacher is usually hired and the parents play a supportive role, either assisting the teacher, or performing other duties such as food preparation or materials preparation. This approach allows parents to be very involved in their child's preschool experience.

In addition to a variety of settings, there are also many different program philosophies, approaches and curricula used in preschools. Parents often become confused when they hear terms such as developmentally appropriate, play-based, structured programs, child-guided, project based, teacher guided, etc.  These are approaches to learning and are often combined with a specific philosophy/curriculum. Some programs utilize several different curricula for different areas of learning.  It is important for you, as a parent, to make certain that a particular preschool program offers activities that are appropriate for the age of your child, and provides an environment that your child is comfortable in. Asking questions about the daily schedule, the amount of time children spend in various activities, what the goals of the activities are, and what role the teacher plays can provide you with valuable information.

Several specific approaches are described below. It is important to discuss the philosophy of the program prior to enrolling your child, to make sure it is an approach that matches your child's learning style. Visit the school, if possible, when school is in session, so that you can observe the environment and interactions among the children and the teachers.

Please note, there are many approaches and curricula available, and the list here is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather a guide to some approaches available in our community.

HighScope: The HighScope program was established in 1970 by Dr. David P. Weikart in Ypsilanti, Michigan. This approach is based on the premise that children learn best through hands-on experiences with people, materials, events, and ideas.  The space and materials in a HighScope setting are carefully arranged to promote active learning. The room is divided into interest areas, including a block area, house area, small toy area, book area, sand-and-water area, and art area.  The children's interests are emphasized through choices, and the program uses a daily routine that includes Plan-Do-Review, small and large group times, outside times and transition times. Using the Plan-Do-Review process, children choose what they would like to do and with whom. Afterwards, they review whether or not it turned out the way they had planned. Trained teachers support the children's strengths and encourage problem solving. The curriculum is designed to support all areas of development. For more information visit HighScope.

Montessori: Maria Montessori founded this program approach in 1907. In a Montessori preschool, children select activities and do them independently much of the time. The materials in the classroom are designed to develop specific skills. Because an emphasis is placed on developing responsibility, the children take care of their personal needs and belongings, and put away the toys they have used.  They also prepare their own snack. Teachers act as guides, helping each child develop at his or her own pace.  There can be a wide range of ages in one classroom. Montessori schools are typically affiliated with a Montessori Association, but some may use the name without the affiliation. Montessori teachers must participate in a special training program. Visit Association Montessori Internationale for more detailed information.

Waldorf: Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian educator, founded the first Waldorf school in 1919. A consistent and predictable routine is the principle that guides the Waldorf program. Teachers often remain with the students for years. This promotes emotional and physical development through trusting relationships, as well as intellectual development. When toys are used, they are made of natural materials. Pine cones, wood, cotton, silk, shells, stones and other objects from nature (that the children themselves have collected) are used in play and to beautify the room. The curriculum focuses on creative learning in a group-oriented setting. Children that do well in predictable and consistent routines may benefit from a Waldorf preschool. Teachers receive special training and schools must be affiliated with the local Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. Visit Waldorf Education for more information.

Reggio Emilia: This program grew out of the successful program developed by Reggio Emilia in Italy in the 1940's. It is based on the principles of respect, responsibility, and community through exploration and discovery. The environment is supportive and enriching, and is based on the interests of the children.This curriculum is child guided, with teachers observing the spontaneous curiosity of the students, and then guiding them to create and develop projects that reflect their interests. Projects are documented through pictures and journals, so the children, teachers and parents can monitor and support meaningful progress and actions. Creativity and artistic expression are emphasized, and children are expected to learn from their mistakes, which are seen as a natural part of the learning process. Visit Reggio Emilia Approach for more information.

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