Sooner or later, most parents will have to face choosing a preschool. Preschool generally refers to programs geared for children between the ages of three and five. The difference between a preschool program and a day care program is that the primary purpose of a preschool program is the physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development of the child; the primary purpose of a day care program is out-of-home care for working parents. Although there are preschools that offer programs for five full-day weeks, most preschool programs offer two, three, or five half day programs. When choosing a preschool, parents should be aware of the different approaches available, look for accredited and licensed programs, and visit the preschool first.
Visiting a School
Once you have decided on some possible options you feel may suit your child, you are ready to start choosing a preschool facility. To begin, visit a few preschools to see how they work. If a preschool does not allow parent visits, move on. Look for a school with an open door policy. Preschool environments should be clean, friendly, organized, and include plenty of toys. Look for play kitchens, dress-up corners, sand and water tables, building centers, musical instruments, and plenty of preschool books. Children should sit at tables built to their size. Walls should be covered with stimulating materials. Also find out how large the class sizes are and what the child to teacher ratio is. The lower these numbers, the more individual attention your child will receive.
Questions to Ask a Potential Preschool
When you visit, you will want to learn about how well the environment fits your child's needs and your family's beliefs. When you visit a preschool, consider asking the following questions to learn about how the school will match your expectations.
- Do you know other parents who are happy with this preschool?
- What is the teacher/child ratio?
- What credentials do the teachers have? How many years of experience?
- Does the preschool have an open-door policy? If not, keep looking!
- What type of learning environment does the preschool have? Are the children given a mix of individual and group projects? Do the teachers recognize each child's interests?
- Look around the preschool? What types of activities are being done? What types of supplies are on hand? Are they plentiful?
- What is the playground equipment like? Is it in good shape?
- What is the safety procedures for the preschool? Are there evacuation plans in case of fire, or safe areas for the children to go during bad weather?
- What kind of security measures are in place? How are visitors admitted? How are the children released at the end of the day?
- Is the preschool an all-day school, a half-day, or do you have options?
- What is the price of tuition, and do you have to pay if your child doesn't attend sometimes?
- Are teachers and staff certified in CPR?
- What is the discipline policy?
- What is the health department rating?
- What types of foods are served?
- How clean is the preschool?
- Observe the children. Do they appear happy?
- What type of educational philosophy does the center subscribe to?
Different Approaches to Early Education
There are many different styles of preschool, which can make the choice very confusing. While some schools focus on kindergarten readiness, others are less academic. Everyone has different learning styles, so it is important to pick an environment where you feel your child will thrive. Just a few of the well-known styles of early education are outlined below:
The Montessori approach to preschool education was founded by Marie Montessori, an Italian doctor who worked with young children in the early 1900's. One of the major distinguishing aspects of a Montessori program is the role of the teacher. In such a preschool, the teacher is not the main source of instruction. The teacher is more of a facilitator. The role of the teacher is to prepare and maintain the learning environment and to closely monitor the progress of the students. Learning is believed to take place when a child is free to explore, discover, and choose activities that capture his interest. Typically, a Montessori program has child groups of 25 to 30 students within a three year age span. This allows for children to learn from each other. Younger children learn from interacting with older children, while older children benefit from being role models for smaller children. Montessori programs are typically five days a week.
Reggio Emilia Approach
Reggio Emilia is a method of early education that also came out of Italy, from the town of Reggio Emilia after World War II. Three aspects of the program are the project-approach curriculum, the role of community and parent, and the specific learning environment. Children learn through symbolic expressions termed the 'hundred languages' of children. Projects are chosen by the children and focused and directed by their experiences. Project work includes elements of drama, drawing, painting, constructing, music, and physical movement. This approach attempts to strengthen the role of the parent and the community in the education of the children.
In a pre-K program, usually geared toward four year olds, children focus on a more academically-based program rather than a developmental program. Reading readiness skills and pre-math skills are stressed. The purpose of a pre-K program is to make the transition from preschool to elementary school as smooth as possible for the young child. Teachers emphasize academic, social, and physical skills that are expected in the kindergarten environment. Pre-K programs are often five days a week.
Licensing and Accrediting
Regulations and requirements for preschool licensing is state controlled and vary from state to state. The goal of every state is to protect the health, safety, and general well being of young children, to control the standards of preschool programs, and to improve preschool options for parents. Always choose a provider who is licensed by the state. Contact your state's preschool regulations department to find out what your state requires for licensing and for a list of licensed providers. You can access your state licensing information at Child Care Aware.
Many preschools offer an accredited program. This means they have voluntarily agreed to meet standards set by a child care association such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children or the National Association for Family Child Care. Such associations set professional standards, conduct independent assessments of programs, and offer parents help in choosing quality preschool programs. Providers who choose to be accredited are often required to attend continuing child development education.
Making a Decision
Choosing a preschool is easier if you familiarize yourself with the different approaches to preschool education. The Montessori, the Reggio Emilia, and the Pre-K approaches are only a few of the many approaches available. Find out which approaches are available in your area, make sure they are licensed and accredited and then visit each program before choosing the preschool that will best suit your child.