It’s time. Time to sign your child up for preschool.
The question is: What Preschool should your child go to??
The thought of sending your baby off to school is enough to push you over the edge – how are they old enough already?? – but all the options? Trying to understand the difference between Montessori, Waldorf, play-based, and Eddie Murphy’s Daddy Daycare makes you want to sign up at the nearest school without thinking.
I know. I’ve been there.
Here’s the thing…
Some days when I tell my son that it’s time for school, it’s as if all of the life drains from his body. Then, he whimpers something resembling this: “But, Mommy…I want to be with YOU.”
My heart breaks just writing that.
The truth is that I would snuggle with my son all day long, but I have to work (that’s life, right?). Every other day when I drop him off, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I made the BEST choice for him because I knew what to look for. It may not be the “perfect” school (I’d argue that no “perfect” school exists), but it’s a school that meets his exact needs. Every day when I drop my little guy off, I feel confident that he’ll be okay.
That’s what this post is all about.
It’s not meant to overwhelm you with facts (there’s a cheat sheet to help with that!), but rather it’s meant to help you find the school that is the right fit for your child. This post is for parents who *really* want the inside scoop about what to look for at a preschool. I’ll be writing a cliff notes version soon (stay tuned).
Remember, your child is going to spend a lot of time away from you at this school.
It’s worth figuring out if it is the right fit for you, your family, and most importantly, your child.
It’s okay. I’m here to help ~ you’ve got this!
Like I mentioned, this turned out to be a HUGE post about how to choose a preschool.
If it’s easier on you, print out this Free printable cheat sheet. It has all the information about the post.
After you’ve printed the cheat sheet HERE, come back to fill in the details about what’s most important to you!
Now, let’s dive in…
Step 1: What’s the Philosophy?
I’m not going to go in depth about schools of thought like whether or not it is Montessori, Waldorf, Play-based, etc. The truth is that it is really easy to Google these terms and find out the differences. This post is about the things that I want you to know that aren’t as easy to “Google.”
First things first: Read the school’s philosophy statement.
The philosophy statement should be somewhere on the school’s website, but if it’s not there, you can call the school and ask them.
Note: On the website, philosophy might be under the school’s “about” section.
The philosophy statement gives you quick insight into whether or not the school fits with what you want for your child.
- Do they practice rigid academics or play-based learning?
- Are the mixed ages in the classroom or not?
- Does their philosophy center around relationships with not only the child but also the family?
These questions, as well as others, should get answered in their philosophy statement.
Other signs of their philosophy to look for when you visit:
- Are they accredited? I would ask if they are NAEYC accredited right off the bat. In fact, you’ll probably see it on their website. This means that they went through voluntary accreditation to assess whether or not their site is in congruence with the highest-standard of care. In other words, it’s an easy way to spot a program that is dedicated to keeping up and using the current research that’s out there about early childhood education. You can read more at the NAEYC site HERE. Note: My son goes to a smaller school that isn’t accredited, but has low adult/child ratios and are outdoor classroom certified. Accreditation isn’t everything, but it’s worth noting. The school may have other certifications that align with your values (like outdoor classroom project that I love).
- What’s the rainy day policy (or snow policy)? Are you comfortable with the kids always staying inside on those days or going into the elements. Are they equipped with extra clothing/boots on those days or do you need to provide them?
- What’s their shoe policy? Shoes on or off when they’re outside or inside? For some kids, this really matters as they might prefer to climb barefoot or feel more comfortable with shoes off. Some schools can have a rigid shoes on policy all day long – will that work for your child? Note: all of the preschool’s the my children have gone to have required shoes unless they’re in the sandbox. But, I think it’s still worth asking!
- What’s their drop off policy? Are you allowed to go into the classroom to drop your child off or is it curbside drop off? This will make a big difference in your child’s day. Make sure it’s the right fit.
- What if your child struggles with drop offs? Do parents get to hang around the first month or so to help transition or do you need to leave the classroom right away?
- Do they have an open door policy? Are you allowed to drop into your child’s classroom at anytime or is that restricted? Note: I’m personally NOT a fan of schools that do not allow parents to drop by at any time. I think parents should always have access to their kids!
Step 2: Learn What to Look for in the Environment
I won’t go into great depths here about the things that you SHOULDN’T see (I’ll cover more in the Red Flags Section later). Instead? I’ll talk about what I look for when I’m walking through a school:
- Safe entry when you walk into the school that can be closed/secured so kids can’t leave or escape the premises alone.
- A place to sign your child in and out.
- Communication boards, flyers, or general information that is posted about what’s happening at the school or what events will be happening soon. Information about snack, daily schedules, and a “what’s happening” communication board for parents. Note: sometimes this is printed up in weekly/monthly newsletters instead. If you don’t see these, be sure to ask how’ll you’ll know what’s happening at the school and in the classroom.
- Once in the classroom, you should see main areas for play in the classroom including, but not limited to:
- Kitchen/dramatic play area
- Book/reading nook
- Building area with trains, blocks, and manipulatives
- Child-sized tables for activities like play dough, puzzles, manipulatives, etc.
- Writing/Drawing/Art areas or places where kids can use materials creatively
- Outside you should see ample space for kids to run, ride bikes, play with water tables, climb, play in sand, and swing/slide. I would also look for outside tables where kids might eat snack, eat lunch or have space to do table activities.
Other signs in the environment to look for when you visit:
- Indoor/Outdoor flow? Do children have free access to indoor/outdoor spaces? In other words, can they choose whether they want to be inside or outside at any given time or do they have strict times when they are indoors or outdoors?
- Can kids take things off the shelves? Do they have access to materials whenever they’d like or do they have to ask permission to take things out?
- What activities do the kids do? (AKA what’s the curriculum?) Do the kids influence the curriculum based on what they’re interested in or do they rotate materials seasonally (and have the same things rotated each year)?
- Are children required to participate in activities? Or, can children choose what activities they do?
- Do you see process art or ditto art? Notice if the artwork in the classroom all looks like same (ditto art) or if each piece looks different and like a preschooler painted them without specific instructions (process art).
- Are there pictures/artwork/stories put up in the room that belong to the kids?
Step 3: Notice Teachers & Staff
I’d argue that the most important part of choosing a preschool is finding the right teacher. But, it’s also really important to notice the Director as well. She/he may not have direct contact with your child everyday, but she’s making the BIG decisions about the school’s future, future staff, and the way that your money is being used.
A quick question to ask the Director that will give you a lot of insight: what’s your vision for the school right now?
Let’s dive into other signs you may want to pay attention to…
Other signs of teacher/staff to look for when you visit:
- Does their teachers change every year? Or, do they stay with the group of children as they age?
- Do the teachers talk to and interact with the kids or just observe?
- Do you see affection between teachers and kids?
- What’s the staffs body language? Do they bend down to say hello to your child? Bending down to a child’s level becomes automatic for people who work with little ones – it’s a good sign that they know what they are doing! Do they stand with their hands crossed in the classroom or outside OR are they engaged with the children? This will give you insight into whether they play with the kids or watch them like recess in elementary school.
- Do staff have ongoing training? This gives you a sense of whether or not the school is committed to staying up with current trends and research in Early Childhood Education (ECE).
- Did you click with the teacher? Relationships take time, but it’s nice to notice early on if you clicked with the teacher. It’s a good sign that you will for years to come!
- What’s the turnover rate? In other words, how long have people been working at the school? Do teachers leave frequently or stay for a long time? We all know that happy employees stick around, so this is an important question to consider.
Step 4: Observe Current Kids
Aside from the teacher, I really pay attention to the current kids when I visit a preschool. You can learn from just observing the kids! Check out the signs below that I look for when I visit.
Note: Grab the cheat sheet so you can write these answers down as you go.
Other signs to look out for when you visit:
- What’s the size of the entire school?
- How many classrooms do they have?
- How many kids are in each class? Do it seem like there’s enough room for that number of kids?
- Are the kids potty trained? Do they need to be?
- Does the current group generally get along? Keep in mind that squabbles and conflict over toys/books is really normal to see in the classroom and each year will be different!
- Do kids have a lovey or something from home that they’re allowed to hold?
- Do kids have a cubby or their own space to keep their things?
- Do they need a change of clothes?
- Is there group time? When and what do they do?
- What happens when kids disagree? Do the teachers intervene, discipline, or help kids work through it?
Step 5: Nitty Gritty Details
I put the questions that I talked about in the beginning of the post down here because I sometimes this is the only questions that we know to ask. The most important question is last (before the red flags section, so be sure to check that one out!).
- How far is it from your house?
- What’s the cost?
- What if you don’t like the school? What’s the cancellation policy?
- What hours are they open?
- What’s the word of mouth?
- How do you feel when you’re there?
Remember, you can download the cheat sheet so that you can write down all of your answers.
Most importantly, trust your instincts!
If you don’t feel comfortable walking through the school, chatting with the teachers, or being in the classroom, that’s something to pay attention to.
Your child is going to spend a lot of time away from you at this school. It’s worth figuring out if it is the right fit for you, your family, and most importantly, your child. Trust how you feel when you’re touring!
That leads us right into red flags to look out for…
Step 6: Make Sure You Don’t See Lots of Red Flags
- High ratios – Ratios refers to how many kids are allowed in one classroom per teacher. For example, a classroom that has 16 preschoolers and 2 teachers has a ratio of 1:8, or one teacher per eight kids. NAEYC recommends these ratios. But, it all depends on the number of children in the program, so definitely check out the NAEYC recommendation chart HERE.
- Excessive TV viewing – media use should be limited at high quality schools. Just as a point of reference, we only brought out a TV for kids in the afternoons during a very rainy day.
- Ditto Art – Ditto art is art that looks exactly the same for each child.
- Lack of educated staff – education isn’t everything, but staff should at least hold current permits or degrees in ECE (Early Childhood Education).
- Poor indoor environment – is it clean and safe?
- No bathroom/sink accessible to kids – I have worked at a preschool where we had to walk children to the bathroom. Ideally, you’d see a child size sink and toilets attached to each classroom. This isn’t always the case. But, if your child is just learning how to use the potty, this could be a deal breaker! Remember: if children have to be walked to the bathroom, that’s one less adult in the classroom and it means that your child can’t go to the bathroom completely on their own – they have to ask first. It may not be a big deal, but for some kids who like to hold their pee until the last second, it may be a big deal!
- No shade/shelter outside – When you go outside, there should be shelter or shade cloth to protect kids from the sun/rain/snow. Keep the elements in mind when you’re touring the outdoor area because you’re child will be out there a lot.
- No effort with outdoor environments – Some things that I’d look for: are there activities set up outside like art, bikes, sand toys, dramatic play and building? You should see a few activities for kids beyond just a slide and swings.
- Unsafe play structures/dated play space
- Citations that aren’t publicly shared – Each school is required to have a state license. Licensing staff comes out to tour schools to make sure that they are abiding by the codes. If a school isn’t, it is cited and the citation becomes public record. Not every citation is a “big” deal, but it’s worth knowing about. Here’s the Berkeley Parents Network post about how to look up licensing information for preschools and daycares.
You made it all the way to the end!
I know this post has a lot of information. Remember, if you fill out the cheat sheet, you can go through all of the questions before and after touring the school. That will help a lot.
Then, come back and let me know how it goes!! You’ve got this ~ Katie