How to pick a preschool: Tips and insight from Seattle-area parents and experts
Nichole Yamakawa started researching preschools before son Kousuke was even born. But observing his personality was what finalized the family's choice of an all-outdoor program.
Nichole Yamakawa was still pregnant with her first child when she began her research on Seattle preschools. “I’d heard it could be really competitive to get in and wanted to get a jump on the process,” says Yamakawa. She set her sights on a preschool rooted in the Waldorf tradition, but once she met her son, Kousuke, and observed his enthusiasm for nature, she decided that Tiny Trees, a relatively inexpensive, all-outdoor preschool was a better fit. Outdoor preschools have become popular in Seattle, beloved for their celebration of nature, play-based education style and affordable tuition.
But not all Seattle parents have Yamakawa’s foresight. “Center-based, cooperative, outdoor — I had no clue that there were so many options,” says Erin Chapple. Chapple felt fortunate to have such a wide variety of choices available in Seattle for her son Roland, but found the selection process daunting. “I had to figure out what was the right thing for my family and the personality of my kid.” She decided on Madison Park Cooperative Preschool because it offered the best balance of structure and socialization. Parents and caregivers with children in cooperative preschools participate in curriculum development, assist in the classroom, and fundraise, among other community-oriented activities.
For Katie Callahan, an affordable rate and flexible potty-training requirement sold her on Bilingual Buddies Learning Center in Rainier Beach, a Spanish/English program that rents space in a church.
“We love the program, but not many people know about it,” says Callahan. After Googling ‘child-care Seattle’ and finding the search results lacking, Callahan turned to other parents in her Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS) community for recommendations.
“There’s tons of stuff out there for all kinds of families, you just have to ask,” says Callahan. Callahan’s daughter Bellamy wasn’t potty-trained when she started at Bilingual Buddies, but through modeling by older children and staff support, she now enthusiastically uses the bathroom independently.
When Jenny Starks Dean moved to West Seattle from Washington, D.C., a little over a year ago, she started a Facebook group for West Seattle parents with an emphasis on inclusion.
“It’s been really awesome,” says Dean. Members of the group plan playdates, form new friendships and swap tips. “It’s been really effective in fostering community.” She wanted to find a preschool where her daughter Harper felt as free to be herself as she did with her West Seattle social group. After an experience at a home daycare didn’t work out, Dean enrolled Harper at Ages in Stages Childcare. “We got really lucky that we were able to get in so quickly,” says Dean. “A few people had moved and dropped off the waitlist.”
Since she made the switch, her daughter hasn’t struggled with any separation anxiety, an issue she’d grappled with at the previous facility. “There’s no way to know for sure that you’ve found a good fit,” says Dean. “You just have to hope for the best after you enroll.”
With a second baby on the way, Capitol Hill mom Kathy Hong knew she would have her hands full with two children under four. The time seemed right to enroll her 3-year-old daughter, Holly, in preschool. But at what price?
“I knew parents in the neighborhood who were spending $5,000 per month to put two kids in center-based child care,” says Hong. “We didn’t want to do that.” After checking out seven preschools close to home but not finding the right combination of affordability and quality, she decided to expand her search to locations further out. As a Korean-American family, the Hongs liked the idea of Bambini, an English-Korean bilingual school structured in the Montessori tradition. But commuting to Lynwood every day with a newborn in tow for her daughter to spend only a few hours in class seemed like a tall order. Hong finally decided on Newport Children’s School in Factoria, a quick drive across the I-90 bridge.
“They really try to nurture independence and teach them to do everyday tasks like putting dishes away on your own,” says Hong. “I hope that will help build a good foundation for her to feel confident in herself.”
Though preschool programs vary in teaching philosophy and structure, there are a few key criteria that all quality early learning environments have in common says Gail Joseph, Bezos Family distinguished professor in early learning and founding executive director of Cultivate Learning at University of Washington.
Here is her checklist for evaluating a potential preschool for your child:
- Do teachers engage in warm and responsive interactions with young children?
- Is there a predictable schedule of routines and activities (do children know where to go throughout the day)?
- Do teachers give time and attention to children when they are engaged in appropriate behavior and gently redirect children when they are off task?
- Are there learning centers with a variety of stimulating materials?
- Do children spend most of the day playing? (This is how children learn best!)
- Do teachers use a comprehensive curriculum that includes social and emotional skills, literacy, math, science and arts learning?
- Is the classroom language rich? Do teachers and children engage in frequent conversations?
- Do teachers encourage children to think deeply by asking “how” and “why” questions?
Joseph also recommends that parents look for preschools that participate in Early Achievers. Early Achievers helps early learning professionals access the resources and supports they need to continuously improve their programs’ quality.
Enrolling your child in a high-quality preschool is a great step toward setting your child on a path to school success, but Joseph says there is plenty you can do to keep your child learning at home too.
Substantial research has demonstrated that high quality preschool gives kids a strong foundation for K-12 academic readiness and better outcomes into adulthood. Seattle offers several resources for families looking for quality, affordable preschool options including Head Start and the Seattle Preschool Program.
Also: Don’t underestimate the power of your gut feelings. Only you truly know what’s best for your child.
“Parents should visit prospective preschools and ask themselves, Will my child be safe here? Will my child be happy here? And will my child learn here?” says Joseph. “If the answer to these three questions are yes, then it is likely a good fit for your child.”