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Picky, Picky: Choosing the Right Preschool for Your Child

Lori Shinn



Oh, preschool. As parents, we frequently twist ourselves into angsty knots over finding the just-right preschool – the one our children will adore, with kind teachers, sweet classmates and interesting learning experiences. And it should be right around the corner. And cost very little.

But there's no perfect preschool. Instead, the ideal school is one that's a good-enough fit, while taking your child, your family and your philosophies into consideration.

We often look at preschool options through our own experiences, says Regan Wesnehan, a Seattle-based preschool consultant. If we fondly remember the dress-up corner, that's what we look for in a preschool. If you hated worksheets, you'll probably want the kids to steer clear of academics.

That subjective experience can color almost everything we see when we visit preschools, from educational philosophy to the room's lighting. "Sometimes parents say, ‘I chose the school I wanted to go to,'" Wesnehan says.

Often, families become infatuated with the features of a school (a shiny playground or a philosophy). "I encourage families to look at what the school has to offer, but also at how the school, environment and curriculum is going to benefit their child and their own desires for a sense of community," says Meade Thayer, former executive director of the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools.

Back to Basics

Basic preschool considerations include schedule, location and cost, according to Jenifer Wana, author of the book, How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child: The Ultimate Guide to Finding, Getting into, and Preparing for Nursery School (Sourcebooks, $16.99).

"You may go visit a school and find that the facilities are nice and there's a big playground, but it's not going to work for your family to drive 45 minutes," Wana says. Add in-city traffic and a 20-minute drive each way can easily turn into an hour in the car en route. At the same time, your down-the-block preschool may not work for you if the class size is too big for your child's shy personality, or the classroom's too small and confining for your active child. Check out the school's class composition and school layout.

Ask about the school's educational philosophy and approach, Wesnehan suggests, but don't worry too much about making an exact fit between your child and the school.

"I don't believe you want a perfect match," Wesnehan says. She says that part of the preschool experience is to stretch, grow and learn. If a child is too comfortable, that may not happen. So maybe you don't want the 28-child classroom for your shy child – but the 15-kid class could be just right.

Creating Community

Dig around a bit to find out how involved and active the parent community is in the preschool's daily functioning. Are parents welcome in the classroom? How do they raise money for the preschool? Are there preschool picnics or other community festivals that you'd attend?

Community – in the classroom and outside – boosts your child's "EQ" or emotional quotient. "The goal and benefit of preschool is socialization," Wana says. New academic pressures in elementary school can lead to less time for social skill-building. "If your child doesn't have social and emotional skills, they may have a challenge with cooperation, sharing, taking turns and doing things independently," she adds.

A preschool that models positive social skills should reflect that at all levels. "One of the best resources is a current parent at the school," Thayer says. Hunt around for first-person experiences via friends, Facebook or neighborhood e-mail lists.

Preschool parents can give you the inside scoop on favorite teachers, and positive aspects (and challenges) of the school experience. Ask them what they'd change (if anything) and what they'll miss most once the child leaves for kindergarten.

Teachers Rule!

Despite everything a parent should consider – location, hours, class size, educational philosophy, parent involvement – a good preschool experience often comes down to one thing: the teacher.

When visiting a school, all eyes on teacher, Wana says. "Are teachers interacting with the kids? Are they engaged, crouched down to the child's level, talking with them about what they're doing?" Observe during free-play time, she suggests, rather than during more structured circle or snack time. Even the playground reveals preschool clues: The free-form, social nature is often a test of a teacher's equilibrium and involvement with the children.

Observation also helps you figure out whether the in-classroom style matches the school's stated philosophy. "It almost doesn't matter what the proposed methods or teaching style or title of the school approach is, if the teachers and directors aren't on the same page," says Sharlet Driggs, who tried three different preschool approaches (Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia) in the Seattle area with her son.

She ended up enrolling her son in the Reggio Emilia preschool. From the director's level to new teachers, the school was consistent in approach and communication. The school made an effort to understand each child, observe the child's interests and growth, facilitate community and create events to build the parent community. "They practiced what they preached," Driggs says.

Keep in mind that there's no "perfect" preschool. And if your kid is missing out on what you feel is an important preschool experience, you can boost that skill at home. "School isn't the only place for your child's learning," Wana says. If you wish your child's school had Spanish, enjoy a Spanish story time with your child. No art or music at school? Add parent-child art classes into your week or attend free concerts.

Once you've narrowed down your preschool search, feel confident. No matter which preschool you pick, most kids will thrive. "There are so many great options and so many types of programs that chances are that any place you pick, you'll find a comfortable match," says Wana.

Note: this article was originally published in April 2011. Lora Shinn was once all angsty too. While Lora worked as a freelance writer, her son happily attended a basement-level, play-based preschool run by two fun-loving moms.

Read more: Guide to Preschool Philosophies

Read more: Preschool-selection tips from Seattle parents and experts

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