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What to Look for in a Preschool

Teacher And Pupils Using Wooden Shapes In Montessori School
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Searching for the perfect preschool can be an exhausting and daunting process. There are many factors to consider, such as price, location, and educational philosophy.

Start by writing down your top priorities. Is your primary goal for your child to make new friends, to get a head start on school skills, or both? You don’t need to have all the answers, but thinking ahead can help.

To help guide you along the way once you start touring your local preschools, here are some of the top things to consider.

Other Parents’ Thoughts

Post on a local parent group, ask your pediatrician, talk to friends and people at church, and even read online reviews. Don’t be swayed by one or two negative opinions—no place is perfect for everyone. However, do be concerned if you’ve received multiple warnings about a specific preschool.

After touring all eligible preschools, make a list of your top three. Reach out to the directors and ask for contact info from parents who send their children there. Talking to a few current parents about the pros and cons will help paint a clearer picture of that specific preschool.

Location

Many parents choose a preschool based on proximity to their workplace. That way, you can do the drop-off and pick-up on your daily commute. If you find a great place near each parents’ workplace, think about which parent will be able to take more sick days, or leave early if necessary.

Although the best preschool might be clear across town, you might regret this decision if you have to spend 45 minutes in traffic to get your child there by an 8:30 a.m. start time.

Having a location near your home is ideal if one parent is staying home or if you have a nanny or grandparent who can help with drop-off and pick-up.

Price

Preschool prices vary greatly depending on the school, curriculum, and location, as well as the days and hours. For example, some schools might offer a lower price for Monday and Wednesday, with a higher price for Tuesday and Thursday. This usually has to do with student-to-teacher ratios or specific age groups.

Check to see if the price is for the full year, or if it follows the traditional school year. You might think some prices seem low, only to find out that you have to commit to paying for 12 months (regardless of whether you take time off over the summer). This may be fine if you work full time but could be an inconvenience if you’re a stay-at-home parent who takes the kids to Grandma’s every summer.

Ask about financial aid and scholarships. Many preschools even offer trade options, where you can do a volunteer job in exchange for a tuition reduction.

There’s usually an annual “supply” fee, which goes towards arts and crafts. Take this into account when calculating the monthly price.

Teachers

Group Of preschool Children In Art Class With Teacher
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Ultimately, it’s the people who make a preschool unique and special. If the tour doesn’t allow you to interact with the teachers one-on-one, then definitely request to do so. These are the people who will be caring for your child.

Keep in mind that preschool-aged children aren’t the best at communicating—they won’t be able to tell you things like “my teacher was mean.” Sadly, there are plenty of exhausted, burnt-out, impatient teachers out there. You want to find someone who is exuberant, energetic, and respects every child completely.

Many schools boast about the average time their teachers have been working there. A school with a high turnover rate may have an underlying issue. Usually, the stable, well-run preschools have teachers who have been there for at least five or more years.

You also want to pay attention to the quality of teaching. Observe the class for a while and see how each teacher interacts with the children. Does the teacher seem bored, uninterested, or like she’s merely trying to get through the day? Or does she make eye contact, encouraging the children to try new skills with a warm and patient attitude?

Classroom Environment

You want a space that is friendly and inviting. Look for plenty of windows, bright paintings on the walls, and many options for free play—blocks, dolls, arts and crafts, dress-up, and so on. Many schools even have a sensory table with sand, water, sticks, and other fun things to touch and explore. There is often a focus on themes, with something new for every month.

Make sure the area is child-proofed without hazardous items lying around. Even two-year-olds are prone to choking on small objects.

Finally, pay attention to your first impression. If something doesn’t sit right or you feel uneasy walking into a classroom, then listen to that. Often it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why we don’t like something, but it’s okay to trust your gut here.

Days and Hours

You might find the dream preschool, only to discover that you have to send your child for a specific number of days per week. Every family’s needs are different, which is why every preschool offers different arrangements.

Many preschools list their options online. There are half-day preschools, which usually run from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m or so. The full-day preschools often start earlier, around 7:30 a.m., and have options to end at 3:00 or 5:00 p.m. (or even 6:00 p.m.). The full-day preschools are generally geared towards working families, but many working parents make half-day preschools work.

If you have other children, consider their schedules, too. If your other child takes an afternoon nap, doing a pick-up right at 1:00 p.m. could mess things up. Or if you have children in elementary school, think about the drop-off and pick-up times for each.

Snacks and Lunches

Pre School Children Eating Healthy Snacks At Breaktime
SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

Many preschools do a rotating snack schedule. This is where parents take turns bringing in a snack for the whole classroom. It takes away the hassle of packing a snack every day, but it means you have to remember that big snack when it’s your turn. Some preschools have children pack their own daily snacks instead.

You might be interested in a preschool that offers a catered lunch, or you may prefer to pack your own. Each school has different rules and guidelines in this area.

There are also schools that end at 12 or 12:15 p.m. so children can have lunch at home. If you have a long drive home, this might be challenging.

Important: If your child has a food allergy, ask about precautions and procedures. Often, preschools will ban all nuts to protect those with nut allergies. It’s easy enough to notify your child’s teacher(s) about this, but what happens when a sub takes over for the day? Definitely ask the director these questions during your tour.

Curriculum

There are several different philosophies to early childhood education. Let’s break them down:

  • Montessori: A Montessori education includes a supportive environment, multi-age classrooms, multi-sensory learning, and lets each student’s curiosity leads them to what they want to discover next, all at their own pace. Even though the focus is on academics, there is still plenty of self-discovery and free-directed play throughout the day.
  • Play-based: This term is interchangeable with child-centered learning and places the learning focus on the child. There is no set curriculum. Instead, kids are encouraged to play in the areas to which they are naturally drawn. Usually, the stations include kitchen/home, science, water/outdoor, reading/books, blocks/building, as well as other fun toys. Even though it looks like your child is just playing, they are learning a lot—social skills, cooperation with their peers and teachers, recognizing signs, learning to eat independently, early math, songs, and more.
  • Academic: This is where the teacher sets a more definitive curriculum, such as learning to write names, studying the letters of the alphabet, doing basic math, and so on. If you want more structure for your child, this is the way to go.

Ask if there are any additional activities offered. Many preschools will have a qualified music, dance, or art teacher come in once a week for a group lesson.

Also, consider accreditation. Some preschools follow the guidelines set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Others might be licensed by state guidelines. And many choose to forgo accreditation in order to follow their own philosophy without being limited by rigid guidelines.

Even though accreditation offers some security that the preschool will be run a specific way, it’s not necessarily bad if they don’t have it. Read up on their policies; they may find the rules too restricting and will state the reasons they choose not to be accredited.

Mixed Ages or Age-Specific

Some preschools believe in children interacting with different age groups (specifically Montessori preschools). These preschools usually have one big room for all the kids to play in, allowing kids ages two to five to learn to work together. This allows older kids to act as role models, which boosts their self-esteem and confidence. Also, younger kids are thrilled to learn from their older peers. Read about why the 10th Street Preschool encourages a mixed-age classroom.

Many preschools choose to separate children into age groups, putting all two-year-olds in one classroom, three-year-olds in the next, and so on. This approach also has a valid argument behind it, as it can help coordinate age-specific activities and skills.

Both options have their value; decide what will work best for your child’s specific needs.

Student-to-Teacher Ratio

This number is based on how many students are allowed to enroll per each qualified teacher. The lower the ratio, the better. This means the teachers can offer your child more attention and support. The ratio is usually lower for younger kids and goes up as kids get older and more independent.

Outside Time

Children At Montessori School Having Fun Outdoors During Break
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Being outside, getting muddy and dirty, climbing stuff—this is what being a little kid is all about! Many preschools allow kids to play outside all day long, only going in for snack and lunch, or if the child chooses to do an indoor activity.

Other schools may be limited on outdoor space and will schedule designated breaks for each age group. This usually involves at least half an hour of outside time, which may seem adequate for many families but not long enough for others.

Ask questions about wearing sun hats and applying sunscreen, and check out the outdoor area to make sure it’s partly shaded and fully fenced in. Often the student-to-teacher ratio is 8:1 or higher. That means one teacher is responsible for multiple children at any given time. If the play area isn’t fully fenced in, a child could easily bolt out onto a busy street.

Security

We want our kids to be safe. Some schools lock the front door, giving parents access with a key code or a swipe card. Some schools are on quiet, rural streets, whereas others are right in the downtown area. Ask about what they do to keep the children safe, especially if they go out on field trips.

Community

Above all else, you want to feel welcomed into a community. Ask if there are ways for parents to get involved, or if there are community events, such as group potlucks. You want to feel connected to the other parents and children.

Ask for the Handbook

Most preschools have an official handbook. This will cover everything, such as what to do if your child is sick, or if you need to pull out unexpectedly, as well as what’s expected with potty training. This will answer any remaining questions you may have.


Even though the whole process of searching for a preschool can be overwhelming, you want to feel good about your final decision. Start the process early to increase your chances of getting into your first choice. Many preschools start registration in January for the following August/September.

You’re looking for the best fit for your child. It might not be the perfect option for someone else, but it has to be what will help your child feel safe, secure, and able to thrive. Remember these early years are so important—making sure to find the right fit is the main priority.

And even after you’ve picked the perfect preschool, make sure to stay involved. Join the parental team, read every newsletter, meet with the teachers and director regularly, and check in often with your child.

Jill Chafin Jill Chafin
Jill Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »

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