It was a hard month in our family—phone calls, running out the door on short notice, mulling over the possibilities, waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, "Are we doing the right thing?" No, we weren’t shopping for a house. We were looking for a preschool for our two-year-old daughter.
Choosing a preschool for your child is not for the faint of heart. By the time a child is two or three, he’s ready for more social interaction with other kids than most home situations can provide. This means, for many parents, that it’s time to explore the preschool option. Yet even for parents whose children have been in daycare from the beginning, choosing a preschool can cause them to shake in their boots.
Our search for a happy, nurturing environment for our daughter ended relatively swiftly—and happily—at a small, licensed, family daycare center up the street from us in a nurturing home environment with kids ranging in age from two to almost five. Some of my friends had a harder time, visiting many places—for months it seemed—before selecting the right place.
Looking around at the options in your area is vital, however. "Shop around for preschools in the same way you shopped for a babysitter or daycare," suggests Annie McManus, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois. "When you are getting close to a decision, take your child to visit with you, and get feedback from the child. Involve the child in as much of the decision as you realistically can."
Whichever type of programs you are looking at—family home daycare, daycare center, public or private preschool—there are several issues to explore as you search. As you visit preschools in your area, ask yourself: What does the environment feel like? Do the children look happy? Will the preschool provide the names of other parents for you to speak with? What kinds of food do they feed the children? What kind of activities do they do?
Work or Play?
Does the preschool have an academic curriculum? Professor McManus believes preschool should provide a nurturing environment that focuses on play, and that kids shouldn’t be given academic work until kindergarten or first grade.
Children can be trained to recognize the alphabet and learn to read, McManus explains, but unless they understand certain concepts discovered through play, they won’t have the context to understand what they’ve learned. A strong, play-based program where children can explore concepts through elements in their environment will set them up for lifelong learning.