Upon commencing my search for preschool options for my 2-year-old, I swiftly realized that I was somehow already trailing behind—I should have supposedly placed my child on a waitlist while he was in the womb. Deciphering different approaches felt like encountering a new language. Montessori what? Waldorf who? Not to mention attempting to assess the costs, teacher-to-child ratios, and the advantages and disadvantages of half-day versus full-day options for two working parents.
Guidelines for Selecting the Right Preschool for Your Child
1. Verify if your child is genuinely prepared for preschool
Most parents are eager to identify the appropriate preschool for their family, but it can hinge on various factors, as per early childhood education specialist Joe Wiseman. “You want to enroll your child in a program that helps prepare her or his rapidly developing body, mind, and social skills for the complex environment and demands of kindergarten and later life,” he explains. “If your child is starting to exhibit the social and self-management skills to follow instructions and participate in group activities, they are ready for preschool.”
2. Keep in mind some aspects shouldn’t differ across preschools
“Children are naturally inquisitive, energetic, and eager to learn and try new things,” notes national education expert Tania Ferradino. “To maintain their natural curiosity, preschoolers require a readiness curriculum that fosters playful learning. A robust preschool curriculum integrates learning opportunities directly into play, ensuring that learning keeps pace with the developing child.”
Additionally, you should anticipate every preschool to emphasize a few fundamental activities irrespective of the setting: singing, playing, and drawing. “Singing, accompanied by movement, enhances memory and language; social involvement and imitation; rhythm; rhyme; and body awareness,” states Ferradino. “Playing fosters social skills, such as collaboration, taking turns, and following instructions. Hands-on letter play builds pre-writing skill, so children should learn letters (and numbers) through multi-sensory active play, such as shaping letters with dough, wooden pieces, or magnetic stamps. And coloring or drawing with small crayons help children develop a good pencil grip.”
3. Pose inquiries to aid in your decision-making
Peg Theobald, a mother and blogger in Grand Rapids, MI, recommends asking preschools various questions to facilitate a decision that’s suitable for your family. She outlines three that were most important to her: Is the school accredited? How are children with different abilities accommodated? And, what special programs does the school offer to your child? Naturally, you’ll have your own set of queries, but rest assured it’s entirely normal to run through a list of questions as you explore different preschool options available to you.
Preschool Varieties to Choose From
Montessori preschools foster independence and mixed-age settings
“Montessori schools are those that adhere to the Montessori Method: a child-centered educational approach to education,” reveals Ais Her, director of schools at Fountainhead Montessori School in California. “The emphasis is on the learning triangle/triad of the teacher, child, and environment. Children exercise their individual choice, and interact with the teacher when they require assistance and/or guidance, as well as utilizing their environment to develop themselves. All materials, as well as the classroom, encourage independence, freedom within limits, and a sense of order, through guidance and preparation from the teacher.”
With this approach, students typically concentrate on sensory-motor activities rather than memorization or repetition—and children are encouraged to learn at their own pace. The research on this form of schooling presents mixed results: some studies indicate that children perform better within this environment, while others indicate the opposite.
With this approach, students usually concentrate on sensory-motor activities rather than memorization or repetition—and children are encouraged to learn at their own pace.
One distinguishing feature of Montessori preschools? Multi-age groupings, wherein younger and older children are placed in the same classroom. This is intentional, according to Her, based on the belief that younger children can learn from older children, and older children reinforce their command of specific concepts by essentially teaching the same concepts to younger students.
As for drawbacks, Her mentions that the transition from Montessori to more traditional school environments can be challenging. “If students leave and transition to another institution that emphasizes more desk work, they struggle to complete assignments,” she observes. “Children are accustomed to an environment that enables them to move around. Moreover, children ask numerous questions; they desire to understand the rationale behind things, and thus, in these settings, they are ‘overly’ social. In a Montessori environment, they are permitted to collaborate and work together to resolve problems.”
Reggio Emilia preschools tend to revolve around projects based on a child’s interest
Adam Cole, a music teacher at a Reggio-inspired school in Georgia, states that this approach is founded on the notion that “children, even infants, are not blank slates but individuals who bring their complete selves to the school.” In his experience, the curriculum is child-initiated and directed; it aims to create learning situations based on hands-on exploration and invites children to collaborate in group settings.
The curriculum is child-initiated and directed; it aims to create learning situations based on hands-on exploration and invites children to collaborate in group settings.
For instance, if your child spots a dandelion outside and poses a question to the teacher, it’s likely that he or she won’t be given an answer—instead, a teacher might gently prompt him or her to find out, and this curiosity could evolve into specific projects or activities, such as cultivating a garden. It’s also noteworthy that there’s no formal Reggio Emilia certification process for educators, and a lack of qualifications or specific training might make some parents uneasy.
Waldorf preschools prioritize imaginative play without homework or assessments
With Waldorf schools, children abstain from learning through any media, nor do they engage in homework, assessments, worksheets, or even desks. Instead, children spend a considerable amount of time outdoors to participate in creative free play, social interactions, and group activities. There’s a strong emphasis on individuality and creativity, geared towards discovering children’s innate interests and talents, and educators offer guidance accordingly.
With Waldorf schools, children abstain from learning through any media, nor do they engage in homework, assessments, worksheets, or even desks.
Two potential drawbacks stand out: there’s evidence that certain Waldorf schools may lean towards an anti-vaccination stance, and reading skills aren’t emphasized until at least first grade.
Church or temple-run preschools are religious (obviously)
Another prevalent option involves church or temple-affiliated preschools. These can vary widely in terms of classroom activities and religious messaging, and some are open to children of any faith background. The decision about the type of preschool to choose hinges on whether the family is already seeking a specific setting. For instance, one family selected a local, private Christian school as it aligned with their values, but other families might find a co-op preschool or Montessori program more suitable. Other preschool options to consider comprise community organizations that offer daycare-like programs, co-op preschools where parents are highly involved, HighScope programs that focus on active participatory learning, and the Bank Street approach that emphasizes play-based learning and social studies activities.
Sarah Lougheed-Gill, a school admissions director, advises parents to visit multiple preschools to observe the programs in action and envision their child attending. She recommends questioning whether the school genuinely prioritizes the child and if the environment seems conducive to the child’s flourishing. Finally, she advises parents to trust their instincts when making a decision about the right preschool for their child.