Some of the most difficult questions in life are those that sound deceptively simple. For example, “how do I find the right career?”, “how do I find the right life partner?”. For parents, the million-dollar question is: “How do I select the right preschool for my little one?” And if you too have been struggling with this question, you’ve come to the right place.
But be warned. There are no easy answers. If you came here expecting to find the magic formula for finding the perfect preschool, you will be disappointed. There’s no such magic formula. Finding the right preschool is hard work. A lot of hard work. But it’s well worth it, because the right preschool can make all the difference in your child’s foundation for life. This post is aimed at helping you demystify what goes into making great preschools great, and how you can go about the journey of finding the right place for your kid.
With that out of the way, let’s look at what should be on top of your priority list when it comes to selecting a preschool. First, some heavyweight stuff.
What’s the Educational Philosophy of the school?
Educational Philosophy refers to the approach a preschool follows when it comes to learning new skills. As adults, to us it might seem like there’s only one universal method of learning (“the way we were taught”) but actually there are many. For instance, the Reggio Emilia Approach focuses on problem solving through exploration and development of creative skills. Another famous one is the The Montessori Method, in which individuality of each child is stressed and the child is allowed to learn at her own pace.
Do some research on educational philosophies. Which ones rings true to you? Why? Do you think it’s better to present ideas to children and make them think, or to let them arrive at ideas on their own, however long it takes? There is no right answer here, and it all depends on what you, as a parent, see as the goals of education.
Then, find out the philosophy of the preschool you are interested in, and most importantly, do some detective work to figure out how religiously it is followed there.
What’s the educational and training background of the staff?
The next important puzzle to crack is the background and capability of the teachers. That’s because the teachers and staff are going to be spending the most time with your kid on the school, and their company is going to have a direct impact on shaping the child’s mind.
What should you check for? First and foremost, qualifications. You can’t bank on teachers imparting right education by instinct or accident. Check their credentials and make sure you are impressed. The second thing to check for is the extra-curricular portfolio of the teachers; what have they done or accomplished outside of their jobs? Are they part of certain communities or groups related to learning and teaching? Have they worked on some interesting projects? You want to make sure they are able to think outside the box and are not limited to their books.
Finally, you need to make sure the fruit tastes as good as it looks. Make sure you see the staff in action when taking a class. Are they attentive enough? Are they being true to the Educational Philosophy they claim to follow? Do you see them being able to give a right foundation to your kid?
And while you’re at it, go the extra mile and engage the teachers in a conversation about learning and education. See if they genuinely believe what they’re doing or have they just memorised some lines.
Availability of playing area
The idea seems absurd: of course a preschool will have a play area; why do you need to worry about it? Well, that’s because not all play areas are created equal. Or in other words, different environments affect the brain development differently, and you want to make sure your child gets the right one.
So what to check for? First off, make sure that there’s plenty of room to play. The bigger the area, the better, because freedom of movement develops motor skills in kids and helps them grow faster mentally. The next thing is the variety of objects in the play area. You don’t want only colorful balls to be around. At the same time, you don’t want the play area to have access only to toys. Some exposure to natural surroundings is recommended. Maybe look for a few flower pots and trees, and maybe also a piece of land. But here again you need to strike a balance – while you ensure variety in the play area, keep an eye on safety too. Don’t go for something that has many high places and loose, potentially harmful objects lying around.
Whatever you choose at the end of the day, make sure you talk to the staff and management openly about your concerns. Perhaps they’ll realize the importance of what you’re saying and make changes in the play area.
The classroom is another important part of preschool you need to look at. It needs to have the proper setting, and should have access to all learning and hands-on resources. The focus on hands-on learning is really high here, as toddlers understand best by doing things. When you survey the classroom, make sure you check the availability of hands-on learning resources, and if you’re not sure, talk to the staff.
Another important consideration is class size. Toddlers need more attention and personalized conversations than adults, which means the teacher to student ratio shouldn’t be too high. Typically, up to 10 students per teacher is maximum.
Location and travel
Parents obsess about location. They want a preschool that is good and close by. While we agree on this, location shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for you. The best preschool for your child may not be the one with the most prestige in the neighbourhood. As such, be prepared to send the toddler a little far away for school. And if that’s the case, pay attention to the travel arrangements made by the school. Is the vehicle safe and in good condition? Does the driver drive responsibly? Are kids seated firmly and comfortably in the vehicle, and are they monitored at all times by a teacher? These questions are important to be answered before you sign up.
Nutrition and hygiene
Another important thing to look at is the nutrition and hygiene policy of the preschool. It’s vital to check the quality of food and water available at the premises. Ask to see the nutrition policy; do the staff sit with children and encourage and educate them while eating, or are children supposed to eat on their own? Are they taken through and involved in simple cooking activities that cultivate their interest in healthy food? What are the preschool’s expectations from the parents when it comes to nutrition?
At the same time, keep the hygiene policy also in mind. What kind of hygiene activities does the preschool teach, and which ones does it require? For instance, some preschools teach dental hygiene and washing hands, but require children to be potty-trained already. This can become a show-stopper if you’re not clear and ready for it.
Interview other parents
One of the best ways to gather the inside stories is to talk to parents in the neighbourhood. We’d suggest talking to those whose kid is in the school you are interested in, as well as the others. But don’t get too journalistic in your approach. You want to approach them in a friendly way and try to get the most information out. Why did they select that particular school, for example, is a good question. It’s entirely possible that in some cases you will come up with a dead-end. For some parents, proximity and good brand name is all that matters, and they won’t care much about educational philosophy and teacher background. Of course you need to ignore such cases.
What you’re looking for when you talk to other parents is the memorable points. Try to get to things that stick out, either because they were too good or too bad. For instance, maybe the school you have your eyes on has a terrible safety record. This is something you won’t find anywhere unless you connect directly with the parents.
Don’t just rely on spoken words and intuition. When you’re sure you’ve figured out everything and the preschool looks good, it’s time to accompany your kid for a one-day session and observe how she reacts to it. Does the kid feel expressive and get involved in various activities? Does she respond to the teachers and reach out to other kids? If not, something is wrong, and you need to go back to the drawing board and rethink.
But do remember that sometimes it can be your toddler’s personality also. Some kids are introverted, and prefer mentally stimulating work to social contact. If you are the parent of one such kid, relax and allow her time to blossom. In such cases, your assessment of the school must take into account your toddler’s propensities.
Sounds like a lot of work? It sure is! But then, if you’re serious about your child’s education, the legwork is necessary. Remember, preschool is the most important time of one’s life, and the foundations built at that time last lifelong. As such, you need to make sure you have made the best possible choice under the given circumstances.
Finally, we must urge you to allow for real-world circumstances. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we do not find the ideal. Perhaps the school has everything but the play area is enclosed and limited. Perhaps it’s a little too far from your home. In such cases, we urge you to think practically; if the disadvantages are not too much, do consider making small sacrifices. It’s for the good of your little one, after all!