where to start picking a preschool?

Preschool feels like such a big milestone. For some kids it's the first chance they have to spend much time away from their mom or dad, but even if they've been in childcare before it marks the first step in the years (and years) of education to come. When Josie was three years old I didn't have a clue about where (or when) to start. We're fortunate to live in a city that has a wealth of options in every price range (which knocked a few off the list for me) and you can find a great environment without a tremendously long wait list (which knocked a few more off our list). I checked around the various options a bit and consulted with friends who were doing the same and came up with a winner. It's inexpensive, close to our house, and the curriculum is well-thought-out. The program wasn't overly academic, since I didn't feel that Josie needed very much help in that area, but focused on socializing children to prepare them for Kindergarten, which is where her weakness lied. All told, we've been very happy. Her teachers have done an tremendous job of helping her become a more assertive child over the past two years that she has spent with them, and she is more than prepared to start Kinder in the fall.

Depending on what you're interested in, preschools subscribe to any number of different educational philosophies (or, perhaps, none at all). Each has their merits, but you really have to consider your child's interests and personality in deciding which path to take. Even within a certain methodology, each school will likely interpret the philosophy a little differently. The important thing is to find a school that is a good match with your child!

Here are a few to consider:

Montessori schools are built around the idea of learning as a child's 'work.' Their goals are to foster independence, self-esteem, and confidence while encouraging children to learn at their own pace. Classrooms often have mixed ages and are very self-directed. Adults are less 'teacher' than 'guide,' and children do a great deal for themselves (e.g. preparing and serving the snack). Kids work at centers individually or in groups and these classrooms are often remarkably quiet as the children focus on their work. To truly be a "Montessori School," teachers must be educated as Montessori teachers, although some preschools take a Montessori approach without having trained Montessori teachers.

Waldorf schools endeavor to stimulate kids' bodies, spirits, and souls with a natural environment that engages all five senses. The man who developed the Waldorf philosophy believed that small children learn best by imitation and their physical surroundings, and this is clear in the classroom. Waldorf classrooms are all natural: no televisions, computers, or even plastic toys, and you are encouraged to maintain this environment at home. Creative play is the most important means of learning in a Waldorf classroom, with children working together a great deal. In preschool, children learn through cooking, dress-up, singing, art projects, storytime, and other activities rather than being taught in a structured manner.

The Reggio Emilia approach works to help children develop strong thinking skills by exposing children to all matter of expressive, communicative, and cognitive experiences. Schools typically engage children in topics build around their interests and focus on a topic for a period of time, integrating it into an array of self-directed and collective classroom activities, lengthy projects, and centers to develop an in-depth understanding of the concept. This integration of the concept across many domains is considered essential in making sure that each child--with their different learning style--is able to learn the concept.

Beyond this, many child care centers, community centers, and religious organizations offer traditional preschool programs. These typically provide the classic preschool experience you might remember from your own childhood, with an emphasis on both socialization and pre-academic skills. Schools through various religious organizations may provide additional age-appropriate religious education, while others are sponsored by the organization but do not integrate it into their curriculum.

These programs vary greatly depending on the philosophy of the director and teachers. They may include elements from several approaches (such as Montessori or Reggio Emilia). Typically, children will learn by playing and experimenting with language, toys, and art materials. Some schools may have a stronger emphasis on pre-academic skills and direct instruction, while others will offer a more hands-on curriculum. Talk to the director and pay a visit to observe what her approach is and whether it fits well with your child's temperament and your goals for her preschool education.

If preschool doesn't seem to fit in your family's budget, or you just can't find one with a philosophy that works for you, you might look for a cooperative preschool. These parent-run programs are usually less expensive than other schools since you invest time in the classroom, cleaning the facility, and fund-raising, and allow participating families to help decide what kids will learn and how. Depending on the school, this may require a good deal of time and energy, but many families find that this investment is worthwhile not only because it allows them to remain an integral part of their child's learning environment, but also helps develop relationships with other parents and skills that may help them in their careers.

All told, I can't say enough that it's critical to find a place that is a good match with your child's interests and personality, and to take the time to observe in the classroom to see that the experience really matches with what the director is telling you. Finally, if your child is of age, start now! Things really fill up and you don't want to be left at the bottom of the waiting list. The rest will take care of itself!
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