It’s so important that our children get the best start in life, with nurturing, stimulating experiences beginning as early as possible. We know that kids who receive quality education and care in the early years grow up to be more successful, exhibit better social emotional skills, and persevere in the face of challenges. So what separates a high quality preschool from the rest? The best preschools have a few things in common:
- A warm, welcoming environment
- Rules and Rituals
- Stimulating Curriculum
- Qualified, caring staff
- Clean, safe facilities
A Warm, Welcoming Environment
Always visit a preschool you’re considering before making a decision. If possible, visit a few times, with and without your child, at different times of the day. How do you feel when you walk in the door? Are you and your child greeted warmly and invited in? Are parents encouraged to ask questions and visit during the day?
A welcoming environment should have clearly defined places where families can find the daily schedule and upcoming events. There will be areas for displaying children’s work, and low, open shelves that encourage children to reach and explore toys independently. Furnishings should be adapted to allow children with disabilities and other special needs to fully participate in the program’s activities. Multicultural materials help promote appreciation for diversity while being respectful of the cultural traditions, values, and beliefs of families being served.
Remember that your child will walk into this environment every day. You want to be sure they will feel welcomed and valued and part of the community.
Rules and Rituals
Kids learn best by repetition and reinforcement. Want kids to learn how to sit still and listen quietly? Circle time every day at the same time helps establish that habit. Kids who know what to do when they need to use the bathroom are less likely to have accidents. Celebrating birthdays the same way for every child helps the individual child express happiness for others while knowing that their turn is coming. Doing the same thing the same way on a regular basis helps kids understand the expectations and develop a sense of control in their little worlds.
Most children will learn to recognize their ABCs in preschool. But whether they care about letters, and eventually how they form words
and ultimately language, depends on how they learn them. A well-designed curriculum stimulates your child’s development and makes daily learning more fun. Curriculum should change over time, incorporating things that are happening in the world around them – like the seasons or the life cycle of a butterfly – with lots of opportunities to explore and expand the world around them.
Classrooms should include dramatic play equipment; sensory materials such as sand, water, play dough, paint, and blocks; and gross motor equipment for activities such as pulling up, walking, and climbing in, on, and over; moving through, around, and under; pushing and pulling; and riding. Outdoor areas should include three or more natural elements that children can interact with, such as grass, sand, rocks, plants (including gardens), and variations in ground elevation.
Qualified, Caring Staff
Watch how staff members interact with the children. They should greet children with enthusiasm in the morning, and help them find their place in the class.
Good teachers will ask detailed questions about your child and her life outside of school. A good teacher should want to know if a child has experienced a loss, or hasn’t been sleeping well or has a new baby brother, as these things will definitely play out in the classroom.
Make sure the preschool has a staff large enough to give your child the attention and care he needs. Ask what each school’s teacher-child ratio is and decide whether it’s okay with you. A good preschool will maintain small groups of children, no matter how many teachers they have, to encourage interaction and development.
Clean, Safe Facilities
Most states require preschools to meet certain safety standards, but trust your gut on this one. Check to see that the facility has working fire alarms and a safety evacuation process. Ask about the visitor policy and ensure that strangers aren’t able to enter the building (and kids aren’t able to wander out).
Ensure that medication is kept locked and out of reach of small hands. Food preparation areas should be spotless when not in use and first aid kits should be easily accessible. Toys should be durable, free of toxic chemicals and in good repair. And facilities should be designed so that teachers can supervise children without relying on mirrors or other monitoring devices.
In outdoor play areas, climbing structures should be in good condition with a soft surface to catch falls. There should be space to run without collisions, and chain covers on swings to prevent pinches. If the preschool you’re looking at doesn’t have outdoor space, make sure there is a spacious indoor area for free play. According to NAEYC, preschools should have at least 35 square feet of indoor space and 75 square feet of outside space per child.
The Bottom Line
The most factor in choosing a preschool is your own intuition. A school might look great on paper, but if your child seems overly uncomfortable when you visit, or you don’t feel like you “click” with the teachers, keep looking.