by Kim Brooks
May 09, 2012
Options abound when it comes to choosing the right type of preschool for your child. While socializing, exploring, and learning opportunities are ever present in most quality programs, you may prefer a preschool that best complements your family’s educational philosophy (encouraging learning at an individual pace, for example) or particular interest area (a passion for the arts or the natural environment). Some parents need a program that meshes well with a full time work schedule while others want to take on a regular role in the classroom. There are preschool programs that fit a variety of wishes, wants, and needs and while every option won’t be available in all areas of the country, the following is a list of the most common types of preschools to consider:
Montessori Schools are based on the educational methods of Dr. Maria Montessori who, after scientifically observing children’s learning processes, concluded that children teach themselves. Surrounded by developmentally appropriate activities in classrooms typically comprised of mixed age groups (ages 3 to 6 can be in one class), each child is given the freedom to choose the activity he or she would prefer to focus on and is given uninterrupted time to pursue the activity. With few group lessons, students are encouraged to learn at their own unique pace and are free to move around the room and explore different subject areas. This independence is also encouraged as children tackle daily tasks in the classroom such as cleaning up after play and helping to prepare snacks.
The word “Montessori” is not legally protected and is widely used. To ensure that a preschool advertising as a Montessori school actually incorporates the Montessori practices, research what to look for here.
Waldorf Schools are rooted in the spiritual scientific philosophy of Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner and strive to educate the whole child (spirit, soul, body). “Waldorf nursery schools,” says Jenifer Wana, author of How to Choose The Best Preschool For Your Child: The Ultimate Guide To Finding, Getting Into, and Preparing for Nursery School, “use hands-on activities and imaginary play to foster a love of learning, a sense of teamwork, and concentration skills.” A Waldorf curriculum engages children within an environment focused on artistic and domestic activities such as painting, baking, gardening, and handicrafts. Toys and educational tools are typically natural materials collected by the students during walks and learning happens through imitation and activities such as storytelling, creative play, puppetry and finger plays, singing, and artistic movement. The Waldorf program aims to help students develop a healthy imagination and a love and appreciation of nature and community.
Highscope Approach Schools were first developed for at-risk children by Dr. David Weikart, a Michigan public school educator, and emphasize “active participatory learning” meaning students have direct, hands-on experiences with people, objects, and ideas that interest them. In the course of a day that involves a typical, predictable routine, children make choices about which activities they plan to participate in during their time in the classroom. At the end of the day, they report whether they ended up doing what they intended. This daily report is referred to as the “plan-do-review” and teaches children not only to plan their own activities based on their area of interest but also to talk about what they did and what they learned in the process. Teachers offer support to each student as they make and follow through with decisions. This type of teaching encourages initiative, goal setting, independence, and creativity, with the intent to prepare kids for continued school readiness and success.
Reggio Emilio Approach Schools were founded in the Italian region of the same name in the 1940s by Loris Malaguzzi, and encourage every child to creatively express ideas. Reggio Emilio schools share the Montessori view that the school environment is the “third teacher” (after the parent and teacher) according to Nancy Hertzog, Ph.D, author of Ready for Preschool: Prepare Your Child For Happiness and Success at School. As a project-based program, classroom lessons are based on the interests of the students. Students are encouraged to work in small or large groups to search for answers to their questions and to actively engage in their own learning process. This results in a unique class experience for each group of students as projects can last anywhere from a few days to a full year, notes Wana. There is great focus on visual arts, creative, dramatic play, and music. The school documents student projects and creations in detail not only in the interest of continued educational research, but as a way of communicating to each child their inherent value to the group.
Early learning centers While typical preschool programs are, on average, three hours per day, early learning centers provide a preschool curriculum tailored to a child’s age group during typical day care center hours (in other words, some are open 52 weeks a year, five days a week, giving parents full and part time options). Children 2–12 months of age are regularly read to, surrounded by developmentally appropriate toys and manipulatives, and exposed to simple activities that help develop motor and language skills. The 1-year-olds are finger painting, coloring, working with play-doh, and able to participate in dramatic play. By the time they are 2 years old, the children have that first exposure to group learning (sharing, taking turns, following a routine, and cleaning up their toys). By the time children reach the 3- to 4-year-old room (a typical preschool age room), they are engaged in more involved Pre-K lesson plans, focusing on science activities, literacy, and math concepts. Early learning centers can also offer a valuable socialization opportunity a few days a week to children who are otherwise cared for at home by a nanny or relative.
Making preschool personal
Despite many different types of preschool programs to choose from, many parents opt to make their child’s early education experience a more personal one. Cooperative programs (often referred to as “co-ops”) allow parents to actively participate in their child’s preschool environment, taking on various roles from helping the teacher in the classroom to assisting with office administration duties, site maintenance tasks, and school policy decisions. “I think the biggest misconception is underestimating the excellence of cooperative schools,” says Kathy Ems, president of Parent Cooperative Preschools International (PCPI), a non-profit membership organization that serves as a support system for cooperative early childhood education programs. Ems suggests parents benefit from being involved in co-op programs by gaining the community of other parents. “And children gain the sense that they and their education is very important,” adds Ems, “because Mom or Dad are there working.”
Often a co-op is a practical solution when other programs prove to be unavailable or unaffordable. In her New York Times article, The Pre K Underground, Soni Sangha writes about her experience setting up a Pre-K co-op with other parents when her son didn’t get one of the coveted and limited available slots at his neighborhood public program in New York. “The school on our street had 432 applicants,” she says, “for 36 seats.” And the alternative private programs she found often came at costs that rivaled college tuition. “My husband and I,” notes Sangha, “products of suburban public elementary schools, certainly were not prepared for the cost of early education in New York City.” Although Sangha admits it can require a lot of weekly planning work for parents and involve plenty of red tape to secure a classroom site, a co-op can often mean the difference for many families between their children experiencing a classroom environment prior to kindergarten, or not.
For parents interested in setting up a cooperative program on their own as Sangha did, Ems stresses it takes a dedicated group of people who are willing to pay upfront costs or find a sponsoring organization to help, such as a religious group, community center, or park district. Adds Ems, “Finding a space is often the most difficult thing” and, after that is accomplished, you need to secure a core group of students, a teacher, insurance, and supplies. “There is usually a year’s lead time to doing this,” stresses Ems, “and it is also important to look at the demographics of your area to be sure there is a demand for your program.” For parents interested in finding an established co-op preschool, the PCPI website lists all schools that have “signed on that they support the cooperative ideal and the importance of parent education and involvement,” says Ems.
Finding the right preschool requires that you take into consideration your family’s circumstances, finances, and philosophy. But it’s also critical that your preschooler feels comfortable in the classroom. Including your future student in school tours is a great way to see what catches his attention and invites questions you may not have considered. School fundraisers and festivals are often open to the community and attending these can be a great way to get an informal peak into the school’s culture without the pressure of a formal tour. While plentiful preschool options may make the selection process seem challenging at first, the right fit is often clear once you and your child start to explore.
To learn more about how to start your preschool search, read “P Is For Preschool”.
Kim Brooks is a Walnut Creek, California-based writer who loves to cook and create. She recently pressed the pause button on her career in interior design to spend more time with her daughters. She is mom to Natalie and Audrey.
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