by Kim Brooks
May 09, 2012
In what seems like the blink of a sleep-deprived eye, curious little crawlers turn into inquisitive toddlers ready to take on a classroom. Preschool is often a child’s first experience in a group learning environment away from home and numerous studies have shown attending a quality early childhood education program helps better prepare kids for kindergarten and even their early elementary school years. In fact, children often show growth in social, language, and cognitive skills within the first few months at preschool. But finding the right program is not always as easy as 1, 2, 3. Knowing where to look and what to look for can feel overwhelming for even in-the-know parents. In addition to the practical considerations such as cost and location, it’s important for parents to find a program that reflects their educational priorities and philosophies. The best way to be sure you’ve crossed all your Ts and dotted all your Is is to ask yourselves a few pertinent questions:
When is my child ready to start preschool?
Most preschool programs are geared toward 3- to 5-year-olds, while some schools offer classes to children as young as 2 (although 2-year-old classroom environments and activities should differ from those geared toward older preschoolers). As children grow, so does their need for mental stimulation and physical activity. And as young children’s energy levels rise and naptimes shrink (most kids give up their morning nap by 18 months and all naps by 3 years of age), parents often see the benefit of socialization opportunities beyond the occasional playdate with friends. As with most milestones of early childhood, there is no right age to start preschool. But when children show an interest in exploring the world around them and playing with or even next to others, they are most likely ready to be part of a classroom community.
What are my preschool options?
Before you begin your search for “the one,” it is important to evaluate all your options. Each child is unique, and while a trusted friend’s daughter may be thriving in a large school with organized group activities, yours may do better in a more intimate program with one-on-one attention. There is no shortage of options and it’s best to arm yourself with a basic understanding of the various preschool philosophies before narrowing in on a specific school.
There are two main philosophies in any school environment outside of the home: play-based programs and project-based programs.
Among all play-based and project-based programs, there are a lot of different types of preschools. For an in-depth look at a variety of preschools, read “It’s Choice Time!” Most preschools fall into one of two teaching style categories: child centered or teacher directed. Child-centered classrooms involve a lot of free choice for kids to decide what they want to work on. Most play- and project-based programs fall into the child-centered category. Teacher-directed classrooms, on the other hand, involve little choice amongst students as activities are planned and implemented at the same time for the entire class. Academic preschool programs tend to be teacher directed as they aim to prepare children for kindergarten by focusing on math and reading skills through more formal instruction.
When do I begin the search?
Often the schools that come most highly recommended have lengthy waiting lists. It’s important to start the school search early; in some areas, that may even mean a couple of years before your child will attend. Preschool registration schedules vary but programs that follow the September through May calendar usually open registration in January or February of the prior school year. This means tours and discussions with the directors of the schools you are considering need to happen well in advance of the registration deadline. Many schools offer priority to siblings of current students and fill spots in 4- and 5-year-old classrooms with students moving up from younger classes prior to offering places to new applicants or children on the waiting list.
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