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How to Choose the Right Preschool
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Preschool can be a wonderful experience for your child. But how do you choose the right program among the available options?
"Start by examining the basics," 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." "Looking at practical considerations — such as location, cost, minimum enrollment age, your child's personality and your educational goals — will help you identify the programs that best suit your family."
To help you narrow your options, we've compiled a primer outlining several types of preschools.
What is it? Programming offered through the public school system.
Why it's great: Students get a taste of "big-kid" school, dealing with such things as buses, older students and school rules, which can ease their transition to kindergarten. Many public programs integrate developing and differently abled preschoolers. Some programs are free or offered at lower cost to low-income families or to children with special needs.
Considerations: Not all public school systems offer preschool. Enrollment priority is generally given to in-district families and students with special needs.
The teacher says: "Students in a public preschool program gain experience and practice that helps to set the stage for kindergarten and the rest of the primary school education. The children acquire pre-academic skills from certified schoolteachers and learn important school rules and educational routines in a positive environment that they love." — Abby Donington, integrated preschool teacher at Edison Public Preschool in Edison, N.J.
What is it? A cooperative or co-op preschool is a nonprofit organization run by a group of parents for the purpose of educating children. Parents assist the paid, professional teachers in and out of the classroom.
Why it's great: Co-op preschool offers many opportunities for parental involvement, such as volunteering in the classroom, preparing snacks, holding board positions and fundraising. Some co-op programs offer a parent education component to build parenting skills. Tuition tends to be lower than for other private options.
Considerations: Because of the parental involvement required, co-ops may not be ideal for families with limited time. Parents with multiple children may need to make arrangements for childcare during their classroom help hours.
The teacher says: "Cooperative preschool enables parents to be part of their child's early learning experiences in a setting that offers developmentally appropriate activities that nurture physical, emotional, cognitive, social and emotional development. The more involved parents are in their child's education, the more successful that child will be in the future." — Alex Ferwerda, preschool teacher at Steamboat Island Cooperative Preschool in Olympia, Wash.
What is it? A program offered through a church, synagogue or other religious organization and operated according to the principles of that religion.
Why it's great: Along with offering typical preschool curriculum, faith-based preschools nurture children's spirituality — a priority for many families. Tuition tends to be lower than for other private options.
Considerations: Families who do not practice religion may not be comfortable with these programs.
The teacher says: "Our teachers can set good examples of Christian love through their words and actions. Children learn to treat others with kindness, respect and forgiveness in a classroom atmosphere of social play. A quality program fosters growth cognitively, physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually." — Donna Stutzman, director and teacher at Bethel Preschool in Gurnee, Ill.
What is it? Montessori focuses on allowing children to learn through play at their own pace.
Why it's great: The Montessori philosophy accommodates multiple learning styles and allows students to learn at their own speed. Multi-age classrooms allow older students to serve as mentors.
Considerations: Not all public school systems offer Montessori options. Montessori programs tend to be more expensive than other types. Many programs are five days per week.
The teacher says: "What distinguishes Montessori is the child-centered approach that addresses all dimensions of the child. Montessori nurtures not just academic skills, but also the social, emotional, physical and spiritual needs of the child. Montessori schools are deeply respectful of the individuality and uniqueness of each child, and the Montessori classroom allows each student to learn at his own pace, in a supportive and responsive environment. A Montessori education fosters independent, curious, self-confident and community-minded learners." — Sara Wilson, director of school accreditation and school improvement for the American Montessori Society and a former Montessori early childhood teacher
What is it? Based on the Waldorf philosophy, these private schools focus on nurturing imagination and hands-on learning in a home-like environment.
Why it's great: Students spend time outdoors. Teachers model practical activities, such as baking and gardening, for children to imitate, and toys are made from natural materials. The daily routines are predictable.
Considerations: Private preschools tend to be more expensive. Waldorf programs are teacher-led rather than student-directed.
The coordinator says: "The benefits of Waldorf early childhood education are both immediate and long-lasting. An environment permeated with love and respect for the dignity and uniqueness of each child, together with strong daily, weekly and seasonal rhythms, create a sense of trust and security. Ample time and space for free creative play allow each child to develop the capacity for self-initiated activity, deep engagement and a rich and imaginative approach to all they encounter. Health-giving experiences in nature and the world of imagination foster a sense of wonder and connectedness to life." — Susan Howard, coordinator, Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America
- Image Courtesy of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis Preschool
What are they? Some children's museums, gymnastics facilities and activity centers offer preschool programs.
Why they're great: Along with gaining a typical preschool experience, students enjoy the benefits of a special facility's resources: museum exhibits, gymnastics instruction, art classes or special playtimes. Some offer tuition discounts for member families or other deals.
Considerations: These types of programs are not available in all areas.
The director says: "When you enroll your child in a museum preschool, you expose your child to all of the resources in a museum: the exhibits and galleries, the artifacts and objects and cultures beyond what are ordinarily found in a preschool classroom. For instance, our Dinosphere gallery presents real science and allows children to touch real fossils while asking questions of our paleontologists. Yet, it still allows their imaginations to thrive in a nesting area in which they dress up as dinosaurs." — Cathy Southerland, director of early childhood education, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis Preschool.
Daycare Preschool: Some daycares offer special programs for preschool-age children, which is convenient for families with children already enrolled in daycare.
In-Home Preschool: Some daycare providers offer preschool in their private residences.
Reggio Emilia Preschool: Schools that embrace this philosophy offer child-led learning and focus on creative expression.
Language Immersion Preschool: In these programs, students are exposed to a foreign language either full or part time.