I've seen some amazing preschools… and getting in isn't always easy. Some require you to get on their registration page at midnight on January 1st to snag your spot. Others essentially require you to get on a waiting list upon your child's birth. Not kidding.
The preschool selection scene can get pretty intense. We know the early years matter, but will getting into the "right" preschool really determine the trajectory of your child's remaining decades?
Between my own personal and professional experience and a fantastic podcast conversation I had recently with my friend Deborah Stewart, a phenomenal teacher and mentor at Teach Preschool, I've found that considering a preschool is more about finding the best fit for your child than about finding the one "perfect" school.
For every neonatal waiting list, I've also seen amazing things happening in small preschools with no waiting list at all. There are certainly things to consider to gauge overall quality, but the biggest thing to remember is that it's more important to follow your child's lead than to follow the crowd.
In choosing a preschool for your child, I recommend paying attention to these five aspects:
1. Your child
First and foremost, spend some time thinking about your child. What kind of environment do they thrive in? What makes them nervous, excited, uncomfortable, or at ease?
Do they need more structure or more freedom? More opportunity for big body movement like climbing, jumping, and running, or for long spans of quiet creativity?
What will be most challenging about preschool? Will it be the separation from you? Will it be making friends? Will it be following directions? In what areas would you like to see the most growth in your child after a year of preschool?
Thinking about your child's personality and tendencies help you recognize when the school everyone else is raving about might not actually match up with what your child needs most.
2. The teachers
If you're able to observe the teachers at work, watch to see how they interact with the kids. Hopefully, you see a teacher who is warm and enthusiastic about teaching. Someone who doesn't just stand to the side and play lifeguard, but who gets low to make eye contact and connect with the children. Look for a teacher who is engaging and creates a language-rich environment, but not because they're the ones doing all the talking!
Consider your own child's personality, and observe how this teacher approaches them. Keep in mind that a teacher you may love to have as a friend yourself may not be the best connection for your child.
3. The environment
If you look around the classroom and school, they should obviously be clean and orderly. But I would bristle at an environment that looked TOO perfect.
It should look like small children actually play there. You want to see materials that children can access and put away themselves (even if that means the place doesn't look like a perfect magazine spread).
Find areas of the room where you can sit on the floor or low to the ground and see the environment from your child's perspective. Are items easy to reach? Is the furniture and the decoration of the room oriented to a child's view or an adult's?
You want to see signs that the children have taken some ownership of their environment by creating items displayed in the room and building. That art shouldn't look like it was mass-produced with every piece looking the same. They also shouldn't appear like they've been "fixed" by adults who made them look "right."
Above all, classrooms should look like one big invitation to play!
See whether there are spots for hands-on sensory exploration, block building, dress up, art, and an irresistible book area. There should ideally be a balance of quiet areas and louder areas as well as space for big movements (like a playspace outside) and times and spaces for calm stillness.
Further, check out the bathroom facilities. The preschool years run right along the same timeline for most children to be newly potty-trained and as a newbie, using a public toilet can present a whole new challenge. Are the bathrooms close to the classroom (or ideally IN it)? Can the sink and toilet be used independently by a small child? Are children able to use the bathroom whenever they need to?
Pay attention to your other senses beyond sight as well. Particularly, how does the environment sound? A room or building full of children shouldn't be silent—you should notice a happy, busy buzz of children interacting. At the same time, thinking back to what you considered about your child, make a note as to whether it's too loud or too quiet for your child's comfort level.
Again, there's no perfect answer here, but particularly if you have a child with sound sensitivities, that "ideal" play-based classroom everyone's lining up for may have the ideal "happy hum" for many children, but be a constant roar to your own child.
4. The other children
If you're able to observe a classroom in action, watch the children and observe how they interact with one another.
Mild conflict is normal (and how the teacher addresses that will be very helpful to observe) but generally, you would hope to see children who are building their social skills. They're practicing sharing and taking turns and inviting each other to play with them.
The way that the children interact (and the way they're supported when they struggle) can tell you a lot about how social skills are promoted. While the early academic skills gained in preschool are important, the number one, most important task for preschool is building solid social skills.
Additionally, see if other children seem to feel at ease or on edge. Do they avoid the teacher or comply out of fear? Do they have an active role in the classroom or are they expected to sit for long periods as passive listeners? Paying attention to these behaviors can shed light on discipline, expectations and the overall culture of the classroom.
5. The location
As parents, we would go to the end of the earth for our children, but you don't want that to be your commute twice a day for preschool drop off and pick up.
Choosing a location that is reasonable for you isn't a selfish consideration. Since practicing social skills and making friends is one of your child's top priorities in preschool, you'll want to find a school where you're more likely to be able to get together with those new friends and possibly continue those friendships on into kindergarten and elementary school.
There are many things to consider as you select a preschool, but it helps to brainstorm your own questions ahead of your school visits. The greatest tool you have in this process is your attunement with your own child and your willingness to choose a school that best fits those individual needs and unique goals.
There's no one, right answer, and there are no perfect preschools., but there are many great preschools out there that can be "just right" for your child.