In Search of the Perfect Preschool

You are the proud, devoted parent of the most wonderful creature on earth, and it seems like only yesterday that your life was totally altered by the birth of your child. Although no one ever gave you a book of instructions, you have managed to find the answers to countless questions from “cloth or disposable?” to “formula or breast milk.” Now there is yet another question to answer. Should you send your little one to preschool? Parents, in-laws, and grandparents will all probably have advice for you. They may tell you that a “good” parent stays at home with a young child, but, of course, the reality is that most women today have to work just to keep their households afloat. If you are over thirty, you may not have gone to preschool. Many of us spent carefree days in the confines of neighborhood backyards under the watchful supervision of a league of at-home moms. Those idyllic days (for the kids, maybe not the moms) have gone forever. Most parents choose to send their children to school before they ever enter kindergarten. They know that interaction with peers is essential to the social development of young children. In the case of the only child this is often the deciding factor. If you already know that your child is going off to pre-school as soon as that last empty box of diapers hits the garbage, an even more difficult question confronts you. How will you choose the right preschool for your child? I am frequently asked that question, but there isn’t a simple answer. Because I am the parent of an only child who did attend pre-school, I know that the choice is easier if you understand your options. Early childhood education centers are not, as most might believe, the recent product of a technological society. In ancient Greece, Plato taught that education begins at birth. He believed that the way we speak to young children, the stories we tell them, “shape their souls.” Today, early childhood education embraces as many philosophies of education as there are personalities in children. But we can identify certain qualities that all good pre-schools should have. The best early childhood programs address the development of the whole child. They provide an environment that is safe and nurturing, while at the same time stimulating and fun. Their goal should be to foster a child’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development while promoting selfesteem. Without a realistically positive self-image, children lack the necessary emotional tools for success in later life. A good pre-school provides children with experiences that challenge but don’t frustrate or defeat them. It’s in pre-school that many children, especially those without siblings, learn how to share, take turns, listen to and learn to get along with others. A good preschool actually offers children the keys for becoming successful throughout their lives. As you being the pre-school search, you will find that early childhood education programs have many different names. Some call themselves schools while others refer to themselves as centers or programs. Some use terms like progressive or developmental to describe their curriculum, while others see themselves as traditional or eclectic. The problem is that in many cases there is no general consensus on the meaning of each specific term. The best way to avoid confusion is to go shopping. What to Look For Most centers encourage parents to schedule a visit, with or without their child, during school hours. The best thing you can do during an on-site school visit is to keep your eyes and ears open. Look carefully at the physical setting. Are the rooms clean and bright? Is the decor designed to inspire young children or impress adults? Is there ample outdoor play space that offers a wide variety of large motor activities? Is the equipment both inside and outside in good repair? Because a school can only be as good as its teachers, you will want an environment where the children like and trust their teachers and the teachers respect the children. As you observe the indoor learning space, pay particular attention to the educational materials and how well-organized and readily accessible they are to the children. Are the books, pictures, learning toys, etc. age appropriate? Are there materials that will help foster a child’s understanding of the world they live in (such as animals, plants, dress-up clothes, props for dramatic play, multi-cultural materials, etc.) Most Important Are the children happy? Children’s faces will give you more information than any brochure. But remember, the best school for one child may not be the best school for your child. The final and most important question you need to answer is whether the school feels right to you. Is this a place you would be happy leaving your child each morning? If you can answer with a confident “Yes!”, you may have just found the perfect preschool.