Yes, the time has come. It seems like only yesterday you were holding an infant in your arms and the thought of sending him off to school seemed, oh, decades away. But as hard as it may be to believe, your son or daughter will soon be three and the big decision needs to be made. Now is the time to choose your child's first formal educational experience -
A child's pre-school experience lays the foundation for future learning. Academic skills are important, but not nearly as important as the attitude and love the child acquires towards learning and exploring the world around him.
The primary issue to consider when choosing a pre-school is not only the reputation of the school. There are many wonderful schools. The question is, which school is best for your child? What philosophy and style of learning will match with his or her skills, talents, and needs? What are YOUR child's needs from the school?
Where will your child thrive?
Only you can answer this question.
What I will give you now is a bit of direction to help you in your search. Here are, in my opinion, the six most significant areas to consider when choosing a pre-school. Make an appointment to visit the schools you are considering and evaluate them according to these following criteria.
Some of the areas deal with the convenience factor - such as location and hours. Others relate to educational philosophy or learning styles. The factors are not listed here in order of importance. Only you can decide what are the most important factors in your decision.
Do not let anyone (relatives, friends, the latest fad) "guilt trip" you into sending your child to a school that is far beyond your financial means or that will cause great stress due to the hours or geographical location, if you can find an excellent pre-school that is closer to home and more traditional in nature.
Unless there is specific reason for your child to travel a significant amount of time to go to school (e.g. special needs), limit yourself to schools in your immediate area. If possible, young children should not spend long periods of time in transit. And, while driving forty minutes to get to the "best" school, may seem reasonable in theory, in reality, when you are hurrying to work, or when another child is sick in the car, you may not find it practical.
- Hours of operation
Check out the hours of each program. If you need coverage until three p.m., eliminate programs that end at one. Ask if the school has an "after-school" program. Know what your options will be in each location.
- Educational Philosophy
Some pre-schools operate based on specific educational goals and criteria that are determined by a specific approach to early childhood education. Other schools do not have a specific approach but have their own personal "philosophy". If the school does not have a specific approach, ask the director about the school's "philosophy of education." Consider the following areas:
- Emphasis on academic skills
Some pre-schools emphasize academic skills more than others. Is the learning of letters, numbers, and concepts taught according to a child's interest and readiness, or are these skills methodically taught as a necessary part of the curriculum?
- Parent involvement
Some pre-schools require a certain amount of parent involvement, while other schools prefer that parents "sit on the sidelines" unless needed. If you are a parent who likes to be involved, choose a school that will welcome your involvement. If you will not have time in your schedule to participate in classroom activities and trips, make sure this kind of participation will not be required.
- Approach to child independence and individual creativity
Some schools encourage independence, while others emphasize discipline and order. Ask if the school has a strict daily schedule and if all children must participate in each activity or if the teachers change the school routine according to the needs and desires of the children.
Two specific approaches in early childhood education you may encounter are:
- * Montessori - Maria Montessori's theory of child development involves building the pre-school into a "children's house." Perhaps her most important belief was that "play" is a child's "work." In a Montessori school, children do not "play," they "work." They do not use "toys," they use "materials." Children are given the freedom to explore their environment independently and choose their daily activities. For more information about the Montessori philosophy and to find a Montessori school near your home, you can check out http://montessoriconnections.com - Montessori Connections.
- * Waldorf - Waldorf schools base their approach on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. The emphasis is on daily activities that relate to the "whole child." All teaching is directly connected to life experiences. Waldorf schools place an emphasis on the use of art and nature in the classroom and discourage exposing pre-school children to television and computers. For more information on their philosophy and help in finding a school near you, you can check out http://bobnancy.com/bobnancy.html - Waldorf Resources Home Page.
The question that must be considered when evaluating any educational philosophy is not which philosophy is correct. All approaches have valid points. Ask yourself which approach will work best for your child. Some children flourish in a school that allows them independence to choose their daily activities. Other children, will simply be bored and "get lost" in the exact same setting.
- Emphasis on academic skills
When you visit a school, observe how the teachers interact with the students. Do they approach the children with warmth and caring and appear happy while doing their job? Do the teachers sit next to the children and work together with them, or do they supervise the children from afar? Once again, consider your child's needs. Some children respond best to teachers that exhibit a lot of physical warmth (kissing, hugging). Other children prefer more "space."
Observe how many adults are in the classroom, in relation to the number of children. Ask the director for information on the level of teacher training. How many certified teachers are there per child? You can also ask about the experience of the teacher assistants. Often "uncertified," yet experienced assistants can be marvelous teachers.
See if you can find out about staff turnover. Ask the director if the teachers you are observing are continuing the next year and how many years each teacher has worked at the school. Of course, on occasion, teachers move schools for personal reasons, but if each year several teachers leave, that may say something about the school.
Consider the physical environment of the school. Are the rooms spacious, airy, clean, well lit and - above all - safe? Do you see sufficient space for the children and teachers to move around? Are there a wide variety of materials available for the children to use during the school day?
Observe how the room is organized. You should see specific areas for different forms of play, sometimes referred to as "centers." These areas usually include: arts and crafts, dress-up, block play, a reading corner, and activities for children to work on individually or in small groups.
Check out the outdoor play area. Do you see sufficient space for children to run around? Is there a variety of outdoor play equipment and is the equipment in good condition and set up safely?
CONSIDER THE INFORMATION YOU HAVE GATHERED FROM THE ABOVE FIVE AREAS. IT MAY BE THAT ONE SCHOOL CLEARLY SEEMS MOST APPROPRIATE FOR YOUR CHILD. NOW, MOVE ON TO POINT NUMBER SIX.
Even though this is listed as Number 6, it should also be Number One. Do not underestimate your instincts. All of the points above are important and valid. If after considering these points you do not come to a clear conclusion, go with the place that "feels" the best to you. If you are unsure, go back to the final contenders for a second visit. Look around the room and ask yourself, "Will my child be happy here?" Trust yourself to make the best decision for your child.
GOOD LUCK AND CONGRATULATIONS - YOU AND YOUR CHILD ARE EMBARKING ON AN IMPORTANT JOURNEY!