3 Steps to Find a Preschool

Here are things to look for in a quality preschool, and some things to avoid.

When it’s time to search for the perfect preschool for your little one, you want to be sure you’ll make the right decision. If you’re lucky enough to have friends who’ve done their research and are happy with their choice, you’re fortunate; you’ll have first-hand recommendations. If not, here is some advice.

Before you start, be aware of the difference between daycare and preschool. Daycares provide custodial care, take children of all ages and offer extended hours but don’t usually offer an educational curriculum.

A preschool usually has limited hours and may or may not offer before- and after-school care. In daycare, children of all ages may be grouped together, while a preschool is segregated by age groups.

Be sure you start your search early. Many excellent preschools have long waiting lists.

Look for these qualities

Find a school that provides:

  • Proximity to your home/work.
  • Solid reputation and up-to-date accreditation, licenses, state approval.
  • Clear rules and regulations, health/illness policies, pick-up and drop-off times.
  • Clean, well-kept facilities with adequate indoor and outdoor play areas.
  • Qualified, caring staff.
  • Stimulating curriculum and age appropriate toys.
  • A philosophy and climate that suits you and is right for your child’s temperament.

The NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) has a database of its accredited preschools at Naeyc.org It is updated weekly. It also lists daycares.

Ask these questions

Here are questions to ask before you narrow your search to schools that you want to visit:

  • Is there room for my child? If not, is there a waiting list?
  • What are the fees? How and when are we billed?
  • How do they communicate with parents? (phone, emails, newsletters, website)
  • What is their staff-to-student ratio? (NAEYC recommends an adult to every four-to-nine children for ages 2–3 and one for every eight-to-10 children ages 4–5.)
  • Do their staff members have credentials and training? Are their backgrounds checked? Do they know CPR? Do they continue to receive training?
  • What is their educational philosophy? (academic-oriented, exploration, faith-based, etc.) For some distinct philosophies, see below.
  • What health/hygiene standards are enforced? (immunizations, sick-child rules, hand-washing, etc.)
  • How do they handle discipline?
Are meals and snacks provided? Do kids take naps?

  • What safety precautions are in place? (Procedures for strangers on-campus, release policies, sign-in/out)

  • Can they provide a list of references? (Be sure to call them.)
  • Can they provide a sample of a weekly curriculum and activities? How often are activities changed?

Visit the schools

After you gather information you’ll be able to narrow your list down to two or three to visit. Decide whether you want to do this with your child or on your own.

When you visit you’ll be looking for the above qualities of a good school, but also to get a “feel” for the school. (See a preschool visit checklist at right.)

• Do you feel welcome?

• Are the children busy and engaged in work or play?

• Is the facility pleasing to the eye and orderly?

• Do you get the sense that you’d feel comfortable leaving your child in this school’s care?

• Are the children happy?

Jot down your first impressions and any new information you find during the visit.

If you don’t feel comfortable with the
 school environment, trust your instincts 
and look for another school. It might be preferable to find a safe daycare until you find a preschool of the highest standards.

You want the perfect preschool, and your child deserves it. All the time and effort you put into your search will pay huge dividends in a happy, healthy and well cared for child.

Schools of (preschool) thought

Becoming familiar with the following terms may help you make your preschool decision.

The Montessori method focuses on maintaining the individuality of each child in the learning process. Each child learns at his or her own pace and students are not compared. Teachers are specially trained at Montessori institutes.

The Reggio Emilia approach focuses on providing opportunities for problem solving through creative thinking and exploration.

The Waldorf approach places an emphasis on imagination in learning providing students with opportunities to explore their world through their senses, participation and analytical thought.

Girl in preschoolThe Bank Street approach places emphasis on learning through multiple perspectives, both in the classroom setting and out of doors.

The High/Scope approach allows children to be in charge of their own learning. They’re taught to make a plan for each day’s activities and participate in review sessions as they plan and brainstorm for the next day’s work.

Child-centered: This term describes a method that takes the children’s interests into account when planning activities. The child is allowed to choose.

Teacher-led is the opposite of child centered as the adult selects lessons and leads them. It is a more structured type of learning.

Child-led: This method believes that children learn best when they are engaged and interested. It allows for a high degree of child initiation and allows individualized learning experiences rather than group work.

Faith-based: This term describes preschool programs run by faith organizations such as churches and synagogues.

Co-op: These settings ask parents and families to assist in running of the program. They may sign up to volunteer sometime during the week.

Developmentally Appropriate: This term means the school plans the curriculum and activities based on ones appropriate to the age of the children in the class.

Pre-kindergarten: This term may be used interchangeably with preschool. It means the program that has a class enrolled in the year before kindergarten, usually age four. These settings may be more structured to ensure the child is ready for the educational rigors of kindergarten.

Signs of a quality preschool

        Quality                                                         Danger Signs

A good reputation                                                    Just “so-so” reputation

Established ground rules                                         Lax rules, poorly enforced

Stimulating curriculum                                             Relies on videos, screen time rather than lessons

Clean, safe facilities                                                 Dirty, broken materials, furniture, equipment

Qualified, caring staff                                               Poorly-trained staff who don’t engage with children

Current state license                                                Lapsed license or never applied for one


Jan Pierce is a retired teacher and freelance writer.


Categories: Early Education, Education & Child Care