How to Pick a Preschool

What to look for when you tour a preschool or daycare center

For many parents, the thought of sending a 2- or 3-year-old to a preschool or child-care center can be daunting — he’s still a baby; she’s never spent time without you. While it is widely accepted that parents are their young children’s first and most important teachers, there are undeniable benefits that quality, organized education provides for toddlers. 

“Science points to why early education may be the most important part of education of all, such as the fact that a child’s brain is 90 percent developed by the age of 5,” says Donna-Marie King, marketing and communications consultant for the Delaware Office of Early Learning. Whether in a child-care setting or preschool, the tricky part is finding the right situation for your child.

Educational or social focus?

Some programs focus on academics, where teachers stress reading, writing and math skills. Others are more about socialization, focusing on sharing, personal development and play. Many fall somewhere in between. How do you know what is right for your child?

“It’s very personal for the family,” says Rose Snyder, director of member and affiliate relations for the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children. “But children have the opportunity to gain their academic knowledge as they are developing. That’s a very personal thing. Children will learn the skills they need to learn if they’re given the proper foundation first.”

“Children go to preschool to learn to be part of the community,” adds Lynne Rednik, director of M’Kor Shalom Preschool and Kindergarten in Cherry Hill, NJ. “Academics are only part of that. Teachers must find the right way to let each child come into his own, balancing independence with dependence, and spending time on the social and emotional development of the child. Learning social responsibility is just as important as learning the ABCs.”

It’s also important to consider your child’s temperament. “Some children have no problem walking into a classroom full of people they’ve never met or seen before, but for other children that might be a real struggle,” says King. “For that child, consider a program that’s smaller and has a staff that is very aware of each child’s emotional situation and can steer kids in the right direction.”

Snyder urges parents to spend time in a classroom to see if it fits their philosophical and educational goals. Having a rapport with the school director is also important, “because that person sets the culture of the program,” she says.

Next page: What to look for when touring a preschool and parental involvement — and how MK readers pick a preschool


A visual preschool inspection

Trust your gut, insists Snyder. When visiting a prospective preschool or child-care center, pay close attention to:

  • The interactions between and among the students, as well as between the students and adults. There should be a lot of interaction on the children’s level. 
  • A clean physical plant
  • A safe environment
  • Respect between the teachers and students
  • A stimulating, creative environment
  • A caring, warm environment
  • A wide variety of classroom experiences — areas that cater to fine-motor and gross-motor skills, including blocks, a kitchen, art and exploration centers, a big easel with chunky crayons
  • Activities that stimulate all five senses
  • Books in the classroom
  • The presence of healthy snacks
  • Child-sized restrooms 

Preschool red flags include:

  • Lots of children sitting in timeout or sitting alone and crying
  • Loud negative sounds — children crying, yelling, fighting
  • Infants left unattended in a high chair for 10-plus minutes 
  • Children with dirty mouths and hands
  • Lots of dittos or handouts — play should be the learning vehicle 

Questions to ask when touring a preschool: 

  • Educational background of teachers and staff
  • Adult/child ratio — in PA, the ratio for infants should be 1:4; ages 1-2, 1:5; ages 2-3, 1:6; and ages 3-5, 1:10.
  • Is the school nationally accredited?
  • Is the director responsive to parents’ questions and concerns?
  • Can kids explore learning on their own 
  • Discipline policy
  • Does the school place value on different cultures and interests?

Parental preschool involvement

While not all parents can take time off from work to visit their children during the school day, the program should encourage parental involvement if possible. Those who are unable to come in during work hours should ask how they can be involved in other ways.

However, Rednik cautions, there’s such a thing as “too involved.” Parents, she says, “have to have confidence in the teachers. Preschool supplements the home, because the most important teachers children have are their parents. We are there to enrich their universe.”  

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Child Care, Early Education, Education & Child Care