Choosing the Right Preschool
5. How old should my child be when she starts?
Most preschools serve 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, and many kids begin at age 4. (Some preschools will start accepting children at around 2 1/2, but that doesn't mean your child will be ready when he reaches that age.) You can choose from a part-time schedule or a full-time one. Your choice will depend on your family's situation -- working moms might prefer five days a week -- and on your child's temperament.
Parents typically start investigating options about a year before they want their children to attend. But if you live in a big city, where competition for spots can be fierce, you'll want to start applying even earlier and to more than one place.
6. How do I choose the right preschool?
Research, research, research. First, decide on location (close to work or home?) and hours (half-day, two or three days a week, full-time?). There are programs at private schools, daycare centers, religious institutions (like synagogues and churches), state-funded schools, and cooperatives run by parents. Start by asking for recommendations from other moms. Next, check whether the schools are state-licensed, which ensures the facility meets safety requirements and has adequate staffing (visit naccrra.org). Many states exempt religious-based preschools from all or some requirements -- although many meet these standards anyway.
The gold standard of approval is accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. NAEYC carefully evaluates schools and childcare centers based on curriculum, teacher qualifications, class size, and health and safety standards; only about 8 percent of U.S. preschools are currently accredited. (Search for NAEYC-accredited preschools near you at rightchoiceforkids.org.) In addition, many preschools now have Web sites that you should visit.
Call each school you're considering and ask about its fees, admission policy, and curriculum. Once you've narrowed down your choices, schedule visits. Most preschools run open houses during the winter. Also, meet with the director and spend time in a classroom to observe the teachers. Visit each school with your child and see how she responds to the classroom, the teachers, and the activities.
7. What should I look for during a visit?
Check out the basics: Is the facility clean and safe? Keep your eye out for smoke detectors and first-aid kits. Is there a well-kept outdoor play area? Are there plenty of art materials, age-appropriate toys, and books? Are they in good condition? Is the atmosphere friendly and fun? Student work should be displayed in the hallways and around the classroom, hung at kid-level. "I tell parents to pay special attention to the artwork on the walls," says Dr. Barnett. "Would you be able to pick out your child's artwork? If all the pictures look the same, then your child will learn to make a bunny just like everyone else's. That's not really the goal."
The classroom should have a variety of activity areas -- a reading place, an art station with materials on shelves that kids can reach, a block corner, a puzzle area, and a place for naps. Children should not all be doing the same thing at the same time; they should be playing with toys or other kids but still well supervised.
Finally, do you feel comfortable? "You want to be confident that once you drop off your child, he'll be happy and well taken care of," says Mark Ginsberg, PhD, NAEYC executive director.