Last September, as everyone was sending their children off to school, I was hit with a realization: In just one year, I would be sending my son to preschool – and I had no idea where to begin.
So I dialed my local school district’s early childhood center to inquire about 3-year-old preschool for the 2020-21 school year – and it’s the best decision I made. I learned that tours start as early as October and registration begins at the end of January 2020 – at least in my area (things vary by region, so call your local district for information).
While I had a better grip on enrollment dates, I still didn’t know what to look for in an education option for my son, so I asked two local experts – Gayle Fedoronko, program supervisor at Jackson Early Childhood Center in Livonia, and Meghan Wernimont, executive director of Allen Creek Preschool in Ann Arbor – for their advice.
Here’s what they had to say about picking the perfect preschool for your little one – and preparing him or her for this educational milestone.
Do your homework
A quick Google search for “preschools near me” results in pages of options. Asking friends or family members may be helpful, but which preschool is the “right” fit for your family?
It depends on your personal goals for your child, Fedoronko says.
“Are (parents) looking for their child to have opportunities to socialize, to learn how to separate from a trusted adult? Are they looking for pre-kindergarten skills? Are they just looking for playtime socialization?”
Knowing your goal for your child’s preschool experience can shape your decision-making. Consider different preschool approaches, as well, which include Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, religious and parent cooperative, to name a few.
“Once you figure out what your true goal is for your child, look at centers that closely align with your goal,” Fedoronko says. “For example, if your child has been at home with a trusted adult for the first three years of their life, then they are going to have to learn how to be a part of a classroom community and how to take directions from different adults.”
Take a tour
Searching online or asking for referrals is one thing, but getting a feel for the preschool requires a visit. Call your preschool or preschools of choice to schedule a site visit.
My personal suggestion: If you can, leave your kiddo at home to ensure you remain focused on the tour instead of your child.
While visiting, ask about class sizes and student-teacher ratio, Wernimont suggests. “If it is a kid’s first school experience, they really need a responsive teacher, so I find that the smaller class sizes help the teacher get to know the kids better,” she says.
Take a closer look at the facility when you’re there, too, Fedoronko adds. Are the classrooms enriched with a lot of materials to help kids learn and grow?
“I would want to know what their program philosophy is. I would want to know what their core belief system is as far as the learning process for children,” Fedoronko says. “I would want to know if it’s a licensed program and, if it is, I would want to take a look at the licensing notebook that would outline any infractions.”
Other questions include:
- Does the school offer half-day and full-day options?
- What form of discipline are they using?
- How do teachers redirect children?
- How do they support children who are in crisis?
- Are kids in classes all day?
- What opportunities are there for parents?
- Is there a PTA? If so, what does it offer?
- What volunteer opportunities are there?
- Is there an open-door policy?
- How much technology is infused in a classroom? Fedoronko personally believes there shouldn’t be screen time for children, so they can learn how to socialize and get along with peers.
Should my son know his colors? Does he need to be able to count to 10? Does he have to put on his coat without assistance? I’ve wondered these things and more lately. But what do our children really need to know?
“I would say is there are a lot of self-care things parents can work on,” Wernimont says, including toileting, putting on a coat, asking for help and pouring their own drinks.
These things give children some foundational experience. But when it comes to academics, Fedoronko says to leave that to your child’s teacher.
“I don’t think you need to be concerned about prerequisites or ‘do they have these skills?’ because that’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to set the base. They are a blank slate, if you will, a blank canvas that we get to paint,” Fedoronko says.
Get your other top preschool questions answered here.
Preparing your preschooler
“When you use the word ‘preschool’ with a 3-year-old, they don’t really know what that is,” Fedoronko says. While it’s important to tell kids about preschool, they don’t have experiences to tie those words to. So, to set that stage, she suggests taking children to the library for book sessions or enrolling in gymnastics or swim class where they’re part of a small group. Have play dates to help with social interaction, too.
Introduce preschool – the classroom, what happens there – to children through reading stories, she adds.
Explain to your child, “When we go to school, you’re going to stay and mommy’s going to leave. You’re going to stay there and make some new friends, then mommy’s going to pick you up,” Federonko suggests.
Giving your child those pre-preschool experiences and a little understanding of what’s to come is key. The rest will come in time.
“I think it’s really, really super important to remember in these times that early childhood is a journey, it’s not a race,” Fedoronko says. “We shouldn’t compare children to standards or compare children to other children. They’re like little flowers. They are going to bloom when it’s their time to bloom, and I think we really just need to slow down and enjoy children.”
Be an Early Bird
Don’t wait until summertime to start your search. Ideally, early winter is the prime time to start looking. While enrollment varies by district and region, January through March is the ideal time to get those applications in. It’s best to reach out to the individual school you’re interested in to find out the details, Fedoronko says.