Finding the right preschool for my son was a daunting task. At first glance one thinks: circle time, finger painting, free play, how tricky can it be? But surprisingly, as I began my applications and began chatting with moms and visiting schools, I became more and more confused. My husband was obviously not the best sounding board as he once replied to one of my frustrated comments with: “if they feed him, don’t hurt him and it’s a safe environment, I don’t see what the problem is.” I stomped off as clearly he hadn’t a clue about teacher-child ratios or the various philosophies such as Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia. It doesn’t help that every magazine and parenting book you read emphasizes that the most important years for development are the preschool ones. If you are reading this and were as confused as I was, clearly, I can’t help you with your decision. But what I can advise is to visit the schools, listen to yourself, and take the advice of other moms with a grain of salt. All kids are different: some thrive in big environments with lots of structured activities and others do better in smaller ones emphasizing independence and creativity. You are the expert of your child, so go into this process with that in mind.
But for more professional advice to help guide you in your decision, I turned to Barbara Petrie, a former preschool director, former lead infant/toddler preschool teacher and the mom of four from Barre Town, Vermont. Refreshingly, she reminds us that having fun, in the end, should be our main goal for our young children.
“My experience as a director, teacher, and parent has confirmed that play is the work of children. Childhood is already so short, a mere snapshot in the course of our lives. I am of the opinion that we are forcing it into a shorter and shorter time span with structured learning at earlier and earlier ages. Children learn so much through play about themselves, their environment, and other children and adults,” she says.
But with that in mind, Petrie suggests parents consider certain aspects about a school when narrowing down their top choices. Here are some things to consider that Petrie has kindly outlined:
- Teacher-student ratio: “To some degree this is something that is mandated by state regulations in America. It is based on the type of care environment (home-based care provider or child care center), and the ages of the children. Within those parameters, a parent must then decide. For any number of reasons some children thrive in busy environments, others in more sedate ones.” (Editor's note: According to the Department of Education report “Building Strong Foundations for Early Learning,” researchers found that smaller class sizes and teacher-child ratios, especially for the very, early years, are beneficial. “Class size and adult-child ratios are related to learning outcomes. Low ratios allow more interaction and individualization. Small group size encourages more extended language opportunities, child-initiated learning and exploration and problem solving.” )
- Turnover of teachers/directors: “There is no doubt that high turnover is typical in this field. Sadly, society doesn't seem to value the role of the child care provider as much as say, the professional baseball player. There is also no doubt that high turnover takes its toll on even the most well adjusted, easy-to-transition child. It also makes relationships between families and caregivers hard to build. If a child care facility has low turnover, then this is definitely of great value and it is very telling.”
- Education levels of teachers: “This is also regulated to some degree. Generally, in the states, the level of education of home-based providers tends to be less sophisticated or less related specifically to childhood development than that of center providers. What I have gleaned from my experience this past year as a loan coordinator for Child Care Programs (we lend to the riskier start-up type child care businesses that a bank may reject) is that many home-based providers were simply parents of young children who were dissatisfied with the child care options available to their own children so started doing it themselves as a way to earn money and stay home with their children. Also, the wages/benefits provided to center providers tend to be higher, therefore the more educated are easier to recruit and retain. Again here, the parent may prefer the child be in a smaller, home-like environment, or may prefer the reportability and surveillance that comes with care at a center.”
- Philosophies: “There are many, such as Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Waldorf [See European Preschool Philosophies]. There are also prepared curricula available that providers can purchase month to month, which are more structured. It really depends on what is of value to the parent for their child. More and more in Vermont, I am working with providers who are following what is referred to as an “emergent” philosophy. Children's interests guide the course of activities and learning and they are maintained and explored as long as the children continue to show an interest. In many ways, this is a very natural course. Why talk about dinosaurs for exactly five days if the children lost interest after three days? Will their attention be maintained? Doubtful. Also, in “forcing” this kind of learning, there are the missed opportunities. Emergent curriculum might go from dinosaurs to dinosaur eggs to eggs to chickens to farms to a field trip to a farm.”
- Diversity: “I think we might agree that as technology makes the world smaller, diversity and tolerance of differences becomes more crucial for future societies which will, of course, be run by the children of today. The level of diversity of course depends on the community. Having been born and raised in New York City, and then moving to Vermont was culturally shocking for me, especially since I am Latina. For me it is important that my children be aware that the world is not a sea of white faces, burgers, and fries. However, because it is Vermont, my options are limited. This is where the parent who values diversity really has to get involved if they, like me, are limited by the make up of their community, and suggest introducing diversity issues to the provider. It all depends on how vested they are in doing it, and of course, how responsive the providers are.”