January is prime preschool hunting season. This time of year, when most schedules seem to settle down, parents of 2-5 year olds find themselves in a whole new flurry of running around. Winter is the time when most preschools hold open houses and prepare for enrollment of the upcoming school year. This causes parents of up and coming preschoolers to go into a tizzy because, how do I choose the right preschool for my child?
This question has plagued many parents, and I too found myself in a mild panic two years ago when my son had just turned three and I hadn’t even looked at preschools, much less put any thought into what it all entailed. You should have seen the horror on my friend’s faces as they explained a process to me that sounded painfully familiar to that of applying to college. It was then, I decided I should probably do some research on the matter.
I don’t know about you, but when did enrolling our children into preschool get so competitive? Having no idea where to start and frustrated by the lack of information available to me at the time, I turned to my trusted network; moms in my sons gym class, neighbors and friends with kids already in school. I sat listening to discussions about lotteries and lines out the door starting at 7am on registration day. I’m pretty sure my mouth was gaping open by the end of it all. This is preschool we were talking about and not Harvard right?
My head was already reeling by the time I remembered that I actually had put some thought into preschool because I was smart enough to rip out an article from the February 2008 issue of Wondertime magazine, Shopping for Preschool? The inside scoop on the five reigning philosophies by Nina Martin. As I sat reading, it was not the simple explanations of each theory that caught my eye, but rather the feedback of parents and teachers, she included. Nothing quite gives you that security of getting the right information, than hearing it first hand from those who are living it. The article was very informative and gave me a jumping off point for which to do my own research on the matter.
Between Play-based, Waldorf, Montessori, Co-op, and Reggio Emelia, all spouting ideas that kids learn best in mixed age groups, teacher led, child centered, focusing more on social skills than academics, using all five senses or parents being heavily involved, I was getting overwhelmed. I had no idea there were so many different “philosophies” when it came to preschool. Though once I learned more about each one, they all seemed to encompass the same general idea. I felt no more confident in knowing which preschool to choose.
I knew then, I had to physically visit the different schools in my area. However, I only knew of the handful that I passed on my daily errands, so I had some more searching on the Internet to do. Fortunately, I belonged to a local moms group on the website, CaféMom. Other moms had already beat me to the punch. There was a thread, in the group for my local community, asking the same question I was asking myself, “Any advice on local preschools?” One of the moms in our group had put together a wonderfully informative spreadsheet of all the preschools in my county and willingly shared this spreadsheet to any of us who asked for a copy. As a side note: I highly recommend that this be done for your area if it hasn’t already. It is highly invaluable, as I will explain. This spreadsheet included information such as the types of programs offered, tuition, teacher credentials, if being potty trained is required, whether they are nut free, dates of open houses and the name of a local mom as reference, for each and every school. I felt like I hit the jackpot. I spent the next few days visiting websites, making phone calls and planning my schedule of open house visits.
As it turned out, the first school I visited, with my son in tow, I fell in love with. While he was busy in a separate classroom, engaging with other children and the teacher, I walked the halls with a small group of parents. I listened intently through the tour, making note of little details such as the classroom environment, condition of supplies and toys, and examples of books and artwork created by students. I asked questions and even spent extensive time talking with the woman who would be my son’s teacher when the tour was over. I admit it was helpful that a close friend had her son enrolled, and I spent the last year listening to her rave about the place, but that was not why I chose it. I felt safe in my decision because the school had a philosophy I felt comfortable with, a set routine in which my son would thrive, and a key coded locked front door. But, even after all the stress and worries, in reality, our kids don’t care about Reggio Emelia versus play-based. Whether or not the school is one big 3-hour party or the ultimate determination if they make it in life, is more for our benefit than theirs.
If there is anything that I have learned through this whole process, it’s that our kids will turn out fine no matter what school they attend. Don’t get me wrong, I think getting a good education from the start is important, but it is only preschool after all. So don’t stress. As long as the teachers are passionate, dedicated, loving individuals and your child enters kindergarten with the knowledge of their ABC’s, 123’s, basic social skills, an understanding of responsibility and confidence in themselves; well, the rest is just gravy.