What a daunting task! Or at least it was for me. When my daughter turned three I was very excited for her to attend preschool—to meet new friends, to explore and play in new ways, and, of course, the biggest issue: much-needed childcare. What I wasn’t prepared for was what came next: research, wait lists, tours, and the pressure of picking a program that was a good fit for my child and my family. Having gone through the process with my two children and now being on the other end, having started my own preschool (the Victoria Nature School), I have decided to write a list that I wish someone had been able to give me!
This might not seem important enough to make number one, but it is not to be dismissed too quickly. If you have all the time in the world in the morning to get your child to school, then yes, choosing a school across town because you think it is the best fit might work for you. If this is not the case, things to consider include how much time you are willing to give up to devote to transportation. Please remember that you are not driving up and dropping them off. You have to park, go in and sign them in, help them get settled, sometimes peel them off you, and head home. If you are close to home, you can zip home and be productive. If you are further away from home, by the time you get home and shower, you have to turn around and come back for pick up. Not to mention that the friends your child makes might not be nearby and therefore longer drives for play dates will be in your future. For those with older children in school, drop-off and pick-up time is also a consideration, as schools often start at the same time or within 10 minutes of each other.
2. Length of program
Would you like your child to attend full days or half days? Twice a week? Three times a week? Five days a week? Deciding what you would like best and maybe having a second best in mind will help narrow down your decision. Most preschool programs in Victoria are half-day, as licensing in BC does not offer a license for full-day preschool. Some full-day daycare programs offer preschool programming.
Costs of preschool programs vary. I suggest not assuming that the programs that cost more are better quality. Look at other factors. Are they private businesses? (Many are.) Are they not-for-profit? Are there any hidden costs (field trips, specialists)? I also like to know if teachers are paid well. Happy educators mean happy students. A program that has a lot of staff turnover can say a lot. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. Having happy, consistent staff provides an environment of stability, something we all want for our children.
4. Know the lingo
There is a lot of preschool jargon out there. The more you familiarize yourself with it, the better prepared you will be to make an informed decision. Here are some definitions of popular preschool jargon. Please keep in mind that some programs might be “inspired” by some of these methods. This does not guarantee that their educators have trained in these methods. But you can and should ask!
“The Montessori method consists of observing and supporting the natural development of children, helping them to develop creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and time-management skills, care of the environment, and compassion. Montessori classrooms are often mixed age groups and support individual choice of research and work, and uninterrupted concentration” (http://montessori.edu/).Parents might choose this program if developing leadership and independence is important.
To learn more, visit: http://www.montessori.org/.
“Waldorf schools offer a developmentally appropriate, experiential, and academically rigorous approach to education. They integrate the arts in all academic disciplines for children to enhance and enrich learning. Waldorf Education aims to inspire life-long learning in all students and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities” (https://waldorfeducation.org).
Parents who want to develop their child’s individualism, curiosity, and love of learning would enjoy a Waldorf program. To learn more, visit: http://www.whywaldorfworks.org/.
Reggio Emilia Preschools
The Reggio Emilia approach originates from a school system in Italy. It is based on a philosophy with the following guiding principals:
The child as protagonist, collaborator, and communicator.
The teacher as partner, nurturer, guide, and researcher.
Cooperation as the foundation of the educational system.
The environment as the "third teacher."
The Parent as Partner.
Documentation as communication.
Reggio Emilia schools are known to be project-based and for documenting a child’s learning by taking photos, videos, and writing observations. Parents might be interested in this program if they want their children to learn to be good citizens, learn about cooperation, and how to solve problems and resolve conflicts. To learn more, visit: http://www.reggioalliance.org/.
Cooperative preschools are organized by a group of families with similar philosophies. They hire a qualified teacher and the school is run and maintained by the parents, usually in a non-profit format. Parents help the teachers on a regular basis in the classroom and in the running of the school. This option is generally cheaper than other options bus does require a substantial volunteer time commitment. Some preschools offer a version of the co-op model by providing parents the option of paying more if they are unable to give of their time. Many co-op preschools are licensed and run a play-based curriculum. Co-op preschools are well-suited for families who enjoy being part of their child’s learning community and connecting with families with similar values. To learn more about co-op preschools, visit: http://www.preschools.coop/. To find a co-op preschool on Vancouver Island, visit: http://www.vicpa.org/find-a-preschool/.
“In nature/forest schools, children spend anywhere from a half day to a full day outdoors in various urban and near-urban parks, natural spaces adjacent to or on school grounds, or natural playgrounds and outdoor classrooms. Children attending nature/forest schools have the opportunity to learn in a natural environment on a regular basis with repeated access to a natural space. It is also child-directed, emergent and inquiry-based where children are provided with opportunities to build an on-going relationship with the land, to a dedicated educator, to one another, and to themselves through this educational lens.” (http://www.forestschoolcanada.ca/). Parents might be interested in nature/forest school programs if they believe that playing freely in nature and having children’s interests guide the learning is important for their child’s development. As nature and forest schools are becoming more popular, it is important to ask what training the educators have and what is the adult to child ratio when they are outside. For example, even though licensing may allow a 1-8 adult to child ratio, it is not appropriate for there to be only one adult if the group was walking to the beach. To learn more and to find a nature/forest program in BC visit: www.victorianatureschool.com
Academic programs are considered “teacher-directed” when teachers plan the activities and guide the children in doing them. The aim of academic programs is to prepare children for kindergarten by learning letters and sounds, telling time, etc. To learn more, visit: http://www.pbs.org.
Many preschool philosophies may include a play-based approach. This means that children choose activities based on their interests. Often, play-based preschools are broken up into sections such as a kitchen area, water table, reading nook, etc. For more information, visit: http://www.pbs.org.
A child-centered program considers the learning style and interests of the child. For example, a bodily-kinesthetic learner would be taught in such a manner as to offer multiple opportunities for movement and action (as opposed to sitting at a desk or at the kitchen table). In addition, if the student expressed an interest in animals, he or she would be encouraged to read books about animals, write stories about animals, or study in greater depth about animals and a structure would be created with multiple opportunities for learning to take place. For more information, visit: http://www.pbs.org.
Please keep in mind that when choosing a philosophy and visiting preschools, programs should not look like an elementary school classroom and that current research supports self-guided play as an integral part of a child’s development. To learn more about the importance of play, visit: https://www.naeyc.org/play.
5. Questions! Questions! Questions!
This is one of the greatest ways to get to know a program. Don’t be afraid to ask to meet with the teacher or program director for 10 minutes. I suggest meeting with the teacher unless the program director is teaching as well.
Here are some of my favourite questions:
What is your program philosophy? (If they can’t describe it in a few sentences, how can they be practicing it?)
How does registration work? (Some preschools take wait lists years before your child turns 3. There are a few that do a draw the January before but not many.)
Ask specific questions regarding their philosophy, such as: Can you give me an example of how your program is child-led? Do the educators choose themes of what is being learned each day? (Again, if this makes them uncomfortable or an answer doesn’t come easily to them, it might be a good sign that they aren’t practicing this philosophy regularly.)
What is your teacher–student ratio? (Licensing ratios should be 1 certified ECE to 8 children. Then the next 8 students can have an ECE assistant.) I recommend you ask about the teacher’s experience and if he or she has any extra training, as ECE assistants in BC only have to have completed one course. Unlicensed programs should be following the same ratios. I would ask if they ever go over these ratios. For programs that take children outside or on long walks, what are the ratios? I personally would not be comfortable with one teacher to 8 children who are out for a walk or playing somewhere more remote, because if something happens to the educator or a child (such as a bee sting), who is looking after the other children?
Can I come observe a class? Observing a class is such a great way to really get an idea of what is going on. For me, I want to see children having lots of choice of things to play with, lots of opportunities to make their own choices, and the children being happy!
How do you incorporate literacy into the program?
How do you incorporate music into the program?
Can I see I copy of your parent handbook? This should be a comprehensive document of policies and procedures and will give you a better feel for the school. Some preschools will have this available on their website so you can read it before you visit the school.
Are you licensed? If not, how come? Here is a link to help locate licensed programs in BC as well as inspection reports on licensed programs in BC: http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/family-social-supports/child-care/child-day-care
What is your discipline policy? For example, I like to ask if they practice time-outs. As this is not part of our family values regarding discipline, it would weigh in on my decision about that school.
What does child-directed me to you?
What is your daily routine?
How much free time do the children have?
And my favourite question: Do you own a pair of rain pants? Ask this question if playing outside all year is important to you and your family. If they don’t own a pair of rain pants, you know they are not taking the children outside regularly!
This article is written with BC, Canada preschools in mind. Parents, educators, what else would you add to the list? Keep your eyes open for my next blog on “How to choose a Nature Preschool”!
Bonnie, a teacher and music therapist, is the president and founder of the Outdoor Learning Association. She started the Victoria Nature School, an outdoor preschool in Victoria, BC, four years ago and is the proud mom of a 7 and 5 year old.