Picking a preschool: How to find the right fit
What to look for
“The biggest thing is that the parents need to feel comfortable with the people taking care of their children and that the teachers know how to manage the classroom,” says Anna Jenny, executive director of Douglas County Child Development Association.
- How many children per teacher?
- How much gross motor and outdoor play time do the children have?
- Is there a variety of age-appropriate equipment and toys?
- Is there a daily plan of activities?
- Do the teachers enjoy working with children? Are they patient and warm?
- Are the children happy?
- Are the children busy and learning?
- What are the safety procedures for fire, tornado and lockdown drills?
- What is the curriculum that teaches reading, numbers and handwriting?
- What are the fees and costs?
Sources: DCCDA website; Jennifer Jones, First Five Years Preschool; Purviz Birdie, Lawrence Montessori School
Coloring inside the lines. Singing the alphabet song. Playing on the swings. Stacking blocks.
These are often activities that come to mind when someone mentions preschool. Although preschoolers across Lawrence surely do these things every day, local preschools take different approaches to how they encourage their young students to learn.
Deciding which approach, curriculum and environment are right for each child can be challenging when presented with so many different options.
Here, we outline many choices available, and local early childhood experts help you decide if your child is ready for preschool, and what you, as parents, can expect from his or her preschool experience.
Types of preschools
You probably have heard some of these terms, at least in passing: Montessori, pre-K, arts-based, Waldorf, Head Start. So, what is a typical school day like? What do the children do?
Anna Jenny, executive director of the Douglas County Child Development Association, says there are three Montessori preschools in the area. In Montessori education, children learn different everyday tasks, and play revolves around those tasks, which are taught one-on-one as each child is ready for them.
“Montessori is a child-directed environment, where materials are laid out for the children to engage in on an individual basis, and the teachers work with children individually,” says Purviz Birdie, director of Lawrence Montessori School, who has taught for almost 30 years. “We hone in on what activities the child is ready to do, what activities they’re interested in. We ensure that each child is learning and being prepared at his or her own pace.”
Many preschools in Lawrence, including USD 497’s early childhood program, follow what Jenny calls a pre-K, or pre-kindergarten, approach, which involves different “centers” in the classroom with two to four children playing cooperatively in each center at a time. The centers include everything from reading and writing to science, building and dramatic play. Locally, many of the pre-K schools also follow the same reading and handwriting curriculum as the Lawrence public elementary schools.
“Our preschool offers a good balance of teacher-directed activities to learn to follow directions, but yet they also have center time where they’re initiating play and doing what they want,” says Jennifer Jones, director of First Five Years Preschool at First Presbyterian Church. “It’s not just academics we’re teaching, but we’re also teaching social skills and physical skills like how to sit still, line up and listen.”
Jenny says that the arts-based approach to preschool is creative with the tools the children use to do artwork, and all of the activities revolve around the experience of creating some type of art project.
Waldorf schools aim to create a home-like environment with only natural playthings designed to spark the children’s sense of imagination through play and some structured activities such as songs and crafts.
Head Start preschools require parents and families to meet eligibility requirements, Jenny says, such as income guidelines. She says that Head Start classrooms follow a pre-K format, but the school offers additional services such as doctors and dentists to serve the students’ needs.
Jenny says that being ready for preschool is more about a child’s social and emotional skills than his or her academic abilities. Most children start preschool when they are 3 or 4 years old. She says that children who are isolated from other children should get into a preschool setting sooner rather than later. For children who regularly spend time with other kids, it may not be as urgent.
Birdie says that when the child exhibits a desire for independence, when he or she communicates the desire to do it him or herself, that can signal that he or she is ready for preschool.
“Is the child self-sufficient? Can they communicate their needs to a teacher? Can they clean up and put things away? Can they eat by themselves? Can they put on their coat and shoes? Can they be without Mom and Dad for three hours and understand that they’ll be back?” are examples of questions that Jones says can help determine if a child is ready for preschool.
What to expect
Once your child is attending preschool, what should parents be looking for — both from the child and from the school?
Birdie says that once the students are acclimated, many of them just want to stay at school all the time.
“We have children cry when their parents come to pick them up. The children say they are not ready to go yet. That is what we want,” she says.
Once the parents bring their children home, Birdie says, the children often sing songs and do other activities from school.
“Parents always tell us that their children start pointing out words and letters when they are reading with their parents, and that they show more independence at home,” she says.
Jones says that children should look forward to going to school because the teachers will be able to adapt to what each child wants to do and learn.
“Within weeks, we learn the child’s personality, and all of our teachers are good at catering to the child’s personality and what they like best,” she says.