After finding a pediatrician, choosing the right stroller, and deciding when to start solids, finding the right preschool for our precious prodigies is one of the first major parenting decisions we make.
After all, depending on where you live, the selection is numerous and vast, and you want to find the perfect place for your little ones to start their life of learning. Having lived in six different cities on eight different occasions while my four children were preschool aged, I can say with certainty that every preschool is different and every child fits differently into the learning environments they provide. My kids have been to schools with many of the preschool philosophies and while they’ve been happy at all of them, I have definite preferences. My first child is nearly 15 years old and over the past 12 years, I’ve sent the boys to schools, with, to varying degrees: play based, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, religious, and international philosophies.
Montessori education is great for many children. The philosophy is based on the work of Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. The basic idea of Montessori is that children learn as individuals with teachers as guides. Hands-on materials in the classroom have specific purposes which help the children develop responsibility for their own needs and belongings as they move freely from activity to activity. You will not see your run-of-the-mill plastic toys most kids have at home in a proper Montessori classroom. The activities have been carefully designed for the Montessori learning environment. Multi-aged classrooms foster development of individual responsibility by encouraging kids to model responsible behavior for the younger children in the class. They prepare their own snacks, clean up after themselves and even change from street shoes to slippers when they enter the classroom each day.
The Montessori classroom can be a good place for special needs children as the kids work at their own pace, providing an environment in which no one child can be singled out for being behind his peers developmentally.
If you are considering a Montessori school for your child, visit the school and check the school’s mission statement because a school can use the Montessori name even if it isn’t officially affiliated with the movement.
Two of my children attended Montessori schools and I’ve become a big fan of them. The two boys learned to be independent and help others. One of the boys was developmentally delayed (later diagnosed with high functioning Autism) and he learned and developed social skills alongside the other children.
My third son attended a Montessori based Religious International school while we lived in Beijing, China. I felt very lucky to be able to put him in such a diverse program. It had the hands-on elements of Montessori, the spiritual and holiday curriculum to learn the foundations of our religion, and the diverse, multi-language environment that only an international school can provide.
My youngest son is currently attending a pre-kindergarten program based on the Reggio Emilia approach. Reggio Emilia is similar to Montessori in that it is child led. The method is rooted on the fundamentals of respect, responsibility, and community through investigation and discovery in a supportive and inspiring atmosphere based on the focus of the children by means of self-guided study. The classroom is filled with endless opportunities for the children to explore and find new interests. This means that the children guide the direction the class takes. If the children are interested in animals, the class will learn more about animals through a variety of media: books, art, and perhaps a field trip. My son’s class loves art, so the teachers are enriching their days with studies of different artists and their methods with hands-on exploration and experimentation of each. When they learned about Michelangelo, they lay on their backs and painted on paper taped to the underside of the classroom tables! Not quite the Sistine Chapel, but you get the idea. The children are enthusiastic and inspired every day. This is my first experience with the Reggio Emilia method and I can see that my son is really enjoying it and learning a lot.
The majority of the schools my children attended, in various cities around the United States, over the years have been both religious and play based. While it can be tempting to want to find a school with a more specific philosophy with a more sophisticated label, play based preschools are often wonderful places for children to grow and learn.
The basic premise for these schools is to foster preschoolers’ participation in age appropriate activities. This is the environment most people imagine when preschool is mentioned: circle time, free play time, story time and hands on play. All these activities encourage development of social skills and, depending on the individual program, academic skills as well. Simply put, as the name states, children learn through play.
Most play based schools will have a set schedule which the children can predictably move through each day. Some might vary the schedule on some days with a music class or physical education class or other special activities, but for the most part, the daily schedule is set and predictable. My children have enjoyed these preschools and I have too. My boys have learned structure, sharing, communication, basic pre-reading components and other necessary skills for entering kindergarten at age five.
One of the most important things I’ve learned about preschool education is that academics are second to everything else. The main things children need to get from their one, two or three years of preschool education are how to follow directions, how to behave in the classroom environment and how to get along well with other children. These basic skills will set them on a path to success in all their future formal education. In my opinion, a school that focuses on academics; As, Bs and Cs and 1s 2s and 3s; is missing the point. Some exposure to letters and numbers is a good thing, but it shouldn’t be the focus. Children can and should learn the basic pre reading skills from their parents, at home. Children learn academics at different paces but, for the most part, Kindergarten and first grade give every child most of their academic foundation for reading and writing and math. Some exposure to these elements in preschool is nice, but it is secondary. Most kids begin to read by sometime in first grade, and read fluently in 3rd grade, regardless of when they learned all of their letter sounds.
Look for a preschool where you feel comfortable sending your child and where your child feels comfortable. Make a list of what you see as your must-haves in a preschool and then visit more than one so you can make comparisons and decide what you like and what you think is important for you and your child.
· Look to see how the children in the classrooms relate to one another.
Are they smiling and working together or they all playing parallel to one another?
· Find out how long the teachers have been at the school. This number can be a good clue as to whether the environment of the school is positive or not. The longer teachers have been there, the happier place it is likely to be.
Preschool will set the tone for a child’s educational path. It should be a cheerful, fun place for children to build a positive, strong foundation for the many years of learning that lie ahead of them.