Important questions to ask when choosing a play based preschool

Now that P is of preschool age and will be starting this September I realized I had so many questions about the whole process. Mainly what questions should I be asking of the potential school we enroll her in? For us, our family and our lifestyle the only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted a play based preschool for P, not a Montessori. Absolutely nothing wrong with a Montessori - I just know that the way we parent and live our life is more akin to a play based school.

PBS does a really great job at telling you the differences between different preschool philosophies, many of which overlap in a lot of ways. I think half the battle is knowing what you and your child will thrive in best.

From PBS


In a play-based program, children choose activities based on their current interests. The term “play-based” is often interchanged with “child-centered,” which could be used to describe the majority of available preschool programs. The play-based classroom is broken up into sections, such as a home or kitchen, science area, water table, reading nook, space with blocks and other toys, or other areas. Teachers encourage the kids to play, facilitating social skills along the way. “Even though it seems like they are just playing, they are learning valuable skills, including important social skills and cooperation with others, learning about signs (as most items are labeled), and early math,” says Jenifer Wana, author of “How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child.”


Alternatively, there are academic programs, considered didactic, “teacher-directed,” “teacher-managed.” In these classrooms, teachers lead the children in a more structured way, planning the activities, then guiding the children in doing them. This design is aimed at preparing kids for the kindergarten setting. For the most part, classroom time is devoted to learning letters and sounds, distinguishing shapes and colors, telling time, and other skills.
Although parents may take comfort in knowing their child is in a more academic setting, some say this only makes a difference in the short term. “A lot of people put children in Montessori, for example, because they want them to learn academics early. Research shows that’s true only up to a certain point,” Wana says. “Preschool is time to learn social and emotional skills so you are ready to learn those academic skills later on.”
If you worry that a play-based classroom is too chaotic and your child would not thrive in it, you can easily find a more structured setting. The important thing to remember is that preschool should not look like elementary school. “It should be organized so there is a plan and routine for the day. But at the same time, it should not be regimented in the sense that kids are spending five minutes at this, ten minutes at this, with no exception,” Pianta says. “It shouldn’t look like a fourth-grade classroom.”

Once I decided that play based was a better fit for our family then came all the questions. Specifically what questions should I be asking of P's potential educators and the facility she would be spending a bulk of her days in. Luckily I didn't have to think too hard because a friend of mine from grade school, Vanessa, a preschool teacher in Boston had sent me the most amazing email. She laid out not only the questions I should be asking - but the answers! How's that for doing your homework?!

Once I read her email (and forwarded it on to a few friends) I asked her if I could share it with all of you. Because if it helped me it's certain to help others! She kindly agreed and now you reap the benefits.  

From Vanessa

1. What is you child/teacher ratio? 

Obviously the smaller the ratio, the better...but for two year olds...a comfortable and reasonable ratio is 10:2. For three year olds: 20:3 (+ an aide) or 14:2.

2. What is your educational philosophy?

Key words to look for: Play-based, emergent curriculum, organic (theory) curriculum, Reggio-inspired, "process not product".

3. How much time do you spend outside?

The outside space should be utilized as an extension of the classroom, in terms of environmental exploration and  experimentation among a natural environment. There should be plenty of outside time incorporated into a child's day (especially if it's a full day). Extra points if the classroom is "free-flowing, indoor/outdoor"...where the child has a choice to be either inside or out during their free-play time. Children should be able to get dirty...sandy...or muddy, that is the sign of a fun and successful learning environment. It's important for a child to experience the natural world around them, in every sensory-enhancing way possible.

4. How do you handle disciplining a child?

Obviously, no program should EVER advocating putting a hand on a child, nor using "time out". Time out (in a school setting) is ineffective. Key words you should hear are "setting firm boundaries", redirection, "get down on the child's level and ensure eye contact and focus", and explaining behavioral expectations to the child in a developmentally appropriate way.

5. What are the ways teachers use to communicate with parents about a child's progress, potential concerns and keeping abreast of general classroom goings on?

Every school will have a different method, but some form of email communication i.e. Constant Contact or Google Groups should be used to send weekly updates and pictures. Also, a parent/teacher conference at least once a year, if not twice is important. 

6. How do you handle diapering, potty training and accidents?

If your child is still in diapers, they will have a set policy in place in terms what you as a parent need to provide for your child. When you as a parent, see signs that your child is ready to potty train (and vice versa if a teacher is recognizing signs), it's important to communicate with your child's teacher about it, to come up with a game plan so that everyone is consistent and on the same page (with the language, incentives  involved, potty patterns noted, if pull-ups are being used etc.) Potty training should be a team effort and a positive experience, not stressful on the child in ANY way. 

7. What is your teacher turn-over rate?

This is VERY important. Ideally, you want strong, happy, well-educated and experienced teachers in your child's classroom environment. A low teacher turnover will also give you an idea about what goes on behind the scenes, in terms of teacher satisfaction and director competence. It's important to be assured that your child will be bonding with teachers who they can count on and who will be in the classroom consistently.

So those are the main questions, other than logistical, flow-of-the-day information given. 

Here are some specific developmental areas you should be able to immediately recognize and identify around the classroom to ensure a well-rounded and quality program: 

*art area 
*easel for painting 
*dramatic play area with access to dress-up, babies, play food, kitchen, etc.
*science area: live plants, magnifying glasses, rocks, science related books
*fine-motor manipulatives: activities involving tongs, eye droppers, anything exercising fine-motor skills
*library area with books on display, children have free access to books
*quiet corner: soft pillows, cushions in an area for children to have quiet time
*block area: large area for block building
*the less plastic and the more natural materials the better
*sensory tables/tubs: areas for water play, messy play with ice, shaving cream, cornstarch etc. 
*clean classroom with teachers constantly wiping surfaces (especially before meals are eaten) and sweeping floors.
*classroom and center are ascetically pleasing...soft, neutral and calming colors...pleasant of clutter
*warm disposition of the director and teachers. Carefully monitor the interactions you witness between the teachers and the children: are the teacher's warm and friendly? Is the volume in the room to loud and over stimulating, or is it relatively calm and controlled? Are the children comfortable and supported in the space?

Hopefully this helps! Choosing the preschool that is the perfect fit for your child is a lot about going with your own "gut instinct" and knowing what type of environment your child thrives best in. The preschool you chose should feel like a second home and everyone in the classroom should feel valued and important, just like family.

Thank you so much Vanessa! For anyone getting ready for the preschool years ahead I hope this helped!


  1. We have Clara in a play-based preschool now and LOVE IT. At 2.5 years old I just don't think she needs much academic structure, so I'm thrilled that she spends her days wandering around between indoors and outdoors and learning things about her friends and surroundings. P will love it!

  2. These are great tips. It's so helpful for parents to have these questions on hand when they go on tours, meet potential teachers, etc. -- sometimes it's hard to think of the important questions off the top of your head! My three year old is in a play-based preschool since September (she was 2 years 9 months when she started) two mornings a week and it has been a truly wonderful experience. Your daughter will have a blast. :)

  3. So I totally disagree with PBS categorizing Montessori as academic. In my opinion it's far from it, and one of the reasons we chose Montessori over an academic school like Challenger. Montessori is about independence and practical life skills. Anyways, totally love these questions! Outside time is so so important! I also love knowing how schools discipline. P is gonna do great next year!

  4. This is so interesting my friend - I had always imagined Montessori to be play-based (as it seems to be that way here in South Africa). Most of our pre-schools in SA are a mixture of the two (play and academics) and it is what we have always known and has always worked for us. SJ's school has just been bought out by a private buyer and they have now changed to PBS and the Reggio-inspired curriculum. It has been quite a change for us and very different and taken some getting used to...

    A few changes for us are steering away from the plastic and to natural elements and the lack of color or art display in the classrooms. Pre-school for me has always been about fun and color so I have struggled with this a bit. But I love the emphasis on learning through play and the freedom to choose activities although I do think that some guidance is necessary to ensure that children are exposed to everything, not just their likes and strengths.

    I am so excited for Miss P to start in September, she is going to love it!
    A great post for those in the same boat!

  5. Before visiting the preschool, parents should contact its licensing agency to inquire about any possible complaints or violations. When visiting the school, ask the teacher or director if they provide references N10-007 Dumps. Don't hesitate to ask, as most preschools are happy to share parent references upon request.