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.
Play-BasedIn 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.”
AcademicAlternatively, 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.
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:
*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 smell...free 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.