It’s a huge milestone when your child goes to preschool for the first time. But deciding where to enroll can be overwhelming. There are many things to consider that’ll help you choose the most comfortable, educational, secure preschool or daycare center so everyone is happy.
LOOK FOR A COZY CLASSROOM VIBE
“A preschool classroom should look clean, warm and inviting,” says Donna Whittaker, vice president of curriculum and education at Big Blue Marble Academy in Edison.
There should be a cozy area with age-appropriate books, a rug and something comfortable to sit on. There should be blocks for building and props to enhance play. Classes should also have art materials available every day. Your child’s classroom should feel less like a mini-elementary school and more like home, says Rachel Robertson, vice president of learning and development at Bright Horizons.
LEARNING SHOULD BE HANDS-ON
Philosophies vary from one preschool to another, so look for a curriculum that offers hands-on learning and developmentally appropriate play. Teaching should be personalized to each child’s needs.
“Classroom experiences should provoke curiosity and provide for open-ended exploration alongside the guidance of teachers,” says Robertson. “Early learning curriculum should be designed to both meet the interests and developmental needs of each age group and address critical social and emotional competencies.”
A quality early childhood program should have a balance of child-initiated and teacher-directed activities, Whittaker says. There should be various approaches to learning, including physical, language and communication, cognitive, math, age-appropriate technology, science, the arts (such as dramatic play and music) and social emotional learning, she adds.
GET A FEEL FOR THE STAFF
Look for dedication and compassion in teachers, aides, nurses and other staff members. At their best, they will instill in students “a strong and positive sense of who they are as learners and as social beings … skills in abstract critical thinking and synthesizing ideas across disciplines; creativity and innovative thinking [and] the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively,” says Sarah Slaiman, director of advancement for Princeton Friends School. Teachers should also demonstrate a commitment to ongoing learning and a clear ethical sense, she adds.
In addition, all childcare centers must be licensed by the state in which they reside. Licensing certificates should be visible in the center, Robertson says.
KNOW WHAT TO ASK
Ask about naptime or restful activities, indoor and outdoor recess time, food accommodations for allergies, first aid and CPR training. And be sure to inquire about accommodations that can be made if your child has special needs.
Nothing is more important than your child’s health, safety and well-being. Ask about health and safety protocols and make sure the practices align with CDC and state and local guidelines.
“Additionally, find out if the school or childcare program consults with any medical experts or has a nurse onsite. Be sure to read up on the school’s or childcare program’s specific rules and measures for face coverings, class sizes, handwashing, distancing and sanitizing,” Robertson says. “Day to day, you’ll also want to know how children are supervised, how many teachers accompany the group and how illnesses and injuries are managed.”
THINK ABOUT THE IDEAL TIME TO ENROLL
It may be hard to decide when the best time is to let go, but a child’s separation from their parents and ability to begin their educational career depends on many factors. It’s important to start researching programs well in advance so the process isn’t rushed. Whether you decide to place your child in daycare as an infant or preschool as a toddler depends on what works best for your family. Whittaker recommends placing a child in a center no later than the year before they enter kindergarten.
PLAN FOR A SMOOTH TRANSITION
“A trained early childhood professional should have skills to support your child with the transition from home into the preschool classroom,” Whittaker says. “It’s important for the teacher to help children feel safe and secure by having a predictable routine which is reinforced by a posted visual schedule sequencing the classroom’s daily events, by making an intentional connection with your child upon entering the classroom and by getting to know your child’s likes, dislikes and what comforts them when anxious.”
Parents can help children with the transition from home to preschool by having a predictable morning and afternoon routine, she suggests. Make a picture schedule or checklist of the day’s activities, she says.
KNOW HOW TO DETERMINE SUCCESS
One of the most important ways to know your child is thriving in preschool is to observe them looking forward to the day and coming back to you happy at the end of the day, Whittaker says.
“If your child is thriving in preschool, he will bring some of the preschool knowledge home,” Whittaker says. “Age-appropriate assessments are a method to find out if your child is showing growth by being in a preschool program. A teacher should be knowledgeable of and willing to share where your child is on their developmental journey.”
Be sure to contact individual schools about registration times and guidelines, and to find out if there’s a lottery system if applicable or a waitlist. Then get ready to watch your little one embrace their new home away from home.