How to Pick a Preschool


When it came time to enroll Hudson in preschool, I felt like I was being introduced to a whole new set of vocabulary: “Child-centered, play-based, Montessori, Reggio Emilia… ”  There are a lot of different approaches to childhood education, and it can be really confusing. How much weight do give these considerations against mundane (but really important) things like cost, hours, and location?

Hudson will be entering his third year of preschool this fall, so I went on a tour of a Childtime school in Sacramento—an example of a Reggio Emilia-based program—and talked the center’s director in order to brush up on the factors that go into choosing a preschool.

First, the philosophies… 


Many of these  approaches overlap, but here are some phrases you’ll most likely encounter your search:

The majority of preschools are play-based, meaning that children choose activities based on their interests. A play-based classroom tends to have specific activity areas (like the home or kitchen, science area, water table, reading nook, building table, etcetera). The idea is that through playing, children learn valuable skills—including social ones like cooperation with others.

Child-centered versus teacher-directed
Child-centered programs place the emphasis on the child’s interests and teachers encourage learning by facilitating activities based on their interests. Teacher-directed means that a program is structured by the adult and tends to be more focused on kindergarten prep—with classroom time devoted to lessons.

Reggio Emilia
Child-centered and play-based. Named for the town in Northern Italy where, in the 1940s, a schoolteacher worked with the community to develop schools that would help children become better citizens, Reggio Emilia-inspired schools take a project-based approach where lessons and curriculum is based on the children’s interests. If children are interested in flowers, for example, a curriculum can be tailored to their inquiries and worked through in many forms—music, stories, art, food, and hands-on activities in a garden—to engage children with different styles of learning. The teacher guides children as they discover together, and the basis of learning is the relationship between child and adult where questions and curiosity is encouraged. Hallmarks of programs with a Reggio Emilia-based approach are portfolios or other manners of daily documenting: observations and photos are kept for children, teachers, and parents to review what has happened throughout the year. When I toured Childtime, I noted that lessons and activities were detailed on the walls, and that parent-teacher conferences happen twice each year.

Also child-centered and play-based. In the Montessori school—so-named after Maria Montessori who developed the guiding theory—play is a child’s work. As with Reggio Emilia, Montessori-based schools are child-centered with teachers serving a guides. A hallmark are specific toys called “manipulatives” that are self-corrective (a puzzle is solved correctly, for example, if it fits together); children play with one thing at a time. Classrooms tend to be larger in size and are mixed age, with the goal being to encourage children learning from one another. A traditional Montessori preschool room is called a “children’s house” to emphasize their role in choosing and doing things for themselves. This is in contrast to a teacher-directed program.

These parent-run programs are maintained by the families participating, so they may involve some combination of the above. They tend to be less expensive because parents are expected to assist with everything from curriculum development to site maintenance. Usually, a professional teacher oversees the classroom.

A teacher-directed and play-based approach, Waldorf schools were founded by Rudolf Steiner in Germany in 1919 on the “whole-child” principle, of educating “head, heart, and hands.”  This is done through teacher-directed instruction and, for this reason, every teacher at a Waldorf school is specifically Waldorf certified. Mixed-age classrooms involve a great deal of teamwork in settings that are modeled on a home, and children may have the same teacher for 1st through 8th grade. There is a heavy emphasis on creative (art, music, and language) and outdoor (“all-weather”) play, and Waldorf schools do not include media (computers, videos or electronics of any kind) in the curriculum. There are no grades at a Waldorf school.


So. Which one to choose? 

Of course I can’t answer that. Every parent should tour the schools that fit their requirements for cost, location, and schedule, to evaluate the site and observe the classroom with their specific child’s needs and their values in mind. For example, do you wish to have a lot of structure or free play? How important is the student-teacher ratio to you? Is the classroom quiet or loud? How will your child react to that? Do you value a mixed-age group, or would you prefer that your 3-year-old is only with children her age? How much do you value parent involvement?

Here are some questions I asked on my tour: 

  1. How many years of experience do most teachers have? Is there a lot of turnover?
  2. What are their credentials?
  3. Do you have a lot of returning students?
  4. What is the daily routine?
  5. How are meals handled? (At Childtime, a cook prepares a lunch that’s eaten family style. But if you are having to prepare lunches, what are the allergen policies?)
  6. Do children nap? What time? What is the alternative for non-nappers?
  7. How long is the school day? Is this flexible?
  8. How often do you involve music? Do you take field trips?
  9. What will you do if my child doesn’t want to participate?
  10. What is your policy on discipline? How would a teacher handle a conflict about sharing? How would they handle a physical conflict?
  11. What happens in case of an emergency?
  12. Do you have an open-door policy for parents to visit?
  13. What sort of safety measures do you have in place at the school?
  14. Can I see the outside structures? (Are they safe?) Can I see the bathrooms? (Are they clean?)
  15. How do you handle toilet-learning/potty-training? Can you help me?

I think you need to have this conversation in person, because—even if you can learn a lot on the website—you want to hear affection for the children in the teacher’s or the director’s voice. You want to see how they handle it when a child interrupts them during the tour. (It’s bound to happen! Do they know his name?) Are you at ease with them? Will you feel comfortable asking them advice when you have an issue at home? (I routinely ask our teachers for their opinion on behaviors.) If you’re meeting with the director, can you meet the teacher who will be with your child?

And you want to have the time to look and listen—are the staff happy? Are the kids? Is there art on the walls? Does this seem like a place you’ll be happy bringing your child every day? Ask if you can just stay and observe beyond the interview. Some places will say no, but it’s good to ask. I would also try to reach out to other parents as references—either through friends or through the school. Ideally you’ll have a chance to visit alone, and with your child (or alone while your child plays).



When I met with the director at Childtime, she was able to answer all of these questions for me and left me with a feeling like—were I looking for a new preschool—I’d feel good about this choice. One thing in particular stood out: we both agreed that choosing a preschool is highly personal decision, but one that depends so much on how your feel about the teachers. Of course, the environment and the philosophies should reflect your child-rearing priorities and be a nurturing, happy place for your child to learn and practice social skills but, ultimately, it’s the teachers who can make the school feel like an extension of your home.

What questions would you add? What are your priorities for choosing a preschool? And, if you’ve been through this, why did you choose a particular philosophy or approach for your family? 

Thank you to Childtime Learning Centers for sponsoring this discussion and letting me come to tour your school. 

Childtime believes education is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Every child has different needs and abilities, each learns in their own way and at their own pace. LCG designed their School Readiness Pathway with this philosophy in mind–to empower you with educational options and choices at every age to create the most fitting path for your child. Childtime: Nurturing in every way. Visit to schedule your tour today. 

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