If you are the parent of a 3- or 4-year-old and intend to enroll your child in a preschool in the fall, now is a good time to be shopping for one. This is so for several reasons. Although many preschools these days operate year-round and will accept newcomers throughout the year, most of their openings come in September as their older children graduate to kindergarten.
Many better schools have waiting lists. Get your name in now, and you will have a better shot at a fall vacancy. Some preschools close for the summer, so it is necessary to visit in the spring to see them in session.
Here are guidelines that can help you find the right program for your child.
First, decide what kind of preschool would suit your child best. Some are loosely structured so daily lessons are determined largely by the students' interests. For example, if the children see a family of squirrels passing by, the teacher may turn to a lesson about animals. Or if a storm begins, they may talk about where raindrops come from.
Other schools are more rigid in their curriculum. If the day's lesson is counting to 10, then your child will do just that--no matter how many squirrels go by or how many raindrops fall.
Of course, most preschools have philosophies that fall somewhere between these extremes. Although middle-of-the-road schools are not all alike either, they generally offer a fixed curriculum but also look for opportunities to explore children's spontaneous interests.
Once you have decided on an educational philosophy, choose the right schedule for yourself. Many preschools offer the choice of a half-day or full-day schedule, and some even offer an option of attending two or three days a week.
Your own work schedule may force you to enroll your child in a full-time program. But if you have a choice, your child may be better off starting out as a part-timer.
Cost is a major consideration for many parents, and you may be shocked to learn that half-day programs cost about $220 a month while a full day runs about $400 per month. For some less expensive program, try the YMCA or church organizations.
Now that you have identified your basic requirements, make a list of preschools that will fit them by asking friends and co-workers or even browsing through the Yellow Pages, since many schools list their philosophies and schedules in their ads.
You can narrow this list quickly by doing much of the research by telephone. Call each school and speak to the director.
Ask how long the school has existed. A new school may still be in the experimental stage, and you may not want your child to be part of its experiment.
Small class size is crucial for preschoolers, so look for a program that gives each teacher five to 10 kids. (Under state law, there must be one supervising adult for every 12 children.)
Not all preschool teachers have similar backgrounds, so ask about the credentials required by the school. Many parents are surprised to learn that someone can become a preschool teacher after just 12 units (about two semesters) of college courses in early childhood education. But some schools also require a bachelor of arts degree plus 12 early childhood education units.
Next, have the director list the skills that your child will be taught. Will your son or daughter be able to count to 10? Or to 100? Will he or she only identify alphabet letters? Or will your child write his or her name, address and phone number?
Before closing the conversation, mention any physical or emotional conditions or special needs that your child may have, and ask how the school would accommodate them.
Now visit the school--but leave your child at home so you can speak candidly with teachers and roam freely.
First, notice how well the campus is protected. Are classrooms and playgrounds fenced in, or too easily accessible to passing strangers?
Is the playground equipment safe and practical for your child's age? Do the buildings look sturdy enough to shelter your son or daughter in case of an earthquake?
Enter the classroom of any teacher your child might have next year. Look at the paint job, bulletin boards and furniture. Is this a cheerful place to spend part of the day? If you don't think so, your child probably won't either.
How about the toys, books and other materials around the room? Are there enough for everyone? Are they too simple or too sophisticated for your child's age?
Notice the furniture, which adults often overlook since we take for granted being able to sit in any chair or at any table we want. But your preschooler needs pint-sized chairs, tables and shelves that he or she can use without the teacher's help.
While watching a class in session, notice the general atmosphere. Are the children basically happy, interested and kept busy? Do they get along with each other and the teacher? Does the teacher discipline too lightly or too severely?
If you are concerned about sexual stereotypes, notice whether there are certain "boy" activities and "girl" activities. Could your daughter, for example, play the doctor or firefighter's role? Or would she have to play the nurse or housewife?
By now your choices should have narrowed quite a bit, so apply the final test: What does your child think?
Go back to the school--with your son or daughter to see how he or she uses the classroom furnishings, interacts with other children and is treated by the teacher.
Bear in mind that your child will probably be very shy when plopped into the new setting and crowd of strangers. But you can still get an idea of how he or she would eventually fit in next year.