How to Choose the Right Preschool for Your Child

Photo by Rebecca Alison

Photo by Rebecca Alison

Zachary is a sweet and lovable 4-year-old boy who is often timid around others. He’s generally happy, but he is easily overwhelmed and can become upset in noisy environments. After enrolling Zachary in the same preschool his sister attended and seeing him struggle, his parents wondered what they should do. What options should they consider? What would work best for Zachary? Would he be ready for kindergarten?

Zachary’s parents aren’t alone in their uncertainty over choosing a preschool for their child. The number of preschool choices in the Bay Area can be overwhelming for many parents. Here is some helpful information to keep in mind when making your decision:

Your Child’s Temperament and Behaviors

Each child is an individual with a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Parents will often describe children as having a certain temperament, such as calm and mellow or fussy and sensitive. Some children are “observers” who seem to learn best by watching others whereas others are “explorers” who have to experiment with objects in their environment to learn. Temperaments are essentially patterns of behavior that give parents a strong sense of their child’s preferences and personality.

Your Family’s Values

You definitely want to keep your family’s values in mind. Do you want the preschool to be affiliated with a church or synagogue? Would you like your child to attend a bilingual preschool? What values are you trying to instill in your child, and how will the preschool that you choose help to reinforce those values?

Cost and Location

Your child’s preschool will become a part of your daily routine and monthly budget; it should fit comfortably within your family’s means. You should also think carefully about the location of the school. Would a preschool nearer to your home or to your office work best? Will the location of the preschool allow you to get there on time without creating stress for you and your child?

Preschool Philosophy

Preschools vary in their philosophies. Familiarize yourself with the guiding principles of different types of preschools, and then do some research to determine which schools in your area subscribe to the philosophies that interest you. Plan to visit those that fit your criteria. When you visit, trust your instincts about where you think your child will best be supported. Here is some basic information about six different preschool philosophies:

1. Reggio Emilio

  • Philosophy: Children are active and competent learners who are curious and motivated to engage in exploration and problem-solving. Teachers are seen as partners and guides who develop a curriculum based on the students’ areas of interest.
  • Curriculum: The curriculum is always evolving depending on children’s interests and will include a variety of materials and activities, including drawing, graphing, sculpting, dramatic play and writing.
  • Possible classroom activity: If a child finds a bee on the playground and shows interest in it, the teacher might create a lesson plan that includes drawing a bee, describing what a bee is and discussing how honey is produced. The lesson plan is child-led and based on the interests and discoveries of the children in the class.
2. Montessori
  • Philosophy: Children are independent learners and will develop skills at a pace that is comfortable for them. The teacher is seen as a resource and a role model to support children as they engage in self-directed learning. Montessori preschools typically emphasize having a calm and structured environment and include more teacher-led activities, relative to Reggio Emilio preschools.
  • Curriculum: Children are taught specific activities that match their developmental levels and are then introduced to new activities that build upon their previously learned skills. The learning materials are designed to activate all the senses to help children understand the world around them.
  • Possible classroom activity: Children might transfer large objects from one bin to another using their hands. After mastering that task, they use a pincer grasp to move small objects between bins. These fine motor skills are taught before drawing or writing because they are seen as the precursors to pencil grasp.

3.  Waldorf

  • Philosophy: Children are deeply affected by what they touch, see and hear, and their minds, bodies and spirits need to be engaged and encouraged. This approach strives to cultivate a love of learning through artistic and creative endeavors. The teacher’s role is to support and encourage play. Exposure to electronic media is strongly discouraged as it is believed to dampen creativity and imagination.
  • Curriculum: Experiential learning and imagination are emphasized. It is assumed that children develop an understanding of the world through free imaginative play.
  • Possible classroom activity: Teachers engage in domestic, practical and artistic activities that children can readily imitate, such as baking, painting and gardening. Natural materials, such as pinecones and shells, and child-sized spaces, such as playhouses and small chairs, are used to encourage imaginative play.

4.  Play-Based

  • Philosophy: Success in school and life is dependent on a child’s ability to interact positively with peers and adults. The focus is on play and socialization rather than on academics.
  • Curriculum: Play-based preschools promote learning concepts by providing rich opportunities to learn by playing and encouraging children to engage actively with others. Teachers create opportunities through play to practice social skills such as negotiating, appreciating the feelings of friends, taking turns, working through conflicts and sharing.
  • Possible classroom activity: Rather than providing worksheets or more academic-based activities, such as writing out alphabet letters, teachers provide letter-based puzzles or shaving cream to write names and draw pictures.

5.  Cooperative (Parent Participation Preschools)

  • Philosophy: Children thrive when their parents are actively involved. Parent involvement is considered essential to all aspects of school life, from classroom lessons to fundraising and parent committees. A parent typically works in the classroom one morning or afternoon each week or month. And because parents are part of the staffing, cooperative preschools are often cost-effective.
  • Curriculum and classroom activities: The curriculum of cooperative preschools relies heavily on the talents and interests of children and their parents.

6.  Religious and Community-Based

  • Many churches and synagogues offer religious preschools that might fit well with your family’s value system. Community-based preschools are also available through local community centers such as a YMCA or JCC or through a city’s social services department.

A Variety of Answers

Children can be successful in a variety of preschool settings. The right preschool varies according to each child. A child who is very curious, energetic and self-motivated might prefer a child-directed environment such as a Waldorf preschool. In contrast, a child who prefers a calm and structured environment might be more successful in a Montessori preschool. For a child with severe separation anxiety, a cooperative preschool might be a good choice. There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to choosing a preschool.

Maturation and Changing Needs

Keep in mind that your children’s needs might change as they get older. For example, your daughter might start at a cooperative preschool at age three. After she has had positive experiences feeling independent at school and is more comfortable separating from you, you might feel that she is ready for less parental support at a Reggio Emilio, Montessori or Waldorf preschool. Alternatively, if family finances are restrictive, a community-based preschool might be more suitable.


The best or right preschool is the one that fits your family’s needs at any given time. If you find your child is unhappy, consider consulting with a professional who can observe your child in his current preschool and make a recommendation. Professionals who visit preschools frequently can give valuable insight into the variety of preschool possibilities based on your child’s needs.

Zachary’s parents were surprised that the play-based preschool their daughter loved didn’t seem to be working for their son. Because he has a more sensitive temperament than his older sister, Zachary needed something different. After visiting several preschools and then consulting with a child therapist, Zachary’s parents learned that busy, self-directed environments didn’t work well for their son. A Montessori school, with its emphasis on letting Zachary set his own pace, seemed like a much better option. Six months later, Montessori school is providing the support that Zachary needs to engage his inquisitive nature and connect with his teachers and fellow students.

Vivien Keil, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist at Children’s Health Council (CHC) in Palo Alto. CHC helps kids and families with small and large challenges and offers free parent education as well as evaluation and therapeutic and educational services for children and teens.


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