Selecting the Best Preschool For Your Family

In January of last year my husband and I made the difficult decision (maybe it was a bit more difficult for me) as to where we were going to send our daughter to preschool in August. Although the final decision was made in January we began researching possible schools a year or more before.

After visiting several schools, scouring over countless websites, reviews and brochures, I will never forget the emotion that quickly overtook me when we had found the perfect fit. There was child created work scattered around the room, evidence of project work in progress and a huge naturalist playground just outside the classroom door. Far from tidy and probably appearing a bit messy to some, there was evidence of learning and the room was a canvas for children to create and explore. The teacher was inviting, observant and child centered and when a parent asked her what questions he should ask, she quickly replied, “The teacher and the environment are two important things to look at.” (This is exactly what I told my husband to look for before we left the house) The room felt comfortable and oddly familiar. The space reminded me of my own classroom and it felt like home.

A year later we are extremely pleased with our choice. Our daughter is thriving, making new friends and learning everyday! To aid others I compiled a list for parents and caregivers who are beginning their “preschool search.”

Ask Other Families- The first thing I did was ask parents where their children go to preschool. I asked neighbors, moms at the library and parents at the park. I initiated the discussion during Little Gym classes and playgroups. I found many had done their own research and were happy to share with me. The list I compiled showed most of the options in my area. I viewed the schools websites and read reviews online. I began these conversations and web searches a few years before my daughter started preschool.

Location– Location, location, location! Although it might not be the first thing that comes to mind, location is an important factor when selecting a preschool. Some good questions to ask… How far is the school from your home and from your place of work? How early will you have to leave in the morning to drop your child off? If you work, how long will it take you to get to the school after work and then how long will it take to get home? What is the traffic flow? Will you be sitting in rush hour traffic or driving against it?

School Schedule- Are you looking for a full time preschool where you send your child to school five days a week or are you looking for a part time schedule? Do you want half day or full day attendance? Most preschool centers recommend a three year old attend a minimum of two days a week and a four year old three days a week. Does the school have flexibility on the days your child would attend?

Teachers and Staff– Perhaps the most important factor is finding a teacher, an assistant and an early childhood director that are child centered, caring and passionate about working with small children. The teacher and his or her commitment to the learning process and the overall well being of children is crucial in selecting a preschool for your child. Finding a teacher who is a skilled “kid watcher” and has a clear understanding of child development is important. A teacher who gets down on the childrens’ level and knows how to stretch children by asking questions that make them think and directing them to activities and projects that will expand their knowledge and creative thinking are positive things to look for. Other questions to ask… What kind of staff professional development does the center engage in? What is the teacher turnover rate at the school? Most schools have websites that briefly describe each teacher giving his or her experience, education and background. If you can’t find this information on the website don’t be afraid to ask.

Lillian with her teacher, Mrs. Stanglein, at Zion Lutheran Early Childhood Center.
Environment– Often considered a “second teacher,” the classroom environment is crucial to learning. Some things to look for… Is the classroom safe and child centered? Are materials and manipulatives easily accessible to every student? Look for safe shelving with rounded edges that are on the child’s eye level. Are there clearly defined areas in the classroom where children can work during choice time? (writing center, science area, art center, dramatic play, building/construction area, classroom library, sensory table) Is there a classroom library or quiet area with pillows, stuffed animals and soft chairs where children can read books and calm down? Does the room feel warm and inviting with child created work on display, touches of home (picture frames, plants and lamps), open ended toys like wooden blocks and dress up clothing or does it have a cold institutional feel with teacher created bulletin boards, commercialized toys, items stored on high shelves and undefined work spaces?

Pedagogy and Programs– When you enter a preschool classroom it may appear that the children are playing but play is a child’s work. Children learn through play especially when there are trained educators asking them about their work, guiding them to make connections, evaluating their progress and providing support and assistance. A good environment gives children the ability to construct knowledge from the world around them. Perhaps you are looking for an early childhood center that prescribes to a certain pedagogy? There are many being used today: Montessori, Reggio Emilia, The Project Approach, Waldorf, Highscope, just to name a few. Research shows that mixed age grouping is preferred, allowing children to learn from each other and providing teachers the opportunity to focus on the developmental needs of each child instead of their chronological age. Many preschools use a combination of several methods. Some lean towards the traditional with a strong academic emphasis while others are affiliated with a specific religion and incorporate religious studies into their day. No matter what methods are used, all preschools should practice developmentally appropriate practices that provide hands on learning, student choice and play. Before making a school visit it would be beneficial to define what attributes you and your family are looking for.

I hope this article provides some helpful tips as you and your family begin your preschool search. Please visit this NAEYC website (National Association for the Education or Young Children) for more assistance on selecting the perfect preschool for your family.

 

 

Celebrating the First Day of School With “The Kissing Hand”

The first day of school signals new beginnings and kicks off a year filled with possibilities. And in every school across the United States floors shine with fresh wax and bulletin boards are adorned with bright colored construction paper. Nervous children dressed in new clothes enter sparkling classrooms stocked with sharpened pencils and crayons standing tall in boxes. They are warmly greeted by smiling teachers who anticipate a year overflowing with adventure and growth.

I love the beginning of the school year and I have experienced many first days of school. Some as a student, others as a teacher or educational consultant and now my first as a parent. Looking back most passed without any form of celebration. Some years I closed my eyes wishing they didn’t even happen. During the years we struggled with infertility part of me dreaded the back to school season. From August to September “first day of school” photos flooded Facebook and reminded me… photos of a smiling child holding a miniature chalkboard may never appear on my news feed. But we remained optimistic and God blessed us with our little Lillian and now we get to celebrate her first day of school, a day we have been preparing for since we began touring preschools in January.

img_9033Knowing the “first day of school” would be a huge transition for Lillian (and for her mommy) we began reading books during the summer about starting school to help ease any uncertainty. A few of our favorite read alouds include, “Llama Llama Misses Mamma” by Anna Dewdney, “The 12 Days of Preschool” by Jenna Lettice and “The Night Before Preschool” by Natasha Wing. Our favorite book is “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn. I was first introduced to “The Kissing Hand” by my graduate school mentor, Dr. Suzie Nall, when she read it aloud in one of my classes in the late 1990’s. I will always remember the strong emotions the book evoked in me and I immediately made “The Kissing Hand” part of my back to school routine, reading it to my new kindergarten students and their parents during “meet the teacher night” that took place a few days before the first day of school. Imagine my delight when Lillian’s preschool teacher, Mrs. Stanglein, mentioned the book during her back to school parent night, encouraging us to read the book and offering up copies for caregivers to borrow.

This fabulous book that assists with separation anxiety is about a little raccoon named Chester who is afraid to go to school for the first time. Every year I choked up while reading the book. Tears streamed down my face when Mrs. Raccoon shared the “kissing hand” secret with her son. Mrs. Raccoon took Chester’s left hand and spread open his tiny fingers into a fan and kissed the middle of his palm. Chester felt his mothers kiss rush from his hand, up his arm and into his heart. It reminded him that… Mommy loves you. Mommy loves you!

The thought of parents leaving their children with me; trusting me to teach them and secretly hoping that I would love their little ones as much as they do still brings tears to my eyes. What a privilege it is to be an educator and to be partly responsible in molding young lives and shaping the future!

I saved “The Kissing Hand” for last, reading it to Lillian a few days before her first day of school. While I read, attempting to hold back tears, Lillian sat beside me taking in every word. A few hours later we said our goodbyes as I left for an overnight trip to train teachers across our state. Without prompting, Lillian took my hand, unfolded it and gently kissed the middle of my palm. She said she wanted to give me a “kissing hand” just like the one Chester gave his mommy. I in turn kissed her palm and then we both put our kissing hands up to our faces like Chester. At that very moment I knew my daughter was going to have a successful first day of school.

The day before Lillian had her first day of preschool my parents came over and Nana helped us make homemade “kissing hand” cookies. She even had hand and heart shaped cookie cutters in her cookie cutter collection! Nana is an excellent baker and Lillian and I were her assistants. Pops assisted with the decorating and Lillian was excited to share some of the cookies with her teacher, the teacher assistant and other administrators at her school. This is a fun back to school tradition I began when I was teaching (every year I made my students heart shaped sugar cookies) and I am excited to share the tradition with my little girl.

If you would like to make Nana Freeman’s delicious sugar cookies please click on this link for the recipe. Nana’s Sugar Cookie Recipe  Sugar cookies taste even yummier with buttercream frosting. Click on this link for her buttercream frosting recipe. Nana’s Buttercream Frosting recipe

Mrs Stanglein’s Purpose…Provide a preschool experience that starts children on the way to loving school and becoming good Christian citizens of God’s world.

This is the first of many “first days of school” for our family of three and I am happy to report there were no tears from Lillian or from her mommy! As a new preschool parent I am comforted to know we have found the perfect early childhood center for our family. Zion Lutheran’s Early Childhood Center is a place where play is valued and seen as the young child’s work. Through experimentation, The Project Approach and exploration, Lillian will learn about God’s world. When I first walked into Mrs. Stanglein’s classroom during a tour in January I cried because her classroom was warm and inviting. It felt like home as it reminded me of my own classroom. Her keen observational skills showed that she had perfected the art of “kid watching” and I knew I had found a teacher who believes every child has potential. I cried because in that instant I knew Mrs. Stanglein would nurture and care for Lillian and the other children in her class like they were her own.

Whether you are a parent sending your child off to school for the first time or you just packed the family mini van to take your baby to college, I wish you and your family blessings for a wonderful school year.