Parenting decisions are tough. Even the little things like choosing a multivitamin can feel ridiculously important. And the big decisions like where and when to send them to school? Talk about pressure.
But no worries – we’re here to help! Our Complete Guide to Preschool can help you cut through some of the stress as you pick when and where you send your child to preschool and how to get them ready for the big first day!
First, let’s be clear that there is no one right answer! When we think of preschool, we often think of the year right before kindergarten (often referred to as 4K). But preschool can *technically* start at any age. Even childcare facilities that accept infants often refer to themselves as preschools.
In general though, what most people think of as “real” preschool activities –i.e. kids making crafts, singing songs, sitting in circles for storytime, and learning letters and numbers – start around two years old. Of course, that doesn’t mean your child needs to start at two years old. While kids do benefit academically from preschool, just one year in 4K is enough to give them those benefits. If you want them to start earlier, that’s great too! No one knows your child, what they need, and what they’ll enjoy better than you.
If you’ve looked up potential preschools, you’ve probably noticed that they describe themselves as full-day, part-time, or morning. Full-time preschools follow regular school hours, while “part-time” usually means school is 3-4 hours in the morning or that you can send your child just 2 or 3 days a week. If you think your child (or you!) aren’t ready for five days a week, part-time options can be great!
There are so many educational philosophies and pedagogies that we could never list them all, but these are a few of the more popular ones you’re likely to come across:
The “traditional” preschool usually involves some circle time, a few teacher-led lessons, time for free play, and enriching activities like music and art. Most public preschools fall under this umbrella, though the exact curriculum will vary from school to school.
Montessori preschools are child-led with stations children can choose to “work” at on their own. They emphasize practical life skills and learning through tangible materials. Lessons are often given to just a few students at a time as the classroom “guide” models how to use the materials. In the preschool setting, you’ll find a range of ages in one classroom (usually 3-6), allowing the kids to learn from and teach each other.
Waldorf schools are similar to Montessori schools in that they are both child-led and emphasize children’s independence and innate ability to learn. The Waldorf approach places greater emphasis on the arts, fantasy, and children’s imaginations, whereas Montessori tends to focus more on practical life skills.
Play-based preschool is an umbrella term. It’s sometimes used to describe Montessori and Waldorf schools, but some play-based preschools don’t specifically follow those philosophies. These schools tend to be less concerned with academic milestones (such as recognizing letters and knowing their sounds) and more concerned with how children develop creativity, confidence, social skills, and pre-academic skills through play. A lack of structured lessons doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a free for all – with thoughtful materials and knowledgeable teachers, kids still grow and learn in play-based preschools.
Of course, there are plenty of other factors that will influence your decision. Here are some of the things you might want to consider:
Student to teacher ratios
What ages can attend
Availability of outdoor play areas
Approach to discipline
Your initial impressions when you meet the teachers and directors
Availability of after school care if you need it
Food and snack choices
Distance from your home
We know – tough! If you're struggling to narrow down your options, we recommend making a spreadsheet of all the local schools you’re considering. Make columns for things that matter to you to keep a running list of pros and cons – it’s way too easy to forget which school is which when you’re still in the online research phase.
Once you’ve narrowed your options down, you can start scheduling some tours. Come prepared with questions, take notes, and add it all to that master pro-con list. They’ll likely walk you through the application process and send you home with any relevant forms.
Once you’ve made your decision, send in that application ASAP. Preschools usually start accepting applications early in the spring semester for the following year, and spots can fill up fast! Some preschools will perform low-pressure evaluations as part of their admissions process (often just for 4K). They’ll often subtly check children’s fine motor skills by seeing how they hold a pencil, note their social skills, and might ask them to count or recite their ABCs.
Once you’ve secured a spot at your preschool, it’s usually just a matter of paperwork before you’re ready to start. Other than the school’s forms, you’ll usually need shot records, copies of insurance cards, and proof of address (if using a public preschool).
Now that your kiddo is all registered, what should you do to help them thrive in the classroom? Well, we have good news – you can take the pressure off when it comes to preparing your child for preschool! Preschool is the prep work for kindergarten and beyond, so there’s zero need to make sure they know all the letter sounds or can count to 100 before they go. That being said, you do want to help make preschool a positive experience for them, so try to help them understand what they’ll do at preschool and get excited about it!
There are a ton of great books that will help kids learn what they can expect at preschool and address any fears they might have about their first day. Rosie Goes to Preschool by Karen Katz goes through an entire typical day at preschool – and makes it look super fun! Preschool, Here I Come! by D.J. Steinberg turns the typical first-day fears on their head as the brave brand new preschooler tells the mom not to cry and that she can go home. In Pete the Kitty’s First Day of Preschool, your kids can see how much fun one of their favorite characters has at preschool. There are tons of other books too, both for purchase and, more likely than not, for free at your library.
Take advantage of Meet the Teacher nights and school tours. The more familiar your littles are with the people and places they’ll see at preschool, the fewer first-day jitters they’ll have.
So this one definitely depends on your little one’s age. If they’re going to 4K for the first time, potty training is probably way behind you. If they’re attending a two-year-old’s class, most schools won’t require them to be fully potty trained before starting. But three’s – that’s where you might have to get the potty training train rolling. Most schools will require them to be able to use the bathroom independently by the time they enter a three’s classroom, so if it hasn’t happened yet, add it to your preschool prep to-do list (ideally at least a few months in advance).
Arts and crafts time is a given at basically any preschool! Of course, you definitely don’t need your littles to be master artists before preschool, but they are likely to feel more confident if they’ve seen similar materials at least once before. If you haven’t already, try introducing simple craft supplies like glue sticks, safety scissors, craft pom poms, popsicle sticks, metal brads, stencils, and stamps at home. You can create adult-directed crafts together and let them get creative and do their own thing – they’ll probably do a bit of both at preschool too.
Clean-up time is likely to be a part of the day, so it’s always great to practice picking up toys at home. Perfection isn’t the goal – just try to get your child used to picking up with a positive attitude when you transition between activities. (We know that’s easier said than done, so check out our tips on turning kids’ chores into fun!) Your kiddo’s teachers will definitely thank you!
Under normal circumstances, kids have probably played with plenty of other kids by the time they’re headed to preschool. In the midst of the pandemic, however, those park days and play dates may have been few and far between. If you feel like your child has suffered socially as a result, know that so many parents have the same concerns. Let go of any guilt, and remember that they don’t need perfect social skills (as if that even exists!) before they start preschool. Preschool is the training ground for interacting with peers, so in all likelihood, you’ll see those social skills blossom as the year progresses.
If you’re especially worried that they’ll have a tough time starting out, try scheduling a few playdates with a few friends at a time before the first day. You’ll get a chance to see how they do in a group, and you can give their teacher a heads up on any obstacles your child faces when interacting with their peers.
For more tips on starting the school year off right, check out all of our Back to School Tips