Choosing a Preschool: Let the Fun Begin!

Filed under: Day Care & Education, Expert Advice: Toddlers & Preschoolers

Having fun is pretty easy for a preschooler; picking a preschool may be a little more difficult. Credit: Getty Images

Picking a preschool can be a lot like hitting a fast-food drive-thru: Does the school have enough fun toys to keep even the most finicky preschoolers happy, while still packing in enough educational stimulation that parents feel their child is learning?

But there's no need to rush. Slow down and take a look at some of the different options available. While a parent might be interested in one preschool's philosophy, another preschool actually could be exactly what your child ordered -- and needs. Just keep in mind -- regardless of the variant philosophies -- a preschool needs to be attentive, nurturing and accommodating to help your child succeed.

Play-Based Preschools

Play is such an important part of a child's development, that Stuart Brown, M.D., author of "Play," devoted an entire book to it and its benefits. Many play-based preschools agree and utilize meaningful and active play in their curriculums. A play-based preschool will use play to advance a child's emotional, cognitive and social development.

Children at these schools learn through various play activities that help prepare them for the book-learning and schooling to come. A play-based preschool may focus on letters and numbers learning for kindergarten prep. However, not all do. When you visit the school, ask if there is structured play time, along with time for learning. Many community preschools or church-affiliated preschools may use the play-based model enriched by a focus on pre-kindergarten academics.

Montessori Preschools

According to Maria Montessori, an Italian medical doctor who started teaching her method in Rome in 1907, play is the work of children. According to the site Natural Parenting, in a Montessori preschool, adults and older children are the models the children learn from and each child is encouraged to follow his or her own independent work or interests. Nothing is forced upon a child, but teachers will lead and get involved, if necessary.

Individual learning is encouraged in Montessori schools, which might not appeal to some children. In some Montessori mixed-age classrooms, older children work among the younger students. Be aware that the Montessori name is not strictly regulated. While a school may call itself Montessori, parents should check if teachers have completed Montessori training or are aligned with the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori Internationale.

Projects-Based Preschools

Independence is key in projects-based preschools, which encourage students to learn through embarking on real-world projects. Field trips might be a part of a project-focused school, encouraging students to see how their schoolwork applies to the outside world. Independent work is a large part of projects-based learning, with teachers assisting when necessary and otherwise letting each child explore and experiment, which is thought to lead to positive attitudes towards learning.

Waldorf Preschools

Waldorf, a teaching method started by Rudolf Steiner in Germany a dozen years after Montessori, encourages noncompetitive play. Often, the Waldorf preschool is in a home-like setting stocked with wooden toys or dolls without faces to encourage a child's imagination. Waldorf students spend time listening to stories, gardening and cooking.

Each day, the students help prepare food, such as baking bread or making a vegetable soup with ingredients grown at the school. Waldorf schools encourage an old-fashioned, low-media lifestyle, according to a comparison by Susan Mayclin Stephenson on The Montessori Method website. The Waldorf philosophy is strong on imaginative play without a rush toward academics; many adherents to Waldorf may not start to teach reading and writing until the ages of 6 or 7, according to an article in Wondertime.

As with Montessori, verify whether the teachers have received the rigorous training in the Waldorf method, suggests the Why Waldorf Works site.

Cooperative Preschools

Other preschools believe children learn best when parents are involved in their learning, and a cooperative preschool is run by the parents of its students. Often, an educator might be hired to oversee the school, although the families in the co-op are the main operators.

In a cooperative preschool, parents can be intimately involved with their child's learning. Parents are scheduled to rotate through the classroom, and play an integral role in fund raising, making repairs or shopping for the kids' snacks. Co-ops are generally less expensive than other preschool options, however the time commitment is generally more intense.

Reggio Emilia Preschools

Preschools using the Reggio Emilia philosophy are not found everywhere, which might make enrolling in one a lot more competitive. The philosophy originated in Italy in the 1940s, with the help of a teacher named Loris Malaguzzi who had the idea that "the schools reflect the values of the community," according to the Reggio Alliance.

The North American Reggio Emilia Alliance explains that its preschools encourage "a child who learns and grows in relation with others." A child's development is carefully watched and documented through videotaping and photographs. Although the individual is important in Reggio Emilia, the classroom adjusts its curriculum to encompass areas of interest of the class and their families.

Related: Hey, Teach! Alternative Education Programs Could Replace Education Colleges

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.