How to Choose a Preschool

For this week’s installment of our Expert series, we interviewed Stephanie Agnew, Assistant Director of the Parents Place (a leading resource center here in the SF Bay Area) Peninsula location.  She is an expert on school selection (among many other things!) who frequently delivers workshops and talks on how to choose the right preschool for your child.  We are thrilled to share her insights with you on different types of preschool philosophies and programs and how to make the best choice for your child and family.


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Q: To start out, perhaps you can help orient us to the world of preschool programs.  What are the different philosophies and program types to be aware of?  

A: The way I think about it, there are six major philosophies of early childhood education, and four main types of preschool programs.  Parents need to think about what they are looking for in a program along each dimension.

Let’s start first with the six major philosophies:

Preschool Philosophy #1: Developmental or “Play-Based”

The theory in a Developmental or Play-Based school is that young children learn best through their own play, and that play is an essential element of developmentally appropriate, high-quality programs.  The curriculum is designed with the belief that children go through certain stages at certain ages, but they each develop at different rates and have individual needs.  Play is not a break from the curriculum, but rather the best way to implement the curriculum.  The teacher’s role is to prepare the environment and offer materials and activities that promote learning through play in the areas of art, blocks, dramatic play, small manipulatives, and the outdoor environment. There is also an emphasis on social development such as sharing, conflict resolution, communication and self –mastery.

Preschool Philosophy #2: Academic or “Structured”

The theory in an Academic or Structured school is that young children will be best prepared for kindergarten and academic success if they are taught the fundamentals of literacy and math directly, using teacher lead instruction.  There is some part of the day when play is allowed, but at other times more formal lessons are introduced usually in a large group format.  There is a firm schedule to the day that allows for teachers to present the curriculum.  The teacher’s role is to direct and instruct the children and offer materials that help them practice certain academic skills.

Preschool Philosophy #3: Montessori 

The Montessori curriculum is based on the methods of Maria Montessori.  The goal is to develop culturally literate, self-disciplined children nurturing their intelligence, independence, curiosity and creativity.  Children learn by using special sensory materials.  They are not considered “toys”, and the activities are called “jobs”.  The teacher’s role is to observe children and demonstrate how activities work.  The materials are self-correcting and designed to be used by children independently.  There are practical life experiences such as cooking, sweeping, cleaning, sewing and gardening as well as lessons in geography, math and shapes. Task completion and the self direction are important skills.  Children are grouped in mixed ages and individual choice about activities supports individual learning styles.

Preschool Philosophy #4: International / Language Focused

An International/Language-Focused school is designed to immerse children in the culture and language of another or several other countries.  The belief is that children learn languages easily when they are young and the benefits of being multi-lingual are many.  Depending on the design of the school and the languages that are being offered, these schools are usually more academic in nature.  Some of them adopt a Montessori curriculum as well.  Teachers usually speak most of the day in the foreign language or children go to separate classes for each language.  The culture of the country is articulated through music and art activities.

Preschool Philosophy #5: Waldorf 

Waldorf schools encompass a 12 year program based on Anthroposophy, the spiritual philosophy of Rudolf Steiner.  For children under the age of 7, the program emphasizes learning through imitation and surrounding the child with adults to emulate the “goodness of the world” and de-emphasizing academics.  Waldorf theory believes that all areas of learning hold equal importance and aims to address 3 levels of the child: the intellect (thinking/logic), the heart (art/spirit), and the hands (craft/practical work).  There is also an emphasis on nature, natural materials, and music and adopting a lifestyle that rejects commercial influences.  Teachers stay with the same children for multiple years.

Preschool Philosophy #6: Reggio Emilia

In the early 1960s, parents, teachers and public officials in the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy started a school that emphasized community support and parental involvement and the theory began spreading to the US in the 1990s.  Long term projects by small groups of children that come from their own spontaneous interests are a large part of this curriculum.  The teacher’s role is to be an observer and to allow the curriculum to emerge from the children and be enhanced by the adults and the environment.  Teachers use photographs and take dictation from the children to document everything that happens in the class. The Reggio curriculum is not child centered or teacher directed — it is child originated and teacher framed — it is negotiated.  It is also important to foster the connection between home, school and the community.

And now let’s move on to discussing the four types of programs.  Note that these are more like special flavors of preschools.  Many preschools are none of these.

Preschool Program Type #1: Parent Cooperative 

Parents are required to participate in these programs, either in the classrooms, at home, or by serving on a parent board that operates the school.  The basic philosophy is that children and parents go to school together with guidance from a qualified teacher.  The focus is on child development.  There is often a parent education component either during the day or in evening meetings.

Preschool Program Type #2: Religious

These programs are usually affiliated with a church, synagogue, or other religious organization.  They may incorporate much, a little, or no religious training and may also follow one of the other preschool philosophies.

Preschool Program Type #3:University (or Lab) Schools

These programs are vehicles for teacher training and ongoing child development research.  The staff is usually required to have a higher learning degree and there may be several student-researchers in the classroom at any one time.  Children may benefit from the latest research in the child development field and may be expected to be active participants in student research studies.

Preschool Program Type #4: Outdoor/Nature Programs

These programs are usually oriented toward spending most or all of the time outside exploring nature.  Most of these programs involve daily field trips to different locations where the children explore the nature of the location with the guidance of a teacher who plans activities that apply to the place.  Some of the programs include parents and some do not.

Q: Wow — so many choices!  How should a parent approach choosing between them?  Are there certain types that tend to be a better fit for different types of families or kids?

A: There’s no one school that’s the right school for everybody, and no one type of school that’s the right school for every family.  However, there can be a best school for a given family and child.

Most children will do well in a variety of different kinds of programs.  Children at this age are pretty flexible, and will typically thrive in any good, safe, nurturing program with a good teacher-to-student ratio.  That said, different types of programs may be a better fit for kids with different personalities and backgrounds.

Montessori programs are really well suited to kids who are able to focus for a long period of time on things, who like organization, controlled environments, and calmness.

Reggio Emilia & play-based programs are better suited for kids who are more energetic, need a lot of opportunity be physical, and have a lot of interest in creativity, dramatic play, and arts & crafts (for which there are, generally speaking, fewer opportunities in Montessori).

Language-based programs are great for multicultural families or for families who hold multiculturalism as a high priority.

Waldorf programs are well suited for families who want a back-to-nature, whole child, anti-technology oriented education.  However, this is a lifestyle choice that the family needs to be willing to adopt around the clock: for example, no TV/screens at home, no junk food, no clothing plastered with TV or movie characters.

Academic programs serve the needs of parents who are interest in pushing their children to be as academically prepared as possible.  However, parents should use caution when considering this type of program. Brain research has proved that children learn best through play.  Young children need to be able to explore with their whole bodies — hands, eyes, ears, movement.  Non-academic programs offer kids the opportunity to learn through creativity, play, and exploration.  Academic programs are oriented around old-fashioned, structured, didactic, teacher-directed, large group instruction types of teaching — not the best way for anyone to learn, least of all young children.  Parents are taking a big risk in putting kids who are too young in those sorts of programs, when what young kids really need to be focused on developing is self-regulation and social skills.  I’d really only recommend academic type programs to parents who won’t be satisfied unless they can see quantifiable information demonstrating their child’s progress in hard skill areas, and won’t be happy with any other type of program.

Q: What do you think are the most important criteria to look for in a preschool?  What differentiates truly exceptional preschools?

A: Here are my top four factors:

  1. Class size: I’m not just talking about teacher:student ratio) — I mean literally the number of kids in the class.   Children learn better in smaller groups.  The ideal is 18-24 kids.
  2. Safety in environment: You want to make sure the school you pick has enough of the basics, for example enough space to operate in, sufficient materials to work with, plenty of adults around, good engagement in activities.
  3. Teacher-child relationship:  When you visit preschools, watch how the teachers interact with the kids.  You want to see warmth, appreciation of all different kinds of kids, excitement / enthusiasm about what they’re doing, love for their work, creativity, flexibility to be able to meet needs of different kids, even a childlike quality in themselves.
  4. Meeting parent needs: For example, convenience, location, hours, and cost.  Parents often gloss over these factors, but I always urge them to given them greater consideration, as these things are really critical to the whole school experience.  Also community —  the other families that attend the school.  It’s important to pick a school where you are excited about becoming a member of the community, so you’ll be able to form a sense of belonging to your child’s educational experience.  Pick somewhere where you feel comfortable — your child will feel that.
Q: Do you have any suggestions around starting preschool part time (e.g. mornings only and/or a few days a week) vs. full time?  What schedules are appropriate at different ages, or for kids with different amounts of experience with childcare outside the home?

A: Well, the reality is that many parents work full time and need a full-time childcare solution.  So let me start by saying that full-time childcare or preschool can be done well, and very successfully, from a young age.

However, starting full-time preschool (5 days a week, 10 hours a day) is not developmentally ideal for a very young child, for example 3 years or under.  What children do need is good chunks of time to be in group settings outside the home, cared for by loving caring adults who are not family, and being in a socialized setting with other children.  These days Kindergarten is no longer the beginning of school for most kids, so kids who don’t attend any preschool at all are at a severe disadvantage.

I think infants up to 12-18 months are best cared for at home by a parent or hired professional nanny, or in a small cozy home-based environment with 1-2 caregivers who can care for them similarly to how they would be cared for at home.

After 18 months, kids benefit from being in a most socialized environment — family in-home childcare is ideal for toddlers.  Say a few half days a week at a family in-home childcare with 5-8 other kids in that age range.

By 2-2.5 years, kids are ready to be in a more structured, stimulating environment.  That can be done at a family in-home childcare, assuming well trained caregivers who can lead the kids through real activities.

But by 3 years old, kids really benefit from having an organized early childhood education experience.  However, it doesn’t need to be all day or every day. Two to four hours is ideal…beyond that, kids are coping.  Two to four hours a day, two to three days a week is ideal up until around 4 years old.

Then for the Pre-K year (the last school year before Kindergarten), school should ideally be 3-5 days per week, 4 hours per day, with a consistent group of peers and a consistent teacher providing them with an organized learning and social experience.

Q: Any tips for easing the transition when a child starts preschool?

A: Being patient and flexible is key. Bring a security object like a lovey or blankie, or a family/parent photo for the cubby if that’s OK.  You can include cute little notes in your child’s lunch box.

You can prepare your child ahead of time by reading books about separation.  One of my favorites is The Kissing Hand (TotScoop link, Amazon link).

Most important is for the parent to communicate with the caregiver.  They need to be in agreement on a plan, so the child doesn’t get mixed messages.  Have a plan for what to do if the child cries.  Although many kids will cry at first when the parent leaves, often they’ll be totally fine five minutes later, so you just need to be brave yourself and walk out the door, trusting the caregiver to comfort your child and execute the plan you developed together.

About Parents Place and Stephanie Agnew:


Parents Place, a non-sectarian program of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, is the SF Bay Area’s leading family resource center.  From everyday issues to challenges requiring specialized assessment, we help parents, caregivers and educators support children at all ages. Our experts offer parenting workshops, parent coaching & consultation, child behavior & school support, clinical & special needs services, parent/child activity groups, and child & family therapy.  Parents Place has locations in San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin County, and Sonoma County.

Upcoming Parents Place kid classes & parent workshops cover topics from Raising a Highly Sensitive Child to Discipline 101 to Parenting Mindfully to Juggling Two.  Browse all upcoming workshops here.

Stephanie Agnew coordinates all parent workshops at Parents Place’s San Mateo location, where she also teaches classes on preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school choices; positive discipline; and behavior management for young children. She also leads teacher training workshops, consults with families on many parenting and child development issues, and observes children in their homes and at their schools. An expert in early childhood education, Stephanie taught in Palo Alto area preschools for 20 years and owned a preschool for 5 years. She received additional professional training at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree.