Everyone has different priorities for daycares and preschools but most parents I’ve spoken to, their priorities are all logistical or towards features.
They’d like a daycare that’s on the way to work, or they really want their preschool to have webcams so they can check in on their kid during the day, or they want a center with a big outdoor space.
However, when it comes to recognizing the factors that have a big impact on their child’s experience, and the hallmarks of a well-run daycare or preschool or even private kindergarten vs the red flags of a poorly run one, most have no idea what to look for.
I’ve been a Early Childhood Educator for over 10 years now, and I’ve been an early interventionist for over 15- so I have quite a bit of experience with every stripe of care situation you can imagine.
I’ve also spent the last 6 years of my career working with parents from all over the world and it always breaks my heart when a client obviously put a lot of thought into choosing a daycare or preschool, only to actually get into the program and realize that they completely overlooked some important factors and are then stuck scrambling to find a more suitable situation.
Factors to Look for in a Preschool
What I advise my clients to look for in a preschool, and why.
First, Ask for a Guidance Policy in Writing
The very first thing I do when I start looking into any care situation for a child is to ask every institution I’m considering for guidance policy in writing.
I don’t care if it’s a PDF they email over or whether I have to go pick up a 3-inch binder.
I want the policy they’ve drafted that lays out how my child’s behavior will be handled.
It’s a very telling document and not just the contents of it are telling.
You would be floored how many daycares and preschools I’ve asked for this document that don’t have one.
They can often talk a good game about how they handle misbehavior and even give some example scenarios but the problem with not having a written guidance policy is that you can’t be sure everyone who comes in contact with your child will be following the same premise or is trained on how to properly handle challenging situations.
If there’s no documentation, how can you train someone on it?
It also leaves everything they say open to interpretation, and if there’s ever a conflict between you and the teacher you have nothing to refer to explain why your trust was violated or why you feel they handled the situation incorrectly.
It’s your word against theirs.
Right off the bat, if they don’t have a written guidance policy…. that’s a HUGE red flag, run.
Once you have it, you want to read it thoroughly.
This document details how your child will be handled at their most vulnerable. How do they handle aggression?
How do they handle conflicts between peers?
How do they handle dysregulation?
Are out-of-date practices like time-outs, spanking, or restraint and seclusion used?
Before you roll your eyes physical punishment is still entirely legal in most American states.
I’ve had two clients in the last two years who were horrified to discover that their toddlers had been spanked one with an open hand, the other with a paddle for pretty minor behavior incidents.
Once they read the guidance policy it was actually clearly stated that the teachers had the option to use physical punishment at their discretion.
Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.
READ THE DOCUMENT, note anything that is unclear and ask for clarification.
Of course, if there’s anything that makes you uncomfortable, run. Child-centered, collaboration, restorative justice, natural and logical consequences, self-regulation, mediation these are all buzz words that are usually green flags.
Second, Play-Centred Curriculum
The second thing you want to look for is a play-centred curriculum.
“Play-based” is a term that you’ll hear thrown around a lot but really all play-based has come to mean is that it’s still an adult-led program where academics are taught under the guise of playful activities.
Play-centred means that play is at the root of everything.
It’s what the entire day is centered around.
Another good sign is the use of emergent curriculum, which really means that the curriculum is built off of the interests of the children in the room, and the early academics are embedded in that.
I worked in a preschool that was down the street from a fire station that was very active and the kids all quickly became obsessed with all things firefighter.
Instead of trying to interest the kids in other topics, the educators leaned into it and they set up a play fire station, they went for a visit to the fire station, they read books about firefighters. While visiting the fire station they’d asked the firefighters stuff like what do you eat? And that became what the kids ate at snack time.
They researched how fires were put out and they actually were building fires with the kids and testing fire extinguishers. They counted pieces of equipment. They talked about how different places used different colors for fire trucks and uniforms.
All the aspects of a preschool were there but they used the kids’ natural interest in something that was present in their real lives to deliver that information and make it relevant to the kids.
Another example was a daycare I was in that had a new menu designed with a dietician and because of that they swapped the vanilla yogurt the kids were eating to plain yogurt.
The kids were pissed.
They did an entire exploration of yogurt and sugar and how different cultures ate yogurt and with what and they went to visit a dairy farm and a dairy processing plant. Based off their explorations they brainstormed healthy things they could mix in with the plain yogurt to make it taste better.
They tested and took polls of which brand of plain yogurt the kids liked best, and then they repeated that process with the mix-ins.
It was all emerging from an interest in their real lives, and it was all centered around playing.
This is how children learn.
Anywhere that is still having “theme months” that have nothing to do with the children’s expressed interests, or that have restrictive play centers, where the children have a really packed schedule run.
All these things indicate they haven’t updated their program since the 80s and it turns out that was 35ish years ago now.
Third, Outside Time
To that same end you want to look at the amount of time the children will be outside.
The accepted amount of time children should be outside every day is 8 hours.
Now, absolutely nobody is doing that other than forest preschoolers but…
You want to be guaranteed outside time.
Many jurisdictions have the amount of time a child is legally required to be outside embedded in their care laws.
For instance in Ontario, a child in 8 hours of care must be outside a minimum of 2 hours every day.
That’s written into the Child Care and Early Years Act.
Go google your local care laws it’s the 21st century, they should be online and available for you to read.
At minimum you want them to be aware of and enforcing the law local to you. If that law is under 1 hour for every 4 in care, or if they have no specified time outdoors, that’s what you want to look for as a minimum. 1 in 4.
Playing outside has so many developmental benefits.
It’s a perfectly balanced sensory environment. There are so many opportunities for imaginative play.
Adults tend to be less involved in outdoor play so there’s more child-led play. There are opportunities for the illusion of risk and the illusion of privacy.
All of these things are vital for our children’s optimal development.
You want to make sure that your child is going to get those opportunities. If you live in a climate that’s extreme like Canada in the winter or Texas in the summer, you want written guidelines for what constitutes extreme weather and what the alternative is.
Fourth, Expectation to Sit and for How Long
Another thing to look for is how much the children are expected to sit, and for how long.
Circle time, or “meetings”- should be no more than 5 minutes for a child up to 4 years old, and 10 minutes for 5 and 6 years old.
Anything longer than that is extremely developmentally inappropriate.
It’s setting them up for failure.
Another good indicator of this is how the room is set up.
Are chairs and tables the center of the classroom design, or is it mostly open space for play?
If the tables and chairs are the center of the classroom design, that likely means that they expect the children to spend a significant amount of time sitting and doing table-top activities, which is developmentally inappropriate.
There should be a rest space that provides the illusion of isolation.
Being in care all day can be exhausting, and we want there to be provisions for children who need a break from people-ing.
This can be a quiet corner, a tent, those big wood cubes with circles cut in the sides that seem to be popular, large foam blocks to build a fort…it doesn’t have to be permanent, but it has to be available.
In my experience, settings that don’t have available space for the illusion of isolation have way more behavior challenges in the classroom than ones that do.
The ability to be on your own, or feel like you’re on your own, is often vital for children who are feeling hyperaroused or unsafe for whatever reason and having it available is a sign that the educators are aware that some kids need space sometimes.
Something else to consider is the art on display.
Does it look like small adults do it?
If so, either the children in this center are all fine arts prodigies, or the adults actually did it. We want art that looks like toddlers did it even if that means it doesn’t look like anything at all.
For toddlers and preschoolers, art is about the process not the product.
You want them to explore the materials and create from their imagination.
It’s the best fine motor practice there is. It allows them opportunities to practice representation which is the first step to learning to write letters.
It’s an emotional control practice space too because expressing yourself with colours and textures is a way of communicating how you feel.
When children are forced to replicate crafts that adults have done, we remove all those benefits.
Look at the art that’s displayed does it all look the same? Run.
If it all looks wildly different and borderline indistinguishable that’s a good sign.
Five, Ask About Their Definition of Inclusion
Ask them if they are inclusive of children of all abilities, identities, races, and ethnicities.
Ask for examples of how they meaningfully include these children in the program.
If they don’t have an answer for you…RUN!
Inclusion isn’t just important for the children who are being included for the “different” kids.
It’s important for all kids because the inclusion or exclusion of children from any given program sends powerful messages to the children participating about how we interact with people who are different from us.
If your prospective center passed the emergent curriculum test but not the inclusion test- something is very wrong because the curriculum should be built to suit the students in the class.
If you have a class with an autistic child in the program, the curriculum and how the class runs should be altered to reflect the needs of the autistic children and it should be altered for all the children.
Otherwise, it’s integration.
They allow “different” kids to enroll, but they aren’t making any adjustments to ensure that child is actually able to fully participate in the program and that’s contemptuous.
If we’re going to raise a generation of children who are accepting of others, who aren’t perpetuating racism, ableism, misogyny, classism, homophobia, transphobia, etc…we need to ensure that the children in the classroom are being celebrated and included meaningfully as they are.
This means that the rules, the norms, the routine, everything is shaped by the children in the class now.
Those are my checkpoints for choosing a care situation.
I know it’s a big job, and often a frustrating one but given that most childcare centers and preschools in North America are private businesses the more parents ask these questions, share concerns when there aren’t answers and don’t enroll their children in settings that don’t meet these standards, The more change we’ll see.
Our parents and their demands created these settings- and bless them, they did the best they could with what they had but it’s 40ish years later now, and we have had more child development research done in that 40 years than we did in the 100 before that.
Our demands are going to create more inclusive, child-centered, developmentally appropriate settings.
We have that power.
If you need some support in making a decision, or you don’t know how to interpret something a potential setting has given you- come join us in the Parenting Posse and we have over 10 thousand parents who are more than willing to help you talk it through.
If you’re trying to decide about specific philosophies like Reggio Emelia or Montessori, we have blog posts on each of these theorists and what their approaches entailed so you can make an informed decision about that.