Choosing a Preschool

When it comes to choosing a school, the more we know the betterwe are at finding the school that’s right for each individualchild. And finding the best preschool for your unique childrequires research. Most of parents need to find a good preschoolfor their little ones before kindergarten either for childcare,education or both. This is in part due to the increasing numbersof working mothers of very young children. The result is a largeamount of parents who are searching for guidelines to selecting aquality preschool program.

There are several different types of childcare settings andeven different learning philosophies within the field of EarlyChildhood Education. When you choose a preschool program, it isimportant to consider the program, the preschool staff, and thecharacteristics of your child; as well as the preschool’s physicalenvironment; and which combination of these factors will providethe best experience for your child. A vital role of parents liesin the careful selection of a preschool to ensure that the programgives your child the right start.

Characteristics of theChild

Some children are more comfortable in large groups and will dowell in preschools that have large classes. However, if your childis uncomfortable in a crowd, look for a preschool that offerssmall classes. A child who is especially fond of vigorous physicalactivities and outdoor play may need a preschool that has goodoutdoor space and equipment and that emphasizes physicalactivities in its schedule. Since children’s temperaments vary,each child’s level of comfort in large or free-play activitiesshould be considered when trying to meet his or her special needs.Whereas most active, outgoing children may react positively tosituations where multiple activities are going on within one area,other children may feel more comfortable and safe whenparticipating in more structured activities.

Characteristics of the Program

The directors of good programs usually encourage parentslooking for a preschool to visit at any time with their children,but calling ahead for an appointment shows courtesy to the staffand will ensure that the director has time to talk with you.Parents should visit as many preschools as possible before makinga choice. If you are making such visit, give yourself time to geta feeling for the classroom’s general atmosphere and the extent towhich children appear comfortable and involved. A good educationaland organizational climate is usually indicated by friendlinessamong the staff and children. Children in a good preschool areusually not easily distracted by visitors and continue to beabsorbed in their work or play. When children rush toward visitorsand stay close to them, abandoning their activities, it verylikely indicates that activities fo not stimulate or interest thechildren enough.

Ask the following questions about the preschool:

  • Does the program have a clear written statement of its goalsand philosophy?
  • Do the goals address all areas of a child’s development,including his or her social, emotional, intellectual, andphysical development?
  • Does the preschool offer a balance of individual,small-group, and large group activities; and spontaneous playand teacher-guided activities?
  • Is there a balance between rest and quiet periods andvigorous outdoor activities?
  • Do the preschool’s activities encourage self-expression;help children to develop various motor skills; and regularlyexpose the children to literature the language arts, music,science, and nature?
  • Do the staff encourage and respond to children’s naturalinterests in reading, writing, and counting?
  • Does the preschool provide snacks and meals that aresufficiently nutritious?
  • Do the staff pay attention to, and follow up on, thechildren’s interests in the world around them?
  • Do the content and materials of the preschool programreflect cultural diversity and nonsexist attitudes?

Characteristics of the Staff

Questions to ask about the program staff include:

  • Are the teachers trained in early childhood education?
  • Does the director have experience as a teacher?
  • Does the ratio of adults to children comply with staterequirements? (Check with the local branch of the state agencythat regulates preschool programs.)
  • Have the staff been stable over the years?
  • Do the staff welcome parents as visitors and participants,communicate regularly with them, and respect their preferencesand ideas?
  • In their work with children, do the teachers express warmth,interest, and respect for each child?
  • Are the teachers engaged with the children most of the time?

Characteristics of the Physical Environment

Questions to ask about the

physical setting:

  • Is there an attractive, spacious outdoor area for safe,vigorous activities?
  • Is there a sufficient supply of equipment?
  • Are children always supervised when outdoors?
  • Can children find small, quiet places in the room if theywant to?


As a parent, you will want to assess how well a preschoolprogram will satisfy your needs and preferences. When looking fora preschool, you can start by contacting a local child careresource and referral agency. Most preschool programs must conformto state regulations and satisfy minimum standards of health andsafety. Even so, it is a good idea to ask the staff whether theprogram is up to date with its state license and is accredited bythe National Association for the Education of Young Children.Studies also suggest that preschools are more likely to offerhigh-quality programs when the number of children is enough toallow the staff to get to know all the children and theirfamilies. Whenever possible, it is helpful to speak to otherparents who have children in the program about their experiencesand recommendations. 

1. Interview Caregivers

Call First


  • Is there an opening for my child?
  • What hours and days are you open and where are you located?
  • How much does care cost? Is financial assistance available?
  • How many children are in your care?
  • What age groups do you serve?
  • Do you provide transportation?
  • Do you provide meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks)?
  • Do you have a license, accreditation, or othercertification?
  • When can I come to visit?

Visit Next (Visit more than once, stay as long as you can!)

Look for….

  • Responsive, nurturing, warm interactions between caregiverand children.
  • Children who are happily involved in daily activities andcomfortable with their caregiver.
  • A clean, safe, and healthy indoor and outdoor environment,especially napping, eating and toileting areas.
  • A variety of toys and learning materials, such as books,puzzles, blocks, and climbing equipment, that your child willfind interesting and which will contribute to their growth anddevelopment.
  • Children getting individual attention.


  • Can I visit at any time?
  • How do you handle discipline?
  • What do you do if a child is sick?
  • What would you do in case of an emergency?
  • What training have you (and other staff/substitutes) had?
  • Are all children and staff required to be immunized?
  • May I see a copy of your license or other certification?
  • Do you have a substitute or back-up caregiver?
  • May I have a list of parents (current and former) who haveused your care?
  • Where do children nap? 
  • Do you know that babies should go to sleep on their backs?

2. Check References

Ask other parents….

  • Was the caregiver reliable on a daily basis?
  • How did the caregiver discipline your child?
  • Did your child enjoy the child care experience?
  • How did the caregiver respond to you as a parent?
  • Was the caregiver respectful of your values and culture?
  • Would you recommend the caregiver without reservation?
  • If your child is no longer with the caregiver, why did youleave?

Ask the local child care resource and referral program orlicensing office….

  • What regulations should child care providers meet in
    my area?
  • Is there a record of complaints about the child careprovider I am considering and how do I find out about it?

3. Make the Decision for Quality Care

From what you heard and saw, ask yourself….

  • Which child care should I choose so that my child
    will be happy and grow?
  • Which caregiver can meet the special needs of my child?
  • Are the caregiver’s values compatible with my family’svalues?
  • Is the child care available and affordable according to myfamily’s needs and resources?
  • Do I feel good about my decision?

4. Stay Involved

Ask yourself….

  • How can I arrange my schedule so that I can…
  • Talk to my caregiver every day?
  • Talk to my child every day about how the day went?
  • Visit and observe my child in care at different times
    of the day?
  • Be involved in my child’s activities?
  • How can I work with my caregiver to resolve issues andconcerns that may arise?
  • How do I keep informed about my child’s growth anddevelopment while in care?
  • How can I promote good working conditions for my child careprovider?
  • How can I network with other parents?

These steps are only the beginning. Gather as much informationas possible to help you find the best care for your child. To findthe Child Care Resource and Referral Program nearest you, callChild Care Aware: (800) 424-2246. For more complete guidelines onhealth and safety in child care, call the National Resource Centerfor Health and Safety in Child Care: (800) 598-KIDS (5437).

Where To Get More Information:

Child Care Action Campaign

330 Seventh Avenue, 17th Floor

New York, NY 10001o (212) 239-0138

Child Care Aware (800) 424-2246

ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and

Early Childhood Education

University Illinois

805 West Pennsylvania Avenue

Urbana, IL 61801-4897o (217) 333-1386 or

(800) 583-4135 

Family Resource Coalition

200 South Michigan Avenue, Suite 1520

Chicago, IL 60604 or (312) 341-0900

National Association for the Education

of Young Children (NAEYC)

1509 16th Street NW Washington, DC 20036 (202) 232-8777 or (800)424-2460

National Association of

Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies

2116 Campus Drive SE

Rochester, MN 55904 o (507) 287-2020

The National PTA

330 No. Wabash Avenue, Suite 2100

Chicago, IL 60611-3690 or (312) 951-6782

National Association of State Boards of Education

1012 Cameron Street

Alexandria, VA 22314 o (703) 684-4000

National Resource Center for Health

and Safety in Child Care

(800) 598-KIDS(5437)

About WF Staff

Washington FAMILY Staff

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