Little Kids

How to choose a preschool

From Montessori to High/Scope, here's what you need to know about finding the right fit for your little one

By Lana Button
How to choose a preschool

Laurie Sheehan of Burnaby, BC, didn’t think she needed to spend a lot of time researching preschools for her three-year-old son, Simon. “The neighbourhood preschool seemed fine,” she says. But soon it was obvious the boisterous, play-focused program wasn’t bringing out the best in her son. “He’s not a big fan of crowds or rowdy play. He didn’t want to go to school,” Sheehan recalls.

So she shopped around and found a spot at a preschool with fewer children, a more structured environment and a teacher sensitive to Simon’s needs. Although getting to and from the new school added time to Sheehan’s commute, she says the move was worthwhile: “Simon just bloomed in that environment.”

Different from daycare, which is designed to provide full-day and year-round care and learning for young children whose parents are at work, preschool (sometimes called nursery school) is often a stay-at-home kid’s first taste of structured learning. And depending on where you live, there may be several preschool programs to choose from, each varying not only in what they teach but also in how they teach. Some have large blocks of free playtime with a very short “circle time” for group learning each day; some have no group learning times at all. Others are more structured, with lengthy “learning circles,” where children sit and listen for extended periods of time — stimulating for some, but utter torture for others.

This guide to some of the most popular types of preschools will help you choose one that works with your child’s personality and learning style.
Montessori means academic

Preschools that follow the Montessori learning theory are academic and structured. Children work alone or in small groups at specific “learning areas,” focusing on subjects like math or reading. Lessons use traditional Montessori materials: sandpaper letters and numbers that children trace (which introduce printing skills); a “dressing frame,” where children practise lacing, buttoning, buckling and other practical skills; and the “pink tower,” a set of blocks meant to be put together in one particular way (developing math skills). Many Montessori kids are reading by kindergarten.

May be right for your child if she’s independent, has a long attention span and likes structure. It’s especially appropriate if academics are high on your list of priorities. Private elementary and even secondary schools exist in some communities for families who want to continue their children’s education in this style.

Find out more at

Imagination is the thing at Waldorf

There are no direct academics taught at a Waldorf preschool. Instead, Waldorf-trained teachers offer lots of opportunities for imaginary play and hands-on learning such as baking, building and gardening. You won’t find writing tools or even many books here; pre-reading and -writing skills are taught through storytelling and singing.

Your child may thrive at a Waldorf preschool, and you may have the choice of enrolling her in a private Waldorf school up to grade 12, if there’s one in your area. But if you plan for her to attend a public kindergarten, note that she’ll be expected to have some traditional skills, such as holding a writing tool and recognizing letters, that she won’t have covered at Waldorf.

May be right for your child if he’s an imaginative free spirit who learns best when he’s physically involved in an activity, and if you feel comfortable with a learning theory that doesn’t focus on traditional pre-reading and pre-writing skills.

Find out more at
Getting creative at Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Emilia approach sees every child as a creative child. These schools promote learning, language and social development through creative art experiences.

Children are given access to lots of art materials, such as clay, easels, markers and small items from the environment (shells, twigs etc.), and are encouraged to work on long-term group art projects, like collages and sculptures. The Reggio approach is used in some private elementary schools as well.

May be right for your child if she loves drawing, crafts and colours.

Find out more at

High/Scope is about active learning

Many preschools and daycare centres use this popular learning theory, which can be summed up in three words: “Plan, do, review.” Children make an independent choice about where they’ll play; this may be in the “house area,” where they are involved in imaginary group play, or in the “sand and water area,” where they learn science skills. At the end of each session, the teacher leads a circle time gathering of up to 15 minutes, where children discuss what they learned. There are private elementary schools and even some public schools that use the High/Scope learning approach.

May be right for your child if he’s a planner and tends to like having control over his environment. If he can sit through a lengthy circle time, you might find that High/Scope is the perfect balance between academic and social learning.

Find out more at

Learn through play in play-based programs

Children explore activities centred around a weekly or monthly theme through plenty of free playtime. During “bear week,” teachers may set out crafts involving bears and read bear stories aloud.

Play-based programs encourage spontaneous play instead of the “plan, do, review” schedule used at High/Scope schools. They are typically more laid-back and might use ideas from a combination of learning approaches. These programs don’t continue beyond preschool.

May be right for your child if he’s active, enjoys socializing with large groups of children and doesn’t mind noisy play, and your preschool focus is primarily social.

Find out more by reading Dorothy Einon’s book How Children Learn Through Play.
What to consider in any preschool program

• Does it fit your family’s schedule? Many preschools don’t offer full-day child care. Preschool typically runs 2½ hours, either in the morning or afternoon, and follows the school calendar — meaning they’re closed during the traditional summer, Christmas and spring breaks. Some preschools may offer a choice of classes either two or three alternate days per week or the full five days per week. Consider how much school your child can handle.

• What does the tuition fee cover? Some schools charge extra for lunch programs, transportation, specialty classes and regular field trips.

• Is your child ready? Most programs start at age 2½, and many require that children are potty trained. Some parents enroll their four- and five-year-olds in preschool as an alternative to public junior or even senior kindergarten.

• What is the school’s learning approach? Make sure you agree with it.

• Are the teachers qualified? Preschools fall under provincial licensing regulations, which ensure only that facilities meet minimum standards. Make sure the teachers have Early Childhood Education (ECE) certification, as well as extra training for
particular learning approaches (Waldorf, Montessori, etc.).

• What do you want your child to gain? Are your goals mainly social (you hope he’ll learn to share and take turns) or academic (you want him to learn specific reading, printing and math skills before kindergarten)? Or are you most concerned that your child gain independence (you want him to get accustomed to being at school and away from you)? Choose a program that will help you and your child achieve those goals.

• How long are the group learning sessions? Can you see your child sitting still for that long?

• How many children are in the classroom? Consider whether your child will be comfortable with the potential noise level.

• What are the opportunities for indoor and outdoor play? Make sure they meet your child’s need to burn off steam.

This article was originally published on Aug 04, 2008

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