Preschool - sounds like a big scary word, especially when you have just about mastered the challenges of infancy and got used to the quirks of toddlers.
Early education is considered critical today, but it wasn't such a big deal in our days, some 25-odd years ago when Sharma Aunty's spare room with wooden peg puzzles and Noddy posters was as good a playschool as any.
Over time however, with research showing the positive impact of early education on a child's social and academic life, choosing the right playschool become as life-altering as selecting a business school.
Preschools, in their current avatar, are educational institutions for children too young for primary schools. They provide an environment to discover and explore freely within the various areas of development and are recommended as a supplement to learning at home.
Now accepted as being necessary to provide a child the building blocks for their academic journey, preschools also introduce important social skills -- learning how to follow directions, interact with others, work in a group or part of a team and to relate to grownups who aren't their parents. Preschools usually take in children from 2+, though each school has a different policy regarding this.
Some preschools also have parent and child sessions separate from their regular programmes for children younger than 2. Also, most preschools graduate their students when they are around 4 years of age and ready to enter 'big' school in the Nursery (lower KG) level. There are some preschools however which have their own Nursery and Kindergarten levels and graduate students at age 5 or 6 years.
Making the right choice - but how?
Since this is probably the first major 'life-impacting' decision we make for our kids, it is bound to be a bit daunting.
Having said that, may we also add that this should be no cause for stress, as there are many good choices available to parents today. As long as you are not insistent on a particular brand or chain, you will find many reputed preschools that can give your child a great experience.
How do we know which one is right for our child? Well, there's no single answer for that, no fixed formula that will please all, since each parent looks for a different order of priorities when evaluating a preschool.
What's right for the Sharmas may not be appropriate for the Aggarwals. Some schools may have a swanky infrastructure but less experienced teachers, while some may be have the best team of caregivers in more modest surroundings.
Sometimes if everything else fits your requirements, the fees may be way above your budget. Whatever your priorities, do ensure that you evaluate these key parameters during your selection process:
Talk to other parents
A good way to start is to talk with your friends and neighbours about preschools in your area. You can learn about schools with fine reputations and see what kind of experiences their children have had at them. Meet the people involved
The promoters, teachers and teacher's aides - these are the people who will introduce your child to life outside the comfortable safe and secure environment of home. More than an imposing building and bright colourful classrooms, you need to be impressed by the people who run the school and those who will teach your child.
Start by checking if the teacher-student ratio is suitable to provide each child appropriate attention. Are the teachers qualified to deal with children of this age or are they just bored housewives passing time with a convenient job?
As critical as their experience and qualification is their approach towards the children and whether they share a similar wavelength with you.
What methodology does the school follow?
Different preschools follow different philosophies of education. Many are based on the 'playway' methodology or 'learning by doing'. Many others are based on the works of Italian educator Maria Montessori, many are so-called traditional preschools, some follow the Reggio Emilia approach and so on.
First, be advised that there's only so much you can learn by a school's label-for instance the term "Montessori" means many different things to different administrators and teachers. However impressive sounding the label may be, always ask the school to spell out their individual philosophy and teaching methods for you. For example:
-To what extent are children allowed to make choices about what they learn and when? How much of the activity is teacher-directed versus child-directed?
-Is learning regimented or are children given a chance to express their creativity and learn independence.
-How holistic is the school in its educational ideas? That is, does it take children's social and emotional growth and developing values as seriously as it takes the Three R's?
-Ask how the school deals with discipline and conflict - do they believe children should work things out themselves? Do they believe in "time outs"?
It's important that you agree with a school's disciplinary approach and trust their judgment - small children have a hard time with mixed messages.
Check the infrastructure and safety precautions
It is critical to gauge if the environment, people and activities seem pleasing to you, and will they suit your child's personality? Even if you don't care for snazzy play areas and expensive gizmos, it is a good idea to get a feel of the teaching aids and play equipment that the school employs.
Does the environment of the school support the philosophy of the school, by stimulating their minds and supporting creative expression?
Also the quality of play equipment, its location and layout will also give an indication of how the school ensures student safety. Another critical safety concern is how the school keeps track of students at drop and dispersal time.
Is there adequate parent involvement
Depending on how actively involved in the school you want to be, you may want to find out how actively does the school seek out parents' ideas as well as their help? Some schools have an open door policy for parents while some are very strict about parent visits, restricting them to set days for observation. But most importantly, find out how the school plans to keep you updated about your child's progress and what their policy for interaction with teachers is.
Convenience of location
Transportation is another important real-world consideration. A child who has to spend an hour in the car or on a bus to get to a really great preschool might arrive too tired out or antsy to learn. Going to school close to home can also make it easy to continue friendships after school and on weekends.
However, for those children who go to school near where their parents work, time spent in the car with their parents can be turned into quality time, and it's often easier for parents to be readily available in the event that they are needed. Whatever your situation may be, transportation considerations should be factored into your decision.
How long is the day?
Most preschool programs are for 3 hours only. In order to accommodate families where both parents work outside the home, some preschools offer day care facilities as well i.e. extended hours where time is set aside for more home-like activities (snacks in morning and afternoon, an afternoon nap, quiet playing, lots of free play later in the day). Work out your time requirement before making your shortlist.
Visit and experience first hand
Trust your instinct - that first impulse when you walk into a school. Does the atmosphere seem warm and joyful? Ask for a tour of the facilities and observe carefully to get answers to all your questions. Even pictures hanging on the notice boards can give some clues to the school's philosophy - do all the drawings look too perfect to be made by preschoolers, do they support imagination etc.
Monetary considerations are also on the list of selection criteria, but that is probably the most black and white decision you have to make - either you can afford a particular school's fee or you can't. With the rest of the parameters, you will have to juggle them around, compensating one for the other until you finally decide on the preschool that will give your child a wonderful and happy introduction to education.
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