There is a lot to consider when choosing a preschool, with an overwhelming choice of curriculums, facilities, fees, working hours and much more. Use this simple 5-Step Guide to narrow down the possibilities, and learn to spot good practice
With 30 years of teaching experience, friends often ask for my advice on how to select an early years setting for their child.
I realise the process can be quite confronting for those without recent direct experience of the education sector. Many find the choices overwhelming, with such a wide range of locations, curricula and working hours available. There is no simple answer, as the needs of every family and every child are different. Set out below is my simple step-by-step guide to working through the process so you can make a rational and informed decision that is right for you.
STEP 1: Research Phase - Develop Your Own Requirements
Begin with some general research on the range of offerings available in your area. From this, develop your broad requirements by considering what you need from a nursery and what you hope to achieve by enrolling your little one. Issues to consider are:
A primary factor used to be location - finding the kindergarten closest to my home or work. While this remains important, many parents are now driving further each day to access childcare that more closely meets their needs. You need to realistically evaluate your own situation:
- do I have daily access to a car, or will I use other arrangements?
- how much traveling time am I prepared to invest daily?
- what will this cost?
This will give you a feel for the areas you can realistically look - obviously, the further you are prepared to travel, the more chance you have of finding your ideal setting.
Consider what you will be doing while your little one is in nursery. For example:
- if you are returning to work, you may need a nursery that offers extended hours to suit your start and finish times
- if you are dropping off and picking up other children from school, how will this work? What order will you do this?
Most nurseries will offer some form of early drop-off and late pick-up, but you need to check the timings work for you.
Now might be a good time to research the different curricula available, and whether you have any strong preference for one over the others.
Popular options are:
EYFS: this stands for the Early Years Foundation Stage, the curriculum used in England. It is widely used in English-speaking international schools and is highly regarded as a modern, flexible option. See here for a good overview of the EYFS.
Montessori: this is also a popular international curriculum, with a reputation for fostering independence.
Reggio Emelia: this style of teaching encourages a child's natural development, placing a strong emphasis on natural products, recycling and creativity.
All modern early years curricula are child-centred, encouraging creativity and inquiry. The way the curriculum is implemented, and the underlying ethos and values of the nursery, are often a more important factor than the curriculum itself. A bit of research at this stage will go a long way when you later visit the nurseries for yourself, to see them in action.
Many first-time parents are shocked by the cost of childcare! Do some research on the range of fees in your area (including any additional charges), and any limitations you might have with your budget.
Remember, salaries are the largest part of the operating cost of any nursery or school. The quantity and quality of staff have a direct impact on learning outcomes, so never select on the basis of lowest cost alone. However, you need to develop a clear understanding of what you are prepared to pay, and be ready to evaluate during your site visits whether the setting is offering good value for money.
STEP 2: Make a Shortlist
Armed with the data from Step 1, draw up a shortlist of nurseries that appear to meet your requirements. Most people will use a combination of:
- Google maps: this allows you to search for nurseries in a particular area, read customer reviews, and create your own shortlist
- online forums and directories for your location
- referrals from friends and family
- the preschools' own websites
All reputable settings these days will have professional websites, with all the details you need regarding curriculum, fees, operating hours and more. You can also pick-up quite a few valuable pointers about the setting from a study of their website, such as:
- is it maintained and up-to-date?
- is it well written, complete and helpful?
- do the photos show enough greenery and outdoor space?
- do the classrooms look well furnished and equipped?
- can I relate to the ethos and priorities of this setting?
The aim is to develop a shortlist of a small number of nurseries worth visiting in person.
STEP 3: Arrange Some Visits
With your shortlist in hand, it is time to arrange some visits to view the nurseries in action and meet some of the staff.
I would try to arrange all the visits mid-morning, where possible. You will then see the nursery at its most industrious, before some of the young children start to become tired and fractious. I would also take my child with me, as this is an opportunity to gauge how the staff interact with him/her.
STEP 4: What to Look For During Your Visit
The majority of first-time parents, unless they work in education, have little idea what to expect from a nursery visit and are unable to critically evaluate what they see. To maximise the value of your visit it is essential you have a broad understanding of what “good education” looks like in practice:
Watch how staff and children interact:
Adults should be interacting in a meaningful way, kneeling or bending down so that they are at the child's eye level. Language should be positive and nurturing, asking open ended and thought-provoking questions to extend the child and their thinking.
Trusting relationships are key to effective learning in the early years. Observe how the more boisterous children are managed. Clear and consistent guidance is key, but this must be delivered in a positive and constructive manner. Constantly saying “No!” or telling children what they cannot do is poor practice - young children are not “naughty”, they just need their boundaries setting more explicitly.
These positive relationships are hard to define but, with a bit of planning, you will quickly form a view during your tour.
Classrooms should be busy and purposeful:
Children learn through play throughout the early years, so you would expect lots of activity with children mostly working on their own or in small groups. It takes planning and organisation to keep a class of young children engaged, so this is where a well implemented curriculum comes in - I would expect to see evidence of the week's planning document on the wall somewhere, with all the activities and resources planned in advance.
There should be children's work on display throughout. Be suitably sceptical of “perfect” artwork, as this will probably have been completed by staff!
Children should be active and interested:
Young children will not sit for more than 15-20 minutes at a time - they have short attention spans and bundles of energy. Large groups all working on the same task (such as worksheets) is a warning sign - they will quickly become bored and disengaged by closed-end tasks that require no creativity or experimentation from them.
Instead, expect lots of outdoor time and open-ended, unstructured tasks. Children should be working in small groups, using their own imagination and following their own interests and initiative. This is not a free-for-all: they should be actively overseen and guided by staff, who are watchful and encouraging, but not constantly doing tasks for them.
Playgrounds should have ample space, with a significant amount of the day spent outdoors. There should be space to run and cycle, physical challenges such as climbing frames, and well defined areas for activities such as art, sand and water play.
Effective education in the early years should encourage independence and inquiry in young children. On your tour, look for evidence that:
- some toys and equipment are at child-height, so they have the freedom to choose what to play with
- children are playing on their own or with small groups of friends - they should only spend a very small part of the day on whole-group activities
- there is an expectation that children do as much as possible (depending on age) for themselves. Do they feed themselves? Do they put their own shoes on? Are they expected to tidy up? Who carries their bags?
Safety and Security:
Check there is a safe drop-off / pick-up area where you can get young children in and out of the car away from dangerous traffic. Also check entry on and off the site is secure so unauthorised visitors are deterred and young children cannot leave un-noticed.
Does the area look clean and well-cared for? Is it well maintained?
STEP 5: Questions to Ask During Your Visit
The quality of staff is the main determinant of the effectiveness of a preschool, so take time to speak to them. In particular:
- Do the senior staff have your trust? Do they appear knowledgeable and confident?
- Do the staff appear happy and work together as a team?
- Ask about staff turnover. High turnover rates may be a sign of underlying problems (although there can be other factors at play).
Events and Parental Involvement:
Ask to see the main events planned for the year. I would expect to see the calendar planned out well in advance, with regular opportunities for the whole school community to come together as a group. Examples might include performances, parades, fund raisers, sports day etc. These are an important opportunity for parents to share the nursery experience with their little ones, and interact socially with staff and other parents.
Communications and Reporting:
Ask how parents receive updates on their child's progress and well-being. This will likely take several forms:
- expect a daily update on sleep patterns, eating and general wellness. Some settings use a mobile app for this, while others rely on a communication booklet
- most will provide a weekly or monthly overview on the activities planned for the nursery, and how you can support your child with their learning
- ask about formal progress reports, which you can expect at least annually. These document your child's development, and can be a useful record if you change nursery or move on to mainstream schooling.
Decision Time - bringing it all together
Choosing a suitable nursery is intensely personal, and depends on multiple factors. By following this simple 5-step guide you will be able to make a rational and well-informed choice.
Remember that academics are not the primary factor at this early age. Nursery should be a place where children are happy, learn to love school and develop their confidence and inquiry. The final decision often comes down to a gut feeling - if you feel happy with a nursery, the chances are that your little one will too.
Written by Lyn Webster
Lyn is a Founder/Director of Acorn Nurseries and AWIS - Al Wataniya International School.
She is a long-time resident of Qatar, having first lived here in 1977. She is a UK-qualified teacher with over 30 years of experience leading education institutions (from Preschool to High School) in the Middle East.