Shopping for a Preschool?
I'm fairly sure I wouldn't be writing any of this if my significant other hadn't found himself with way too much time on his hands one September a couple of years ago.
He was changing careers, you see, which meant he had two months off to focus (okay, obsess) on life outside of work. Doing the morning drop-offs with our 3-year-old, Lucy, he soon noticed that things had changed at her preschool. I had to agree. It was hard to put our finger on it though. Lucy loved the play structures (a pirate ship and a castle), the flock of chickens and ducks chattering out back, the garden with a real waterfall. But the books and puzzles no longer seemed challenging enough. The plastic food, the fairy costumes now struck me as played out. Our adventurous daughter seemed, well, bored.
Lucy's dad had been a Montessori kid, and though he couldn't remember what he'd done in preschool, he knew he'd been happy and stimulated, and he was sure Lucy would be too. There was a Montessori school just a three-Barney-song ride away. It had huge, sun-drenched classrooms and the teachers seemed wonderfully attuned to each kid. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I loved how the little girls dressed: in spotless frocks and party tights, so unlike Lucy's wardrobe of paint-and-play-dough-smeared T-shirts. I gave in. Flash forward two months, me sobbing into my pillow: "I just want Lucy to play!" On the other side of the bed, Mr. Montessori Dad is having second thoughts of his own. Don't get me wrong — Lucy adjusted to the new school well, with a minimum of tears and tantrums. She seemed more intellectually captivated, yes, but the Montessori approach was a major shock to all our systems, so different from the groovy Romper Room we had left behind. (For one thing, practically everything the kids did in the classroom was called "work.") How had we missed the differences?
It was, um, easy. A classroom visit tells you next to nothing about the real distinctions between preschools. Everyone spouts the same trendy, soothing phrases — ever heard of a preschool that wasn't "child-centered"? — that turn out to mean very different things to different teachers (and to you). But they slide over the crucial stuff, like, as one mom told me, the school that made all the kids who wet their pants go home in shame-shame red shorts.
Most schools aren't purist anyway. They're a little bit of this philosophy and that, blended into something unique by the teachers and administrators whose vision and hard work keep the place running. So, then: Do the differences even matter? According to everyone I talked to, most kids will do fine no matter what kind of preschool you choose, as long as the staff is loving, attentive, creative, respectful, and flexible (no small feat). And the truth is at her new school, Lucy's the same happy, curious kid she's always been. I just have to use less stain remover.
It's true that kids are adaptable — but we parents not so much. We need to know the school we pick will reinforce our values. We have to like the community of families the school has created; otherwise, playdates are going to be hell. We want the best choice not just for our child, after all, but for ourselves. To that end, here's the real lowdown from parents and teachers on the five best-known preschool philosophies out there.
The theory: Young kids learn best through free play ("I'm making pizza-ice-cream soup!") and experimentation (top-heavy block towers fall). The emphasis is on activities that encourage social development — sharing, self-mastery, conflict resolution — as well as core motor and preliteracy skills (i.e., mushing play dough now helps penmanship later).
The practice: If you don't know what your preschool is, it's probably play-based. This category is ubiquitous — and also something of a catchall. Some schools are pretty structured, with teachers leading most of the activities and kids mainly doing the same things at the same time. Others break down activities into smaller, looser groups, with costume-clad kids following their whims. (At one school around here, the only rule is: Underwear must stay on.) Some places spend lots of time on ABCs, 123s, and similar kindergarten-prep topics; others are strictly social scenes.
What Parents and Teachers Say
When play's the thing, the play equipment is important — and revelatory. Look for lots of materials that encourage open-ended, imaginative play: blocks, books, puzzles, art supplies, sand, clay, dough, water, tiaras and fairy wings, a kitchen with pretend food. Do toys and materials change from week to week? That's a sign that teachers are trying to keep kids engaged. Also, be wary of too many character-branded toys. Not only can they limit kids' imaginary play to, say, reenacting their favorite Dora episodes, they can stir up serious toy-envy and sharing issues, and kids have enough of those already. Other red flags: Toys and outdoor equipment that are either over-the-top expensive (you might be hit up constantly for money) or bordering on decrepit and unsafe (the administration isn't attentive enough). At my daughter's first school, parents designed and planted the elaborate garden. These parents, not surprisingly, turned out to be creative, community-minded, can-do types — and loads of fun.
Watch how teachers supervise play. Do they offer interesting projects and encourage kids to be creative, or do they spend a lot of time directing and correcting? During recess, are they attentive to what's happening in the sandbox, or do they tend to relax, even gossip? Overall, do they seem engaged or a bit bored?
When play's the thing, kids learn to get along. My friend Trisha remembers the time her 3-year-old's preschool buddies staged an intervention (seriously): "Ellie had been hitting kids for a few weeks. My husband and I and her teacher were trying to figure out how to handle it. But one day at naptime, while Ellie was still asleep, the kids gathered and decided that when she woke up they'd take her out to the big tree, stand in a circle, and say, 'We really like you, but we can't play with you until you stop hitting,' and they did just that. Ellie nodded and said okay, and she never hit them again. No adult could have mediated — and yet not ostracized — as well as those kids did."
Find out where the preschool's students usually go to elementary school. It's a good way to tease out subtleties in a school's philosophy. My friend Susan, for example, sent all three of her daughters to preschools that claimed to be play-based, but one was a "feeder" to a top-of-the-line, super-traditional private school in San Francisco; the others led to more liberal public and private K-6s. The feeder school turned out to be stuffier (no shock), yet it was more responsive to the needs of the parents footing the bills. The other school was more kid-friendly.
Be wary of too-nice art. One South Carolina mom recalls a painting her 4-year-old made of a rainbow. It was beautiful — too beautiful. "I thought, my daughter couldn't have done that." Sure enough, all the rainbow paintings tacked to the classroom wall were identically perfect, a sign that the teacher was more interested in pleasing parents (and herself) than in letting kids experiment and express their uniqueness. The mom soon discovered that the same rigidity permeated other aspects of the school.
The theory: Young kids thrive when parents are actively involved with teachers and other parents in their children's education.
The practice: More than any other type of preschool, "co-ops are less about the individual child than about the family," says Maureen Beck, who headed one in Albany, California, for 20 years before switching to Montessori. My friend Julia thinks of her experience as Parenting 101: "Once a week, when I help out in the classroom, I get to see Sadie in action with her peers, what she likes and doesn't like, how she handles conflict. At home, I borrow a lot of strategies." Some co-ops are entirely parent operated. Others have professional directors/teachers who run the show with parent assistance. Most are play-based and modest: The facilities may not be much fancier than someone's living room and backyard. But they also can be relatively inexpensive (some are about half the cost of other preschools).
What Parents and Teachers Say
Plan on spending way more time on co-op matters than you bargained for. Julia ticks off some of the responsibilities at her daughter's school: helping out in the classroom one day a week, fund-raising, shopping for snacks, attending a monthly meeting with other parents. "If I were working full time or a single mom, there's no way I could do this." As a result, she says, the parents tend to be more homogenous than she had hoped.
Be prepared for the not-always-pleasant reality of group dynamics. Negotiating with other parents about every little aspect of your child's education can be rewarding and/or a pain in the butt. "We worked together as a team on everything — potty training, coming up with art projects, deciding what the kids would eat — and it ended up being a real community and support group," says Donna Temple of Bluffton, South Carolina. On the other hand, Bondi Nyary, of Portland, Oregon, remembers parents battling over a child who was a biter. The family began to feel ostracized, and eventually pulled out of the school. "A more professional staff would have handled things better," Bondi figures. "A co-op can work because everyone has the welfare of their kids in common," she adds. "But it can get really intense."
Some kids will have major transition issues. Other preschools have just a few teachers for kids to get used to; in Julia's co-op, there are 24-plus parents cycling through the class. "In the beginning, the transitions were so bad I was considering taking Sadie out. She wasn't even sure who the teacher was." Another potential downside: an increase in clinginess when a child's parent is on classroom duty. Says Maureen Beck, "Kids love having their parents in the classroom but also tend to be a lot more fragile when they're around."
A big payoff: Playdates are a breeze. Says Julia, "Sadie sees the other parents as teachers. They know her well too. We're all on the same page about things."
The theory: Children blossom into independent thinkers in a serene setting (or "prepared environment," as founder Maria Montessori put it), using their senses and working with materials introduced in a very deliberate way. Mixed age groups are key.
The practice: Montessori's approach is radically different from play-based programs. For one thing, they don't have toys; they use "manipulatives" to teach various skills and concepts in very concrete ways. Children don't play with the wooden beads, glass beakers, etc.; they call what they do "work," and they mostly do it independently. There's a strong emphasis on "grace and courtesy," flowers on the lunch tables, museum posters on the walls. And on "practical life." If a kid makes a mess, he cleans it up (don't expect this at home). The vibe is almost eerily calm and uncluttered, and the children amazingly focused. But are they having fun? "I used to be so dogmatic: 3- and 4-year-olds should spend all their time playing," says Chelsea Terrell, who runs a play-based preschool in Berkeley. But when her daughter visited a Montessori school, she loved it. So Chelsea swallowed her preconceptions and enrolled her. Says Chelsea, "She's thriving."
What Parents and Teachers Say
Figure out how Montessori the school really is. Many schools claim they're Montessori but are, in fact, glorified play-based. In a true Montessori program, teachers have gone through rigorous training. Patricia Chambers, who oversees such training at St. Mary's College of California, looks for these things when she's rating a school: a stretch of several hours when kids can focus on their "work," proper utensils at lunch, and kids lining up to enter the school one at a time. A key clue: If a school is part of Association Montessori Internationale, it's likely on the strict end of the spectrum. American Montessori Society schools are often more liberal. Understand why there are few teachers in class. At my daughter's school, there are two teachers for 24 students, versus the 1 to 6 ratio she had at her play-based program. This is typical, and it works because Montessori teachers don't direct activities the way teachers do at other schools; they observe and intervene only if needed. "Montessori doesn't want a lot of adults in the classroom," says one of Lucy's teachers. The reason: When grown-ups are hovering, kids have less opportunity to learn from one another.
Get ready for some rules. On Lucy's first day, I was helping her on the monkey bars when a 5-year-old scolded me, "You're not supposed to do that!" Sure enough, I had missed the sign asking adults to stay off the play equipment (part of the "kids should teach kids" principle). Also, "real" toys and dress-up costumes generally are banned.
You may need to adjust to the general tone. The downside of a system that's so kid-centric is that teachers and staff can seem standoffish (not Lucy's!), which may affect the way parents relate to each other too.
Be sure there's an art closet. Check if your school offers plenty of chances for kids to paint, draw, etc. When you look at the walls, don't confuse the "work" (like identical maps in which all the Africas are green, the Asias are yellow, etc.) with art projects; it's often color coded to classroom materials and is meant to look the same. The art, though, should be just as free-form and sloppy as the art at other preschools.
Make lots of time elsewhere in your lives for play. Yes, there's recess, but all that independent work cuts into the time kids can socialize. Lucy can be a loner, so we have to work extra hard to arrange playdates.
Careful if your kid is very quiet or super spirited. Because the Montessori method prizes independence, shy, withdrawn kids may not get enough attention. And boisterous ones may win an unfair rep as being troublemakers, when all they really want to do is play.
The theory: Take the best of Montessori and play-based, blend well, and — ta-da! — you have this artsy, idealistic philosophy that's so cutting edge and groovy, it's the basis for Google's on-site preschool for its Silicon Valley employees. And in Manhattan, former members of Blue Man Group have started their own Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool, the Blue Man Creativity Center. (Kids spitting paint to make spin art, anyone?) Reggio Emilia gets its name from the small Italian city in which parents, teachers, and public officials banded together to create schools that rose above the lockstep mindset from past decades, opening their first preschool in 1963. In 1991, Newsweek named Reggio Emilia's school system one of the 10 best in the world. Reggio-inspired schools are still pretty rare (and admissions thus megacompetitive).
The practice: This Italian import — the original schools boasted their own light-filled piazzas — is basically a play-based approach with more structure and teaching. (The educational buzzword is "intentionality.") Instead of just supervising as kids learn to fingerpaint and take turns on the tire swing, Reggio Emilia teachers spend a great deal of time observing their students' obsessions and using these as the basis for elaborate lesson plans that can stretch over several weeks and veer off into the wildest tangents. "In many play-based schools, teaching can be one step up from babysitting," says Janet Stork, a former play-based teacher in New York who now heads Berkeley Montessori School but is a big Reggio Emilia fan. "In Reggio Emilia, play is a provocation for learning rather than just a free-for-all." An example from my friend Diana, whose two kids attended a Reggio-style preschool in San Francisco: "Someone brought in a map from vacation, and the kids got really excited. Next day, they made a map of their classroom, then they tried to figure out the number of steps from one part of the class to another and the boundaries of the school. A different time they did ramps. An architect came in to talk about handicap access, they studied gravity and acceleration, they rolled marbles in paint down a ramp to make art." Doesn't that make you want to be 4 years old again?
What Parents and Teachers Say
Expect a major emphasis on community. The Reggio Emilia approach reflects the Italian cultural view that children are the collective responsibility of the state. From the beginning, community and collaboration have been vital parts of the philosophy. Teachers work as teams, and students are encouraged to do the same. Parents are expected to take part in discussions about school policy, child development, curriculum planning, and evaluation.
Your children's lives will never again be so well-documented. Teachers are constantly videotaping and photographing children in action, as well as the kids' finished projects. Not only is this viewed as an important tool in the learning process for children, teachers, and parents alike, it could mean you'll never lack for scrapbook material. The art program is colossally creative. Reggio schools tend to have the best-stocked craft rooms anywhere: It's core to the philosophy of boosting children's creativity to the nth power. "The kids just create," my friend Diana says. "It's amazing to see what they come up with, with no rules." The flip side: Post-Reggio art experiences are a letdown. As Diana's son, now in conventional first grade, says, "I hate being told what to make." The super-progressive vibe attracts super-progressive parents. Reggio Emilia schools, though not inherently p.c., can seem very much p.c. when it comes to everything from diversity, holiday celebrations, and snacks (organic and no-sugar preferred) to a sweetly (or cloyingly) "Kumbaya" take on conflict resolution. At Diana's school, kids who aren't getting along visit the "Peace Place" to discuss what happened and how it made them feel. Indeed.
The theory: According to Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, young kids should spend their days engaging in imaginative play, in creative, tranquil, low-tech settings, with absolutely no pressure or competition. (Waldorf gets its name from Steiner's first school, which opened in Germany in 1919 and served the workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory.)
The practice: Step into a Waldorf classroom and you'll feel like you've entered a time warp. Toys are made of wood, cloth, and straw, not plastic. The aesthetic is so minimalist that the dolls and puppets lack faces (to encourage children to conjure their own mental images as they play). In some Waldorf schools, kids grow vegetables for soup, which they eat for lunch with bread they've baked themselves, using grain they've ground with their own hands. (I swear I didn't make that up.) There's a strong emphasis on old-fashioned storytelling, especially fairy tales, myths, and fables, and on understanding rhythms and cycles: the days of the week, the seasons, movement and music. Patrice Maynard, a Waldorf teacher and parent in Ghent, New York, says, "There's a great devotion to helping young children understand the qualities of things so they feel a sense of completeness. There's no multitasking. Everything is slow, slow."
What Parents and Teachers Say
Get ready for a no/low-media lifestyle. As a Waldorf parent, you'll be asked to strongly discourage TV, movies, videos, computers, the radio, and pretty much anything you or your indulgent relatives might purchase from Toys R Us. The kids seem no worse for the wear, though. My friend Katy has been impressed by the Waldorf students she's met: "They were very interesting, untrendy, self-assured, and articulate." But do Waldorf kids have secret Fairytopia binges during sleepovers at the homes of non-Waldorf playmates? Does Barbie have boobs?
Realize that reading will come later. For Waldorf true believers, the preschool years are all about physical growth and imagination development. Children aren't considered intellectually ready to start reading and writing until they're around 6 or 7. Still, teachers do plenty of reading aloud. What's more, all that vegetable chopping and bead stringing (wooden or ceramic, of course) helps develop prewriting skills. Maynard says they are trying to teach a child to read "in the deepest, most successful way possible." But one Waldorf mom I talked to wasn't so sure: "The approach to academics was so low-key that my child seemed a little bored."
Make sure you're okay with the religious overtones. Steiner founded an obscure spiritual view called anthroposophy, and Waldorf stresses religious stories, along with myths and legends, as the basis for much of its cultural teachings. The result can be a mix of overt Christian imagery with a New Agey mysticism that may offend some people across the religious (or nonreligious) spectrum.
The parents may seem a lot alike. It's tough bucking the entire consumer culture, but that's what a Waldorf education demands, especially if kids continue past preschool. (Later on, the curriculum includes crocheting, knitting, recorder playing, and two foreign languages, and there are few formal textbooks.) Not surprisingly, the approach attracts a certain kind of person. "Every mom was wearing the same clogs at one meeting," says a former Waldorf parent. "It's a very specific culture. Also, the sense I got from the school is, this is who we are, we're not interested in your feedback." If you're looking for a certain give-and-take, Waldorf might not be for you. But in the end, it's all about the kids, right? Unlike many teens, says Gretchen Scholl, a Waldorf parent from Massachusetts, "Waldorf high schoolers are very energetic, excited, creative. They are really engaged and interested in the world." Our preschoolers should all turn out so good.
About the Author
Nina Martin, the founding editor of BabyCenter magazine, is currently articles editor at San Francisco magazine. She's really glad her daughter is now in kindergarten.