Choosing a preschool or child care

By: Ellie Springer

The first time you drop your child off at school or child care can be full of mixed emotions--for you and for your child, as you are sad to be away from one another but also excited about all the new experiences s/he will have. School should be a fun, exciting place where your child learns new things, makes new friends, and feels safe and loved with wonderful caregivers. How do you find the right place for you and your child? (Remember, this has to work for the parents as well as the kids.)

There are three main types of early childhood education and care: preschool (mostly half day, with some lunch or afternoon care options), child care center (multiple classrooms, broken down by age usually starting at infant care, open all day), and home-based child care (fewer children of different ages all together, in someone's home). Just because a center has full day care options does NOT mean it is not school and that your child is not getting "preschool education" there. Most full day child care centers have curricula for all their classes, and the kids are learning ABCs and 123s, but also the key social emotional skills like waiting for a turn, playing with other children, and sitting in a group and listening to others. (I will talk more about different styles of preschools later in this post.)

If it is at all possible, visit several schools or child cares before selecting one. You want to feel safe and comfortable leaving your child there, and the best way to know if a place is right for you is to go and see it for yourself. And trust your gut: if it doesn't feel right to you, then don't send your child there. You know your child best.

Some of the first things to consider when choosing a child care or preschool for your child: 

  • Location: Is it close enough to your home or work that you will be able to get there on time for drop off and pick up and so that you won't be driving forever to get there?
  • Price: Can you afford it? Child care and preschool is expensive, so make sure you ask about prices before you get too far into signing up for a school. If you need financial assistance to send your child to preschool, ask the schools when you get information--some schools have financial aid or can connect you with another organization that could help.
  • Schedule: Some schools require that you attend a certain number of days and/or hours a week, and some schools are open longer hours to fit your work schedule.

Once you have found a place that fits your financial, location, and scheduling needs, then you can think about some other elements of the school or center and how they will best meet the needs of your child.

  • Size of the classes: Does your child do better in smaller groups, or does he like to be with lots of kids his age?
  • Daily schedule: Does your child like to be outside a lot during the day? (Some schools spend more time on the playground than others.) Does your child need some down/alone time, so being in a busy classroom all day will exhaust her, or will she drive you nuts if she is home without other kids to play with all day? Does your child need a structured day, or does she do better with a lot of flexibility?
  • Your child's strengths and challenges: What are you hoping your child will learn at school--how to sit still, or how to speak up for himself? What is your child good at that will help him to feel confident and comfortable at school? If you can, pick a place that will balance some of the things he excels at and some of the things he is still working on.
  • Style of teaching: Are the teachers laid back and pretty loose with the kids and the schedule, or is there a lot of structure in the day and the instruction?
  • Style of learning: Is your child a self-starter, or does she need someone to direct her? Again, if you are trying to encourage her to follow more directions or to figure more things out for herself, school is a great place to learn those skills.

Some questions to ask when you visit a school:

  • What is their educational philosophy?
  • What is their student: teacher ratio? (The state of MA has minimum requirements for this: infants 3:1, 7:2; toddlers 4:1, 9:2; preschoolers 10:1, 20:2 for full day and 12:1, 24:2 for half day.)
  • How do they handle discipline or behavior issues?
  • Ask a couple teachers how long they have been at the school. Ideally, several have been there for a number of years.
  • What is the educational level of the teachers? (This is not always indicative of their skill, though, as older teachers may have been in the field for years, before there was as much higher education in the field.)
  • Ask to see a daily schedule. This is often posted in the room, but it may not be available for infants, as they have individual schedules.
  • If you are putting your child in full day care, ask about nap time: where, what time, and for how long do they nap?
  • How can parents be involved, and are there requirements for parent involvement?
  • How do they share information about your child's day? (Some schools have apps or send emails with pictures regularly.)
  • Especially if you are concerned about your child separating from you, ask how they handle that.
  • You may also want to ask basic questions about things like food, toileting or diapering, sickness policy, and weather-related closings.

Here are some short descriptions of some educational philosophies and styles:

  • Public Preschool: All towns have a public preschool, which serves children with special needs and some "community children," who are typically developing. These schools tend to have a smaller student: teacher ratio, as they have many specialists come in throughout the day. They do usually require that you attend 4 days a week.
  • Montessori: This can be interpreted very differently in different schools, but it is intended to be child-led and quite independent.  Children do “work” instead of play—using specific objects or tools that are in sets and which often are designed to lead to a specific result (putting puzzles together a certain way, using unit blocks to understand addition or multiplication).  Classrooms are usually mixed-age, and children stay in one classroom for their whole preschool experience.  Children work at their own pace and choose their own activities.
  • Reggio Emilia: Schools may say they are inspired by Reggio Emilia, a philosophy named after the town in Italy where it was developed.  Primary tenets of this approach are: using the environment as a third teacher; doing a lot of recording of children’s play and then reflecting that back to them as a way to learn, and using that evidence as a way to develop curriculum; and a  focus on community and the relationships between children. Children are seen as creators of their own knowledge—not just vessels to be filled with information but active participants in constructing their understanding of the world.

  • Co-op: Parents are asked to spend one morning a month (on average) in the classroom with their child, but the parent is asked to be another teacher or teacher’s helper in the classroom.  S/he will often help with snack, cleaning up projects, reading to small groups, supervising a specific activity, etc.
  • Play Based: You’ll hear this about a lot of schools, as the importance of play is being talked about more and more.  It means different things in different schools, however.  At the most basic level, a school that is play-based should have the children playing most of the time, and the children are learning through play.  This could happen because of the materials the teachers choose to put out, the way the adults interact with the children, and/or the way the children interact with one another.
  • Emergent Curriculum: This is a way some schools develop their curriculum.  The teachers use the children’s play and interests to develop the curriculum: if the group seems to really be into dinosaurs, the teachers will bring out more dinosaur books and toys and will integrate that interest into many areas of the classroom.  The children may then move from dinosaurs to sand (because they did a fossil dig in the sand box) and rocks, and the teachers will explore that with the group.

In order to find child care centers, home or family child cares, or preschools that are licensed by the state of Massachusetts, visit Massachusetts Dept of Early Education and Care. Some schools are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and you can find a list of those programs here: NAEYC. Linda also has a list of family child cares, centers, and preschools in our 11 towns, which you can ask for.

This is a lot of information, and there may be some things I have missed or other questions you have. You can always email me to ask more specific questions about your child starting school.

Topics: Preschoolchild care


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Rachel has been a part of the JRI team since January, 2000. For over 20 years, Rachel has been working in the field of human services assisting families with accessing and navigating services. Rachel received her Bachelors degree in psychology and Masters Degree in Public Administration from Bridgewater State University. She was promoted in July 2005 to Family Networks Program Director where she closely worked with the Department of Children Families for 10 years ensuring that children and families received the highest quality of individualized services ranging from community based through residential care. Rachel is very dedicated to helping the individuals she works with and is committed to improving the lives of children and families. Rachel’s passion for creative service programming inspires her in her role as JRI Service Navigator.